ST. LOUIS — Cori Bush, a progressive activist and a leader of the swelling protest movement for racial justice, toppled Representative William Lacy Clay Jr. of Missouri in a Democratic primary on Tuesday, notching the latest in a stunning string of upsets against the party establishment.
Ms. Bush, 44, had captured nearly 49 percent of the vote by late Tuesday evening compared with 45.5 percent for Mr. Clay, according to The Associated Press. She had tried and failed to unseat Mr. Clay in 2018, but this year rode a surge in support for more liberal, confrontational politics within the Democratic Party amid the coronavirus pandemic and the national outcry over festering racial inequities.
Ms. Bush’s victory, which came on the same night that Missouri voters decided to expand Medicaid eligibility, was a significant milestone for insurgent progressive candidates and the groups, like Justice Democrats, that have backed them across the country. It showed that the same brand of politics that has helped young, liberal candidates of color unseat veteran party stalwarts in places like Massachusetts and New York could also resonate deep in the heartland against a Black incumbent whose family has been synonymous with his district for decades.
Ms. Bush now joins figures like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who defeated the 20-year veteran Representative Joseph Crowley in 2018, and Jamaal Bowman, who last month won a primary against Representative Eliot L. Engel, a powerful committee chairman in his 16th term representing a district straddling the Bronx and Westchester.
A single mother, former nurse and pastor, Ms. Bush would be the first Black woman to represent the state of Missouri in Congress. The plurality of the district, which encompasses St. Louis and some of its innermost liberal suburbs, is African-American and considered safely Democratic.
“Tonight, Missouri’s 1st District has decided that an incremental approach isn’t going to work any longer,” Ms. Bush told supporters at a jubilant news conference after the race was called. “We decided that we the people have the answers, and we will lead from the front lines.”
Mr. Clay, the scion of a storied Black Missouri political dynasty in his 10th term in Congress, had tried to make the campaign a referendum on not only Ms. Bush’s suitability for elected office but also the progressive movement behind her. He carried out a series of dark, personal attacks in the campaign’s final days to try to halt Ms. Bush’s momentum and described her as a “prop” of out-of-town interests seeking to divide the Democratic Party along racial lines.
Mr. Clay highlighted his own ties to the Democratic power structure, earning endorsements from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Kamala Harris of California and groups like Planned Parenthood.
Late Tuesday night, it was Justice Democrats, which helped groom Ms. Bush and other successful progressive challengers, that was celebrating.
“If you don’t know, now you know: The Squad is here to stay, and it’s growing,” said Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director.
Unlike other incumbents who have lost in recent years, Mr. Clay did not fit neatly into the moderate or progressive wings of the party. He had supported some hallmark progressive policies in Washington, including “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal, but also continued to take campaign money from corporations. Ms. Bush’s backers bashed him for helping payday lenders.
Ms. Bush built her campaign around her personal story as a working-class Black woman who was pulled into public life after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. She joined protesters in the days after the shooting, and in the weeks and years that followed became one of their leaders, staring down tear gas, mace and rubber bullets.
Ms. Bush was a fixture at protests across the district this summer after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Speaking to reporters and a small group of supporters Tuesday night through a medical mask, Ms. Bush drew a bright line from her experience confronting the police on the streets where Mr. Brown died to her victory at the ballot box.
“I was maced and beaten by those same police officers in those same streets,” she said. “Six months from now, as the first Black congresswoman in the entire history of Missouri, I will be holding every single one of them accountable.”
She added: “If you didn’t understand what happened, what was birthed right here in St. Louis, Missouri, in St. Louis County, in Ferguson, we’re about to show you.”
Amid a worsening health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Bush pushed drastic changes to the nation’s criminal justice system, including defunding and dismantling police departments; called for Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage and a universal basic income; and swore off corporate campaign contributions.
But as the campaign wore on, she also began sharpening her attacks against Mr. Clay directly, accusing him of “failed leadership” after two decades in office. She noted that he was largely absent from the protests and questioned his commitment to fighting for voters in a city troubled by segregation and economic stagnation.
“He’s had 20 years to make a change, not only in St. Louis but across this country,” Ms. Bush said on Saturday. “He waits until something is popular to stand up for it, or he waits until there is pressure. I do it just because that is the need.”
The message ultimately resonated with voters, many of whom had never before voted for a congressman not named Clay. William Lacy Clay Sr., a local civil rights figure, entered Congress in 1969 and handed the seat to his son when he retired in 2001.
While Mr. Clay narrowly carried the portions of the district in suburban St. Louis County, Ms. Bush won a commanding victory in the city of St. Louis.
Ms. Bush’s campaign explicitly benefited from the momentum claimed by progressives this summer and since 2018. A documentary about her 2018 campaign and that of challengers like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, “Knock Down the House,” helped build a national profile. And donations to her campaign far outpaced those in 2018, allowing her to advertise on TV here, as other progressives notched victories.
Ms. Bush’s victory comes just a few weeks after Mr. Bowman, a middle school principal from the Bronx, upset Mr. Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In Illinois in March, Marie Newman, another progressive, defeated Representative Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat who opposed abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act. Like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, each challenger had the backing of Justice Democrats.
But while Ms. Bush had the group’s enthusiastic support as well — she was one of only two challengers to Black incumbents it endorsed this cycle — and was endorsed by Mr. Bowman, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had conspicuously sat on the sidelines. She had campaigned for Ms. Bush in 2018, but Mr. Clay courted the New York Democrat in Washington, signing onto the Green New Deal, and inviting Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive lawmakers to support some of his bills.