The Democratic Plan to Transform Congress

A look at the devious tactics of a group called Brand New Congress.

Brand New Congress (BNC) is a political action committee which was established in April 2016 by the veteran Democratic activist Zack Exley and several other supporters or staffers of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that year. Those co-founders included Saikat Chakrabati, Claire Sandberg, Alexandra Rojas, and Corbin Trent (who served the Sanders campaign, respectively, as director for organizing technology, digital organizing director, national digital field director, and founder of “Tennessee for Bernie Sanders”). Other major co-founders of BNC included Cenk Uygur, the progressive activist who created the leftist media company The Young Turks, and Waleed Shahid, political director of the Pennsylvania Working Families Party.

From its inception, BNC’s objective was to completely remake the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate by recruiting a slate of 535 candidates with no prior political experience, and to have them replace every sitting Democrat and Republican alike – on grounds that those incumbents had become more beholden to corporate interests and big donors than to the welfare of their constituents. As Zack Exley told a group of supporters in 2013, his goal was “to go out and get 500 Elizabeth Warrens and run them together as a slate ... all at once.” Those new candidates, said BNC, would lead a noble crusade “to rebuild the [American] economy, repair our communities, and radically reform our institutions.” To help these novice candidates navigate unfamiliar political waters, BNC vowed to manage all of their campaign needs related to mailings, publicity, press relations, community outreach, and online presence.

The “Brand New Congress” that would emerge from BNC’s efforts, said the organization, would consist of a supermajority of Democrats who would bring “justice” to a deeply flawed nation that was “founded on slavery and genocide” and had “never been able to escape that legacy.”

In 2016, BNC vowed to run an aggressive primary challenger in every congressional district represented by a so-called “blue-dog,” or moderate, Democrat. “And if we lose those primaries,” said Zack Exley, “we’re gonna run our candidates again [in the general elections] as independents.”

Conversely, in deep red districts represented by particularly conservative Republicans, BNC pledged to recruit self-identified “progressive Republicans” whose professed party affiliation would increase the odds that voters would at least consider supporting them. Like their Democrat counterparts, these BNC-affiliated “Republican” candidates would be required to embrace, in its entirety, the BNC platform. According to Debra Mayes, a BNC African American Outreach Team leader, it was “non-negotiable” that these Republicans would have to “ru[n] on [Bernie Sanders’] platform—plus a bigger-scale jobs program.” “All of our candidates,” said Corbin Trent in a similar vein, “will have to support the living wage, access to health care, and education.”

A central component of BNC's overall plan was to exploit a feature of primary elections that makes them inherently vulnerable to interference by malevolent actors -- specifically, the fact that primaries tend to have very low rates of voter turnout. As such, BNC reasoned, a small group of motivated ideologues could essentially hijack a Republican primary by means of an aggressive get-out-the-vote drive that focused on persuading independents and Democrats to change their party registration status to “Republican,” which in turn would enable them to vote in a Republican primary. By devious means like this, voters in red districts could be tricked into supporting progressive Democrats disguised as “Republicans.” Corbin Trent himself once told an interviewer about BNC's plan to exploit this “obvious weak spot” in the primary election process: “We decided that ... instead of forming a third party or doing something like that, the way to [proceed] was to work within the two existing parties and to attack district by district, looking for people who fit th[e] culture of that district ... [and] put those people up in midterm primaries where turnout is abysmal.” Zack Exley, for his part, once referred to this strategy as “a little bit of a hack... in the sense of computers.” “We're kind of hacking the system with the BNC,” he elaborated, by “getting people to switch parties and go vote in the primary” -- a tactic whose effectiveness would be magnified by the fact that “nobody cares about their local congressperson running,... nobody knows who their local congressperson is, and nobody knows when the primaries are.”

After Republican Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, a number of BNC leaders began to wonder whether it might be wiser to actually support certain sitting Democrats in Congress, and to direct their efforts instead toward fighting: (a) all Republicans, and (b) only those Democrats whose politics were unacceptably centrist. Thus, in January 2017 some of BNC’s founders – most notably Chakrabarti, Trent, Rojas, and Uygur -- split off to create Justice Democrats, a new organization that would pursue precisely such a targeted strategy. Chakrabati, for his part, went on to become Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign manager in 2018, and her chief of staff in Congress in 2019. Both BNC and Justice Democrats were major supporters of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, and the two organizations remain close allies to this day.      

 

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