The Bold Progressive Versus The Loyal Liberal: Inside The Showdown In A Key House Primary

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TAYLOR, Mich. ― Thanks to redistricting, Michigan Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens are competing for the same congressional seat in suburban Detroit.

The race has gotten increasingly nasty. But the pair of Democratic lawmakers took a break from pummeling one another last Friday to attend an event touting microchip legislation at a United Auto Workers union hall in a neighboring district.

“Investment in chips is an investment in workers,” said Stevens, who went on to detail her role in shepherding the bill as a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “I want all of us to remember where we were today, because this is historic.”

Levin celebrated the legislation as well, but also expressed righteous anger at the policies ― and politicians ― that enable offshoring of domestic manufacturing jobs.

“I’m furious about the situation in our country,” Levin declared. “People say, ‘Oh, we can’t make things.’ We’ve largely de-industrialized to an extent that’s maddening.”

Their remarks at the Friday event reflect their divergent strategies in the Aug. 2 primary for Michigan’s redrawn 11th Congressional District.

Levin is pitching himself to voters as the more authentic progressive in the race ― an indignant crusader for workers, climate action and human rights, both at home and abroad. He tackles those priorities with a structural critique of money in politics and the corporate-friendly ideology that often accompanies it.

Stevens, a mainstream liberal, is running as a champion of auto industry jobs and abortion rights who is best equipped to continue delivering incremental wins for her constituents. She has leaned heavily on her leadership role in then-President Barack Obama’s auto industry bailout, and the endorsement she received from retiring Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D), who represents part of the new district.

National coverage of the race has, understandably, focused on the multimillion-dollar super PAC spending that flooded the district, mostly on Stevens’ behalf; the related drama of pro-Israel groups turning on Levin, a member of a storied Jewish political family; and a controversy over whose ties to the district entitle them to run there.

But the face-off is also a trial of the effectiveness of two different campaign messages in a relatively affluent and highly educated suburban seat.

“This race is a test of an insurgent-left campaign in a year and a district when you might not expect it to be as successful,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “This is also a test ― but not a definitive test ― of the continued advantage of being a woman candidate in a Democratic primary.”

‘An Unabashed Progressive’

Until recently, Andy Levin, an attorney, former union organizer, and Michigan state labor official, was perhaps best known as the son of retired former Rep. Sandy Levin (D) and the nephew of the late former Sen. Carl Levin (D).

After narrowly losing a bid for state senate in 2006, Levin easily won his father’s old U.S. House seat in 2018. The district, just outside Detroit, covered some of suburban Oakland County and all of Macomb County ― a white working-class stronghold where the Levin name was strong enough to overcome the electorate’s steady rightward shift.

With a disarmingly gentle demeanor, Levin quickly established himself as a progressive star adjacent to, if not exactly a member of, the left-wing “Squad.”

Levin, left, and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) held a press conference on Friday to call on Stevens to renounce the support she has received from a pro-Israel super PAC.

Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

Levin, who drives an electric Chevy with the license plate “1 Earth,” is a co-sponsor of every single bill associated with the Green New Deal, and an outspoken champion of Palestinian rights who regularly votes against defense spending bills. Levin’s support for unions has extended to congressional staff and Senate cafeteria workers; The Michigan lawmaker was arrested last week while protesting layoffs facing the latter group. A day earlier, Levin joined other progressive lawmakers in getting arrested while protesting the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the federal right to an abortion.

“I’m going to be who I am in Congress: an unabashed progressive, somebody who stands up for what I think is right, no matter what,” Levin said at a Friday press conference alongside Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

One of Levin’s first TV ads featured Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) calling him the “true progressive in this race.”

Warren campaigned passionately for Levin at a raucous rally in Pontiac on Sunday, arguing that when she is in her “foxhole” fighting for abortion rights, climate action and union rights, “I want to look over and see that Andy Levin is fighting right next to me.” Jane Fonda, a climate activist and actor, campaigned for Levin in person on Monday; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is headlining a rally for Levin and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) on Friday.

The pitch has clearly resonated with many of the district’s progressive voters.

“For us, fighting climate change is not just about getting solar panels installed, it’s about that aspect of justice as well,” said Heather Chen, a Bloomfield Hills-based activist in the environmental advocacy organization Sunrise Movement, which has endorsed Levin. “Andy’s been a lifelong fighter for human rights.”

Many Muslim constituents also appreciate Levin’s support for the rights of Palestinians and other predominantly Muslim groups. Levin introduced the Two-State Solution Act, which would prohibit Israel from using U.S. aid to entrench the occupation of lands conquered in 1967.

“Even as a Jewish member of Congress, he’s standing firm on the issue of justice for Palestinians,” Khalid Turaani, a Palestinian-American real estate broker from West Bloomfield, told HuffPost after hearing Levin speak Friday at a mosque in Farmington Hills. “That tells me that this is a person who has integrity.”

At the same time, Levin has paid a high price for breaking with the traditional pro-Israel lobby, which boasts an active grassroots membership in Oakland County, the heart of the Detroit-area Jewish community. A super PAC created by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has spent over $4.2 million to ensure his defeat.

The fourth-generation Michigander has tried to turn the money into a liability for Stevens by highlighting AIPAC’s support for more than 100 congressional Republicans who objected to the certification of the 2020 presidential election result, and the contributions that AIPAC’s super PAC has received from Republicans.

Some voters ― who may have heard about AIPAC’s support for Republicans from a $700,000 ad blitz funded by J Street, a more liberal pro-Israel group backing Levin ― have embraced this critique of Stevens. (Another progressive super PAC, Future Progress, which counts the Communication Workers of America and Levin’s father among its donors, has spent over $500,000 on ads boosting Levin.)

“She’s aligned with stuff as a Democrat, but she’s taken all of this heinous money from the Republicans,” said Crystal Sanford-Brown, an education specialist and advocate from Bloomfield Hills. “So what does that say about your integrity?”

When asked about Levin’s criticism and calls for her to renounce AIPAC’s support, Stevens pointed to the group’s endorsement of top Democrats.

“I’ve looked at this very squarely alongside who I am being endorsed in the Democratic caucus: [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, several dozen members of the House Progressive Caucus,” Stevens told HuffPost.

Levin listens to comments by United Auto Workers representatives during a panel discussion about microchip legislation on Friday. Levin said he finds the de-industrialization "maddening."
Levin listens to comments by United Auto Workers representatives during a panel discussion about microchip legislation on Friday. Levin said he finds the de-industrialization “maddening.”

Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

Pelosi declined to address Levin’s critique of AIPAC’s involvement in the Michigan primary when HuffPost asked her about it.

Still, Stevens’ allies think Levin and his supporters are wasting money trying to undermine the partisan credentials of a former Obama administration official and two-term Democratic incumbent.

“I don’t think voters are buying the argument that Haley is some kind of conservative,” said a prominent Michigan Democrat supporting Stevens, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Stevens campaign pollster Brian Stryker told HuffPost that voters continue to see Stevens as progressive, and that her support is “consistent” across ideological subsets of the Democratic primary electorate.

Asked whether the Levin campaign might be overestimating the progressive slant of the district, Levin’s team stood by its decision to underscore contrasts between Levin and Stevens ― and lean into his progressive brand.

“Democratic primary voters are very progressive,” said Nicole Bedi, Levin’s campaign manager. “I actually believe our message about saving the planet and giving everyone health care is a message that resonates across the political spectrum.”

‘An Obama-Style Democrat’

Before running for Congress, Haley Stevens rose rapidly through Democratic policymaking circles and assembled a résumé tailor-made to excel in the industrial midwest.

Stevens parlayed a job as a policy researcher and briefer on the Hillary Clinton and Obama presidential campaigns in 2008 into a role as chief of staff in the Obama administration’s task force orchestrating the bailout of the U.S. automobile industry. She continued to focus on manufacturing and workforce development after leaving the administration, including by developing a digital manufacturing training program under the auspices of a major innovation accelerator.

Throughout this period, Detroit’s college-educated suburbs were undergoing their own transformation, especially in Oakland County, just north of the city. In 2016, then-Rep. Dave Trott (R) easily carried Michigan’s 11th ― a seat gerrymandered to favor Republicans ― outperforming Trump, who carried the seat with less than 50% of the vote.

Stevens visits the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan, on Saturday. A cash advantage has helped her remind voters of her work for Obama.
Stevens visits the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan, on Saturday. A cash advantage has helped her remind voters of her work for Obama.

Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

By the time of the 2018 midterm elections, though, the anti-Trump “resistance” movement, fueled by middle-class suburban women, was raging in the cul-de-sac communities of western Wayne and Oakland counties.

Mounting her first bid for public office, Stevens defeated four other Democrats in the 2018 primary, including then-state Rep. Tim Greimel, who had the backing of the influential United Auto Workers union. (Now mayor of Pontiac, Greimel is supporting Levin.)

With a down-home midwestern accent and cheerful energy that belies her fierce campaign style, Stevens carried the seat by nearly 7 percentage points in the general election that year. The following cycle, with GOP turnout up, she defeated her Republican opponent by just over 2 points, slightly underperforming Biden.

“I’m a kid from Oakland County who put up her hand to run for office to flip a seat and did that,” Stevens told HuffPost in an interview on Saturday. “It wasn’t that anyone called me and asked me to run, or that my dad was retiring and asked me to run, it was more that I saw something wrong in our country and wanted to champion it.”

To Stevens’ backers, her experience winning difficult races and the loyalty it earned her from local Democratic activists help explain why she would be in a strong position to beat Levin, even without copious super PAC support. (The super PAC affiliated with EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women, has also spent more than $3.1 million on her behalf.)

“Oakland County, although it has become more Democratic leaning, at the end of the day, it is not a ‘red-rose Twitter’ kind of a Democratic base here,” said one Democrat active in Oakland County politics who requested anonymity for professional reasons, referring to the emoji badge used by many online socialists. “These are people who, many of them used to be Republicans, and therefore they tend to be a little bit more moderate.”

Indeed, while Bernie Sanders’ victory in Michigan during the 2016 presidential primary breathed new life into his campaign, he did not carry Oakland County.

Democratic primary voters in Michigan’s 11th “also tend to be more female,” the local Democrat added. “And many of them worked very hard to get Haley Stevens elected and to help her flip a district in an area that really had never been a Democratic area.”

A woman candidate would likely have an advantage in a Democratic primary in Michigan’s 11th regardless of the course of current events. Women make up about 59% of the district’s primary electorate, according to Levin’s pollster Celinda Lake.

But the Supreme Court decision overturning a federal right to abortion has magnified that edge enormously ― notwithstanding Levin’s impressive array of pro-choice validators.

The ruling “helps Democratic women candidates,” Lake said. “There’s no question about it.”

Stevens chats with Edna Bass at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan, on Saturday. Bass is fond of Stevens' advocacy for women.
Stevens chats with Edna Bass at the New Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan, on Saturday. Bass is fond of Stevens’ advocacy for women.

Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

Several voters in the district told HuffPost they were leaning toward voting for Stevens for reasons that were consistent with those analyses.

Jyoti Chaku, a project manager from Troy who identifies as a moderate liberal, told HuffPost she is still researching the candidates, but is leaning toward Stevens.

“One thing I do support Haley for is abortion rights,” said Chaku, who was at a Hindu temple picnic that Stevens visited on Saturday. “She’s talking about that and that’s close to my heart.”

Nate Patel, an engineer and real estate investor, described himself as a fiscal conservative. He voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, but has since voted for Democrats due to his socially liberal views and dislike for Trump. A Bloomfield Township resident, he has supported Levin in the past, but plans to vote for Stevens this time.

“I’m kind of tired of these progressives getting too progressive – where everything is free,” Patel told HuffPost at the picnic.

Levin emphasizes that he, too, is focused on delivering results, but he has fewer resources with which to disseminate his message. Stevens, who, unlike Levin, is accepting corporate PAC contributions, had raised nearly $4.8 million as of mid-July, compared with Levin’s $2.7 million.

And, perhaps thanks to the outside support she enjoys, Stevens has chosen to concentrate her money in just three television ads, compared with Levin’s eight spots.

Stevens’ campaign polling found that the district’s Democratic primary voters’ top two concerns are abortion rights and the economy. Stevens’ first TV ad combines video of her standing in a manufacturing plant and footage of Obama ― who has not endorsed in the primary ― praising Stevens’ work on the auto industry rescue. The second spot features Stevens speaking about the importance of protecting abortion rights.

And the third ad touts Stevens’ support for the advancement of women and people of color in manufacturing and technology jobs, noting that the House passed her bill aiming to further that goal. That final TV ad also notes the endorsements that Stevens has received from the editorial boards of the Detroit Free-Press and the Detroit News.

Stevens celebrated forthcoming micro-chip legislation at the UAW panel on Friday. “I want all of us to remember where we were today, because this is historic!”
Stevens celebrated forthcoming micro-chip legislation at the UAW panel on Friday. “I want all of us to remember where we were today, because this is historic!”

Brittany Greeson for HuffPost

“She’s more of an Obama-style Democrat and Andy is a Bernie Sanders-style Democrat, or an Elizabeth Warren Democrat,” the prominent Michigan Democrat supporting Stevens said. “In that district, an Obama-style Democrat is going to win every day.”

Stevens and her allied super PACs’ cash advantage on TV and digital platforms was evident at a picnic hosted by a predominantly Black church in Pontiac on Saturday.

Edna Bass, a retired domestic worker, told HuffPost that she had seen a lot more about Stevens than Levin on TV and Facebook.

“I like the way she talks,” Bass said. “She’s for women getting jobs and everything.”

Although she prefers the term “pragmatic,” there is no question that Stevens, a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, is more moderate than Levin.

The challenge for Levin is that Stevens’ departures from the liberal orthodoxy are not always easy to explain to voters ― especially given the endorsements she has received from a number of labor unions.

For example, Levin has blasted her for being the only Democrat on the House Labor and Education Committee to vote for Republican amendments that would have watered down House Democrats’ 2019 bill raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. But after those amendments were voted down in committee, she voted to pass the bill on the floor. (The bill has not been taken up in the Senate.)

Ticking off the names of more aspirational bills that he has co-sponsored and she has not, Levin told HuffPost, “In all these ways, I’m more progressive.”

Stevens bristled at Levin’s criticism of her policy record and his suggestion that the financial support she has received from AIPAC undermines her commitment to fighting Trump’s authoritarianism.

“To see a colleague and a friend pursue over and over and over and over again Republican tactics against Michigan’s first millennial member of Congress, who flipped a seat and held it, has been witnessing an exercise in absurdity,” she said in an interview on Saturday. “What we have seen is a very classic example of a successful woman being pilloried because I’m running a great campaign.”

Stevens, who earlier in the interview took a veiled swipe at Levin for running in his father’s seat, did not provide examples to substantiate her suggestion that Levin is targeting her because she is a woman.

Asked to respond to the allegation of using Republican talking points and engaging in sexism, Jenny Byer, a spokesperson for the Levin campaign, called it “hypocrisy.”

“The hypocrisy of saying that when she has benefitted from over $4 million from a Republican-funded Super PAC that prides itself in endorsing 109 insurrectionists … that is absurdity,” Byer said in a statement. “I don’t think asking someone to answer for their record and for the dark money backing them is out of line. That’s democracy.”

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