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Primary season begins with Indiana and Ohio

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The 2022 primary season is kicking off in earnest this coming Tuesday with primaries in Indiana and Ohio. And while that'll have consequences for both Republicans and Democrats, we wanted to take a look at the Democratic Party in particular since it faces an uphill battle to hang on to its majority in both chambers of Congress. NPR's Juana Summers has been watching all of this and joins us now.

Hi, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Juana, we know the party in power historically loses seats during the president's first term. And among Democrats right now, there's a big debate about, you know, what direction they need to go in to keep those losses to a minimum. You've been talking to a lot of people from the party's liberal wing. How do they view it?

SUMMERS: Well, Ayesha, you know, if you ask just about any Democrat, they will acknowledge that this is going to be a rough midterm year for them. But the differences come when you ask them why that is. There are a lot of centrist lawmakers who are in competitive districts where the House majority will be decided that have been distancing themselves from some of the ideas of their colleagues on the left. And some progressive strategists that I've been speaking with - they say that Congress has failed to enact a bold agenda. Bill Neidhardt of Left Flank Strategies is someone who said that he is frustrated that the agenda in Congress reflects the priorities of moderate Democrats.

BILL NEIDHARDT: And now Democrats are in a place where voters are unhappy with what Democratic majorities have done. We're reaping what the moderates have sowed. And that's why I think working people probably aren't going to turn out at the level that Democrats need them to in order to win.

SUMMERS: And, Ayesha, despite that bleak forecast, he said that progressives are actually well-positioned to come out of the midterms with some really big victories.

RASCOE: OK. But explain that because I'm trying to follow. If the Democrats are expected to see losses and possibly lose the House, how could that also portend progressives coming out with big victories?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so I wanted to dig into that question, too, and here's what I heard. There are a lot of progressive candidates with really good chances of actually winning some House seats this cycle. And if they do and they head to Washington, that could have a meaningful impact on the type of agenda that the Democratic Party pursues even if Democrats are in the minority in 2023. And the number of people that I talked to also told me to take a look at the state of Texas as one example of what's possible for progressives this year. There were these three closely watched House seats with primaries that happened in March. And one of them we saw that Greg Casar, who's on the Austin City Council, easily won a primary in this deep-blue district that includes Austin and San Antonio. And then there are these two runoffs that are coming up on May 24. In south Texas, Jessica Cisneros is taking on a moderate incumbent, Congressman Henry Cuellar. And that is a district that is also competitive for Republicans. And I've heard from some Democrats who are worried that if Cisneros wins that runoff, it might make it harder for the party to hold the seat in the general. And then the second runoff is in Dallas, where state representative Jasmine Crockett has also advanced. And she's going up against Jane Hamilton. And Hamilton was Biden's state director in Texas in the 2020 primary.

RASCOE: So given all of that, Juana, which other primaries are you watching to see where the Democratic Party is moving?

SUMMERS: Ayesha, this calendar is getting really busy, and the first race that I'm watching is actually happening on Tuesday. There is a big rematch between Congresswoman Shontel Brown and Nina Turner, who's a former state senator and a top ally of Senator Bernie Sanders. Brown won the seat a little bit less than a year ago. It's a Cleveland area district. And Turner is taking her on again in the Democratic primary. And this is a race that President Biden actually just jumped into. He's endorsed Brown.

And if I have to think further down the calendar, another big day that I'm keeping my eye on is May 17. And there are just a ton of really interesting primaries happening then. One of those is in the state of Oregon, where Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who's a school board member, is challenging a moderate incumbent, Congressman Kurt Schrader. President Biden has backed Schrader. And I should just note here that Schrader is actually someone who in Congress has opposed some of the president's key legislative priorities.

Now, May 17 also is primary day in North Carolina, where there are a couple of competitive primaries but also in the state of Pennsylvania, where state Representative Summer Lee is running in a contested primary for a Pittsburgh area seat. Congressman Mike Doyle is retiring, and polls suggest that Summer Lee right now - she's way out front.

RASCOE: NPR's Juana Summers, thank you.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.