She’s a bold progressive, a millennial, and someone Tom Perez needs to pay attention to. Lindsay Brown is running for Congress in New Jersey’s 7th District…as a Republican.
Her big goals include checking the influence money has in politics, fixing gerrymandering with nonpartisan redistricting, passing single-payer health care or, at the very least, a public option, addressing man-made global warming, raising the minimum wage so it keeps up with inflation and making sure cost-of-living increases from companies do the same, breaking up the banks, tackling student debt, taking in and welcoming Syrian refugees, and, of course, seeing more women and millennials represented in government. On top of that, she is socially progressive—a strong supporter of LGBTQIA, gender, and racial equality. What’s more, she plans to win by taking only small donations.
Yet the Democratic Party, she says, has lost her, which has left her only one place to turn.
“I’m actually planning to run in the Republican primary because—especially in NJ—the Democrats and the way the Democratic Party establishment is run is not supportive of young people who don’t have deep, deep political experience or a lot of money to fund their own race,” the familiar voice on the other end of the phone tells me, betraying a slight hint of exasperation. “We shouldn’t all have to be millionaires or deeply politically connected to represent constituents.”
When last I spoke with Brown, we were in college together in upstate New York. She was a peer advocate, and I wanted to be an artist. When she explains her plan, I am floored, but not entirely surprised.
At first blush, the idea that the left would abandon the Democratic Party for the GOP might appear absurd, but Brown’s plan is actually one that has been kicked around for some time. She joins a chorus of progressives, including writer for The Intercept Zaid Jilani.
The argument goes that the Democratic Party is too heavily focused on patronage and raising capital for grassroots efforts to succeed—a sentiment rooted in the fact that since November, the Democrats have doubled down on the same establishment that shoehorned Clinton into the nomination and most recently selected Tom Perez for the position of DNC Chair, who has done little to win over progressives.
New Jersey Democratic Party politics are a machine in which “you’d better be putting in the money or the sweat equity” to earn the support of “party bosses,” Brown tells me. “It’s everything I’m running against.” Though personally a fan of Hillary Clinton, Brown reminds me that her nomination was essentially shoehorned by the establishment—a way to illustrate that the problem is not isolated to her state. However, she does caution that the New Jersey Republicans are also an insider club.
Still, Brown and progressives like her see the GOP, which has proven more susceptible to outside efforts like the Tea Party Movement and Donald Trump’s meteoric campaign, as the inevitable path. That’s because, in addition to holding a permanent majority in the House due to its 2010 redistricting efforts, the party controls 33 of 50 governorships and 32 of 50 state legislatures. With the 2020 Census around the corner, and the Democrats doubling down against the grassroots, the Republicans may further cement their hegemony in 2020 following the Census.
“It’s a numbers game,” Brown tells me. “With NJ’s version of ‘fair districting’, a Dem will never be elected in my district, regardless of platform or message.”
So she’s taking her chances in a party that would appear to be her ideological opposite. Brown’s departure should worry establishment Democrats because millennials like her are about to be America’s largest voting bloc. Their realignment could very well mean the end of the party.
I point this out to her, and she sighs knowingly, explaining that while she appreciates what President Obama and his Democrats tried to do, she does not believe the party is able to change fast enough to deal with the issues facing her generation.
“We had a really hard time after graduation launching into adulthood,” she says, recounting her own experience having spent two full years after graduating college looking for a salaried position. “Millennials put off a lot of big decisions like having children or buying houses. . .We’re the first generation that’s not going to do better than our parents!”
She has a point. Of course, a question remains as to how viable the path is that she has chosen: what are a progressive’s chances of winning in a Republican primary?
I bring this up, and the immediacy of her response suggests it has been a question she has weighed heavily. She tells me that win or lose, this will not be her last political campaign.
Of course, her odds of winning in 2018 depend at least partially on how many progressives in her district she can convince to make the switch. But there is no reason to believe that those voters are her only hope.
“I think my message has broad appeal,” she says. “I am trying to focus on issues that unite us.”
There is validity in this approach. Attitudes on social issues like same-sex marriage have changed over the years and continue to move in a progressive direction. As they evolve, those issues are being eclipsed by more general concerns about political and economic inequality. Donald Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric on the economy and political corruption gave him the edge in 2016, while on the left, Bernie Sanders’ message started a movement with broad support. A New York Times/CBS News poll from May of 2015 found that 62 percent of Republicans feel that large corporations have too much influence in our political system. Today, Sanders is the most popular politician in the country.
This is where the opening for young populists like Brown exists. While there are sure to be some positions of hers Republican base voters take issue with, Brown’s simple message does reach across party lines: the system is “very” broken, and is unable to be fixed by an establishment with its hands deep in the pockets of special interests.
Brown’s opponent, the 64-year-old, seasoned five-term incumbent, Leonard Lance, who is sitting in a district that went for Clinton over Trump, may also be the perfect foil for the millennial upstart.
Although relatively moderate, Lance is a quintessential establishment politician, sporting one of the lowest effectiveness ratings in Congress according to JT Aregood of The Observer, as well as heavy ties to special interests which are often reflected in his voting record.
Besides his ties to industry, Lance is also vulnerable to attacks on his ethics. The smell of impropriety has been hanging over his office since 2015 when he and eight of his colleagues came under fire for taking a trip to Azerbaijan which was funded by its state-owned oil company. Following a House ethics probe, which ultimately cleared him, Lance ended up returning a rug and a pair of earrings he had received as gifts. Then in 2016, Lance received $26,000 in unrecorded donations according to NJToday.net.
Despite these incidents, he now sits on the House Ethics Committee. No chain of events better embodies the culture of cronyism and tolerated corruption Brown is positioning herself to run against.
The race for New Jersey’s 7th District will test the limits of Donald Trump’s populism on the right, and provide the left with insight as to which path to take going forward to 2020. Should Brown win, she would strike a blow for progressives nationwide. More importantly, however, it would suggest that the unlikely unity between the left and Trump supporters in their opposition to Clinton was no fluke, but rather a broader realignment occurring in American politics.