The 2020 election in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district is shaping up to mirror the defining left vs. center divide of this cycle’s Democratic presidential primary.
Thanks to a big fundraising haul and a unique feature of California’s electoral process, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist is increasingly likely to face Pelosi in the November general election and perhaps, against all odds, even take her seat.
The State of the Race
Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, is running against several challengers, including Democratic candidates Shahid Buttar, Tom Gallagher, and Agatha Bacelar and Republicans John Dennis and DeAnna Lorraine.
Buttar, a legal advocate and organizer who styles himself after Bernie Sanders and “the squad,” now holds a substantial advantage over the rest of Pelosi’s challengers after a major fundraising quarter for his campaign.
“The last several weeks have frankly been incredible,” Buttar told The Globe Post. “The [third quarter] fundraising results set a record for challengers to Pelosi, so safe to say we’re going to be mounting the strongest campaign she’s ever confronted.”
When The Globe Post last spoke with Buttar in July, he had raised little more than $60,000, a paltry sum compared to Pelosi’s $1.5 million. At the end of 2019’s third quarter, however, Buttar reported having raised nearly a quarter-million dollars, with more than $150,000 raised in the third quarter alone.
The funds came from more than 8,400 donations and over 5,750 donors, 99 percent of whom donated less than $200. The average contribution was just $22.61.
In a press release, Buttar’s campaign noted at this point in the 2018 election cycle, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had only raised $38,958 prior to defeating ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley against all odds. In that race, Cortez was outspent by a ratio of ten to one and still managed to beat her opponent by a wide margin.
Despite a substantial fundraising haul, Buttar’s candidacy is still very much a long shot. Pelosi is all but certain to outraise him and money is traditionally a reliable predictor of who wins congressional races. Pelosi’s fundraising prowess stems from decades of incumbency, support from the Democratic Party, and a willingness to accept money from corporate PACs and executives.
“Nancy Pelosi is the real thing and has been the real thing for quite a while,” Hene Kelly, a region director for the California Democratic Party, told The Globe Post. “She listens, she thinks, and then she acts. I’ve been with her for a long time.”
Kelly has been organizing for the Democratic Party since John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, when she was 18-years-old. She was also a classmate and girlfriend of Bernie Sanders at the University of Chicago where she organized with him. She considers her politics left of Pelosi and unlike the speaker, supports single-payer healthcare. But she said she believes Pelosi is doing what she knows can be done.
“She’s the best vote counter that I know and she cares about people,” Kelly said. “That to me is extremely important.”
San Francisco Democratic Party Chair David Campos also supports Pelosi for reelection and said he’s part of a new progressive majority in the local party, which has developed a “very strong” working relationship with the speaker.
“Even though Nancy is in many respects part of the establishment … we worked together on a couple of key local issues where people on the more establishment side either didn’t get involved or got involved on the wrong side of the issue, and Nancy did support the progressive view,” Campos told The Globe Post.
“I don’t have to agree with someone on everything to recognize their effectiveness, and that’s why I support her.”
Buttar, meanwhile, refuses corporate contributions, opting instead to rely on smaller individual donations in a model similar to the presidential campaigns of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
While the choice distinguishes Buttar from Pelosi and represents a statement of values, it also puts him at an inherent fundraising disadvantage. To Buttar’s benefit though, California’s unique election process could allow him to compete with Pelosi all the way to the general election in November of 2020.
California has what is known as a “jungle primary” in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Pelosi as the incumbent is virtually guaranteed to be the top vote-getter in the March primary, while the rest of the field will grapple for the coveted second-place spot.
This wrinkle in California’s election laws makes Buttar’s fundraising haul especially significant. Buttar may not be able to outraise Pelosi, but as long as he continues to vastly outraise the rest of his opponents, he’s in an excellent position to secure a spot in the general election.
To distinguish himself from Pelosi, Buttar vocally supports Medicare for All and a Green New Deal among other progressive policies and has criticized Pelosi for her reticence to go forward with impeaching President Donald Trump. Buttar appreciated Pelosi’s decision to begin an impeachment inquiry but disagrees with her choice to narrowly focus the inquiry on Trump’s dealings with the Ukranian government.
“The Intelligence Committee is pursuing the question about Ukraine and foreign interference, and that makes sense, but the Judiciary Committee could just as easily be pursuing emoluments violations at the same time,” Buttar said, referring to a clause in the Constitution which bars those in government from receiving “any present, emolument, office, or title” from a foreign government.
“Each of [Trump’s] discreet lies to policymakers and the press … every dime of taxpayer money that’s been appropriated, every act of obstruction, and every act of inviting foreign interference. All of that is impeachable,” Buttar said.
Buttar also said the presidential primary could bolster his own campaign, especially if the field is narrowed to a race between Sanders and Warren, arguing their campaigns would drive out voters more aligned with his values than Pelosi’s.
“I think [the presidential] race is an inevitable victory for the movement and certainly positions our campaign very well,” Buttar said. “I think a sustained debate that is narrowed to Bernie versus Warren presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to radicalize the electorate. Most Americans have never heard anything like what either of them say.”
‘Building a Movement’
In a campaign that eschews corporate money, Buttar is leaning on volunteers and making appearances at numerous actions and demonstrations to spread his message.
“We have hundreds of volunteers at this point around the country and over 100 just locally alone,” Buttar said. “We’ve been participating last week at a tenant’s rights march. We’ve also done a whole bunch of close the camps and abolish ICE actions, defending human rights. Each of those have drawn substantial numbers of people.”
For activist and Buttar supporter Jason Kruta at least, that strategy is playing well.
“I would say the one thing that’s been really impressive to me about Shahid’s campaign, is that he’s really shown up for other aspects of the movement,” Kruta told The Globe Post. “He’s really helping to build a movement as part of his campaign.”
Another sign of any campaign’s grassroots organizing operation is its ability to secure endorsements from public figures and local grassroots organizations that can lend volunteers and other resources. Buttar has garnered several endorsements since launching his campaign and appears primed to get several more in the coming weeks and months.
One such organization is the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America, which will vote to endorse either Buttar or Gallagher for the congressional race on October 23.
The DSA is a relatively new political force not only in San Francisco but across the country. DSA has reached record-high membership levels and celebrated dozens of wins in 2018, from local ballot measures to elections for public office at all levels of government. The ballooning membership and success of DSA in the 2018 midterms means the organization’s endorsements carry more weight than ever before.
According to San Francisco DSA Electoral Committee Co-chair Hae Min Cho, Bacelar also solicited an endorsement from the organization but entered the process too late to be considered. The Globe Post spoke with several rank and file members of the organization and all of them said they would support Buttar for the endorsement.
“[Buttar] is really in the best place to challenge Pelosi, so that’s why I support Shahid over Tom,” DSA member Martin MacKerel told The Globe Post.
“I just think Pelosi has been a disappointment for years. She’s part of this Democratic Party establishment that if you look anywhere outside our time and place, would be a center-right party.”