Wesley Bell, the progressive prosecutor of St. Louis County, has suddenly dropped out of the race for U.S. Senate in Missouri. For the past four months, Bell had been campaigning to unseat Republican Senator Josh Hawley. But on Monday, Bell announced he is exiting the Senate contest and will instead challenge U.S. Representative Cori Bush in the Democratic primary.
Bush is a fellow progressive who represents Missouri’s 1st Congressional District based in St. Louis. She rose to prominence as an activist in the Ferguson protests after the police killing of Michael Brown. Bush defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent in 2020 on a platform of criminal justice reform and racial justice.
Bell’s move came as a surprise, as he was polling competitively against other Democrats vying to take on Hawley. But Bell said he heard overwhelming calls from supporters to run for Congress instead of Senate. He believes he can make a bigger impact in the House.
The race sets up an unusual battle between two prominent reformers in St. Louis. Both Bell and Bush gained fame by taking on establishment Democrats. Now they will face off to represent the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Bush has at times faced criticism over her progressive stances, such as calls to “defund the police.” President Biden has distanced himself from that phrase. Bell is now hoping his record as an accomplished reformer in St. Louis County will carry over to Washington.
The race will test the district’s appetite for a more moderate voice over Bush’s progressive brand. Bell starts with less name recognition but wasted no time framing the race as a choice between effectiveness and rhetoric. Bush is likely to tout her national profile and work on key Democratic initiatives.
The primary race between Bell and Bush will be closely watched as a test of the progressive wing’s strength. Bush was one of just 10 House Democrats to vote against a resolution supporting Israel’s right to self-defense. She also voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill, pushing instead for a more sweeping progressive plan.
Bush won re-election in 2022 easily, but faced criticism in 2020 for narrowly defeating the longtime Democratic incumbent by less than one percent. A more moderate challenger like Bell could attract Democrats seeking a less polarizing representative.
At the same time, Bush retains strong support from the activist community in St. Louis. Her national stature and fundraising ability will pose a formidable challenge to Bell’s campaign. She also has two years in office now to point to accomplishments, even if some feel she has prioritized rhetoric over results.
Finances will be an important factor. Bush has already raised over $400,000 this cycle, though she has little cash on hand currently. Bell will need to quickly prove he can raise resources competitive with Bush’s donor network.
The race will likely center on contrasting their visions for enacting change, both in St. Louis and nationally. Both emerged from Ferguson as reformers, but will argue over the right path forward. For the Democratic Party, the primary will gauge voters’ appetite for Bush’s brand of progressivism versus Bell’s track record of steady reform from within institutions.