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Nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, Cora Bush defeats longtime Rep. Lacy Clay in Missouri Democratic primary

By Abigail Mihaly and Tal Axelrod, THE HILL, 08/05/20

Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary

© Greg Nash/Getty

Progressive Cori Bush scored a stunning upset victory over longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay in the Democratic House primary in Missouri’s 1st District on Tuesday.

Bush defeated Clay, who has held the seat for nearly two decades, with 49 percent of the votes and all precincts reporting, according to The Associated Press.

Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, ousted Clay after he had held the seat since 2001. Prior to that, Clay’s father held it for 32 years.

She will be the heavy favorite in a district that Clay won by over 60 points in the 2018 general election and would be the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.

Bush thanked her supporters after her victory, saying she would work to represent everyone in her district regardless of their vote Tuesday.

“We want to say thank you to all that went on a limb to support this grassroots campaign, because they believed in us, and we want to say to those who didn’t believe in us, we’re going to take care of you too,” she said.

Tuesday’s primary results mark a sharp turnaround from 2018, when Bush lost her primary challenge to Clay by about 20 points. Bush got a significant boost from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and progressive groups this cycle, including Justice Democrats, the group that launched the insurgent primary challenges of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in 2018 and candidates like Jamaal Bowman this cycle.

Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, celebrated the win as a “huge upset” and “another groundbreaking win against a corporate-backed political dynasty.”

“Cori is the fifth challenger backed by Justice Democrats to unseat an incumbent. She organized a movement through pepper spray and rioting police in the streets of Ferguson. Her tenacity and unbreakable pursuit of justice is desperately needed in Congress today,” she said.

Bush also gained visibility through her involvement in the protests sweeping St. Louis and the country over systemic racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, as progressives accused Clay of not taking an active enough role to support the demonstrations.

“She ran on Defund the Police, the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All and defeated a multi-generational political dynasty who got too close to corporate donors and too far from the needs of his district,” said Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash.

Bush also experienced homelessness after an eviction in 2001, before earning her nursing degree and becoming a community activist. 

Clay’s allies had expected him to win, but the longtime Missouri lawmaker appeared to grasp the seriousness of Bush’s challenge in the lead-up to Tuesday’s primary, releasing negative ads against her accusing her of profiting off of politics and even comparing her style to that of President Trump.

Clay is the first candidate of color to be ousted by a Justice Democrat-backed challenger, and his defeat marked a successful roundup of the primary season for liberals after a disappointing start for progressive upstarts.

A member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Clay had gotten strong support from other African American lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and had also earned the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, though ultimately that backing was insufficient in reducing grassroots enthusiasm behind Bush.

“If you don’t know, now you know: The Squad is here to stay, and it’s growing,” Rojas said, referring to a group of progressive lawmakers elected in 2018 consisting of Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).

Clay is the seventh incumbent in total this cycle to lose in a primary.

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