U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones have the distinction of both winning elections to represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District in the 2018 midterms.
Now, the two candidates are headed for a rematch in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
Jones and Tlaib both ran for the seat after U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) resigned in December 2017 amid reports of sexual harassment. He died in 2019 at age 90.
Jones narrowly won a special selection to serve the remainder of Conyers’ term – about five weeks – while Tlaib narrowly won the seat for a full term.
Both candidates made history at the time: Tlaib becoming the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress and one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, and Jones setting new precedent allowing her to serve her partial term in Congress without resigning from the Detroit City Council.
But in 2018, there were four other Democrats on the ballot; this year, Jones and Tlaib are the only two. The winner of the primary will almost certainly win the November general election for the heavily Democratic seat.
With all four former opponents – former state Sen. Coleman Young II, former state Sen. Ian Conyers, former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson and Westland Mayor Bill Wild – having endorsed Jones, that could make Tlaib a vulnerable target for a moderate primary challenge. (In fact, Slate called Tlaib the “most vulnerable member” of the Squad, a group of four progressive women of color elected to Congress in 2018.)
But Tlaib has one major advantage: She’s now the incumbent. That often translates into higher fundraising and more national endorsements – like that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), several labor unions and multiple progressive groups.
“It’s absolutely more difficult to unseat an incumbent, even when the incumbent hasn’t really been a part of what you would consider a real level of deliverables for the district,” said Marvin Beatty, a Jones campaign executive. “First of all, it’s the economics. The economics of the fact that most incumbents will have raised and had a couple years to raise the dollars they need to run a pretty efficient campaign.”
Tlaib has a commanding financial lead, having raised $2.2 million this cycle with roughly $913,000 left in the bank as of June 30, per the Federal Elections Commission. Jones has raised just $147,000 and has about $21,000 cash on hand.
Jones’ campaign has criticized Tlaib as being more focused on increasing her star power than on helping her district.
“In the midst of this pandemic, being able to provide the appropriate internet access for children who are in the learning mode so that every household in the district is supported by internet and computers, those are the kind of things you’re not hearing from Tlaib,” Beatty said. “She’s not speaking on those kinds of issues. Which only indicates that she’s separated from the district.
“Her interest is that she has an international presence. That’s what she’s working on, being able to reflect in the international marketplace, versus being recognized in the community for doing things that are important and significant in the community.”
But Tlaib says she has focused on issues like health care, climate change and structural racism.
“You all know it’s not my name on the ballot. It’s Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, fighting against structural racism, really truly trying to combat poverty in our country with the Boost Act, ending discrimination with the auto insurance industry, and really taking on the corporate bullies. So know all of that, right now, is on this ballot,” Tlaib said in a video posted to Facebook. “I can’t wait to show our nation that this is what people want right now. They want real change and they want it now.”
Jones’ campaign also argued that Tlaib’s influence is limited by the fact that she is not a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, even though she comes from a majority African American district.
“You don’t see the Congressional Black Caucus crossing over and supporting Rep. Tlaib, who is not a member, which means that her sphere of influence is five people in the Squad, versus being part of the Congressional Black Caucus where you have a considerable level of influence and respectability that comes out of that group,” Beatty said.
But Tlaib said she has gotten results for her constituents, pointing to the fact that she has held two congressional hearings within the district on environmental justice and housing justice.
Pelosi endorsed Tlaib over the more moderate Jones, saying that “her leadership has secured critical funding to stop water shutoffs and replace lead pipes,” after an independent group backing Jones sent out mailers featuring a photo of Pelosi standing next to Jones.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced in 2019 that it would not grant contracts to pollsters, strategists, communications specialists or other operatives working with Democrats primarying incumbents in the 2020 election.
Beatty said those rules – created after fellow Squad member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) unseated now former Rep. Joseph Crowley in a primary two years ago – have made it difficult for the campaign to find support.
“It’s been a real hurdle,” Beatty said. “We recognize that in many instances we would have gotten support from some of the traditional Democratic leadership or Democratic organizations, but we’ve been absolutely shut out of those opportunities.”