Progressive challenger Cori Bush defeated Rep. William Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District on Tuesday, adding to the activist left’s winning streak. The primary win in one of the most Democratic House seats in the country assures Bush’s spot in the next Congress.
Bush’s success follows an attempt to unseat Clay in 2018 when he won by nearly 20 percentage points.
But this cycle, with more endorsements, cash and name recognition ― a star turn in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House” helped ― Bush appears to have caught Clay by surprise. She outspent him on the TV airwaves in the final two weeks of the campaign.
“It’s a seismic shift in St. Louis politics,” said Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who now runs the Missouri Workforce Housing Association.“Clay raised very little for an incumbent facing a serious challenge, and he paid the price.”
Bush’s victory bears many of the same David vs. Goliath dynamics of other major progressive upsets in the past two years.
Clay, who has represented the St. Louis area in the House since 2001, is a descendant of regional royalty. His father, Bill Clay, a labor organizer and civil rights leader, held the seat from 1969 to 2001.
Bush, by contrast, is a nurse, ordained minister and single mother of two who has experienced her share of economic hardships.
In an attack ad, Clay sought to make an issue out of Bush’s failure to pay state taxes in a timely fashion, which resulted in her nursing license being temporarily revoked. Clay’s TV spot also hit her for using campaign funds to pay herself a salary since April, a practice that is increasingly common among non-rich candidates.
But Bush chalked up her tax debts to the financial difficulties she faced as a working-class mom paying down student debt, effectively turning the charge into a populist selling point.
In a TV ad of her own, in which Bush features images of herself marching in anti-racism protests, she casts herself as the change agent that a district with a substantial poverty rate needs.
“Lacy Clay hasn’t risen up to meet this moment,” she says in the ad. “He’s presided over 20 years of decline.”
Bush ran in the mold of other left-wing House members and soon-to-be House members. She is a proponent of “Medicare for All,” student debt cancellation, the Green New Deal initiative and national rent control. Like Jamaal Bowman, the Bronx middle school principal who unseated Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in the June primary and subsequently endorsed Bush, Bush can be expected to join the “Squad” of progressive young House members who have been willing to break with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to advance their agenda.
Clay is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus with a relatively liberal voting record. But he is also a major recipient of corporate PAC money, and critics insist that that cash has swayed him to take the side of business in key cases. For example, Clay opposed the Obama administration’s “fiduciary rule,” which forced wealth managers to give advice that is in their clients’ financial interest.
The group Fight Corporate Monopolies invested nearly $100,000 in an ad blasting Clay for his opposition to the rule. And Justice Democrats, a left-wing group backing Bush, spent $150,000 on TV advertising promoting Bush.
Clay may have also been hampered by his reliance on family members to perform essential campaign functions. His campaign paid his sister’s law firm $180,000 this cycle alone ― more than one-quarter of his total fundraising haul.
“This is a common pattern for entrenched incumbents. They don’t have tough elections, so they use campaign money to enrich family members,” Irene Lin, a veteran Democratic campaign manager, told HuffPost. “The donors should ask where their money is going.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.