As soon as Bernie Sanders formally ended his campaign for president six weeks ago, pundits seized on the development to declare the movement to elect progressive candidates dead. Not only had Sanders failed to secure the presidential nomination for a second time, but progressives had made limited progress since 2016 prevailing over party-backed candidates in swing districts across the country. But as pleased as Sanders opponents are to tout that analysis, it is wrong. Progressives have in fact won key victories that have, but they’ve been in races that the political press has largely ignored, and the rest of the 2020 primary calendar leaves progressives with ample opportunity to influence the future of the Democratic Party.
Who are the progressives who can win?
In 2018 progressives scored victories in three types of races:
1) Those where compelling insurgents surprised checked-out, party-backed incumbents—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who defeated Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who defeated Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA).
2) Those in open seats where progressives—like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Deb Haaland (D-NM), Chuy Garcia (D-IL), Joe Neguse (D-CO), Andy Levin (D-MI), and Jahana Hayes (D-CT)—beat the field.
3) Those in formerly red districts, which are now represented by Reps. Mike Levin (D-CA), Sean Casten (D-IL), Lauren Underwood (D-IL), and progressive breakout star Katie Porter (D-CA) who are far more progressive than the anti-choice, pro-gun moderates who tended to represent these swing districts last time Demcorats controlled the House.
These types of races exist again in 2020, and progressive candidates are ready to move the needle even further in Congress, even as the party did not nominate a progressive candidate for the presidency.
Consider New York’s Jamaal Bowman, a black former middle-school principal, dedicated to fostering equity in education and housing, above and beyond more familiar progressive objectives like rapid decarbonization and universal, single-payer healthcare. Like AOC before him, he faces a well financed incumbent—House Foreign Affairs Chairman Elliott Engel—who’s been conspicuously absent even as his district, which encompasses the Bronx and Westchester, was one of the hardest hit by COVID-19. On Tuesday, Engel, was caught on a hot mic at a Black Lives Matter rally saying “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” The story has attracted local attention. (Primary June 23.)
Then there is Alex Morse, the young gay mayor of Holyoke, MA, who’s challenging another leadership ally. Morse has been praised for his response to the coronavirus outbreak in Western Massachusetts, but the policy stakes of this race are high as well. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, the incumbent, has been a consistent roadblock to even moderately progressive legislation, including legislation to curb surprise medical bills, and has been notoriously reluctant to use his powers as chairman to check and oversee President Trump. (Primary September 1.)
While these challengers hope to follow the same path that brought AOC and Ayanna Pressley to power, progressives have an even greater opportunity to win power in open seats.
In Rockland and Westchester Counties, NY, Mondaire Jones, a former Obama administration DOJ staffer and son of a working class single mother, could make history as the first openly gay black person elected to Congress. Better yet, he would do so championing universal child-care proposals sponsored by Haaland and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who have endorsed Jones, and $2,000 universal monthly stimulus checks through the duration of the pandemic. He is running against several more moderate candidates including a state senator who for years empowered the Republican Party in New York through the IDC. (Primary June 23.)
Beth Doglio, a bisexual mother, climate activist, and state representative, is running for Congress in Olympia, WA. Doglio. She has been endorsed by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal and several labor unions, and could become the foremost advocate in Congress for Jay Inslee’s climate vision. She recently embraced the Evergreen Action plan, which is the movement calling on Democrats to include Inslee’s climate agenda in the party’s platform. She faces Marilyn Strickland, the former president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the business group that spent millions on behalf of Amazon’s corporate interests in local Seattle elections. (Primary August 4.)
Several other viable, left-leaning candidates are running for open seats: Georgette Gomez in San Diego, CA, (Runoff November 3), Ritchie Torres in the Bronx, NY, (Primary June 23), Jesse Mermell in suburban Boston, MA, and Kai Kahele in Hawaii (now a de facto nominee) seek seats Democrats are expected to hold. While it’s natural for reporters to focus on long-shot primaries against popular incumbents, these open races present key opportunities to push both the Democratic Party and the next Congress to pass more progressive legislation.
Finally, the left can prove that progressive politics can win in swing districts, particularly the suburban districts that have come into play since 2016. Following in the path of Katie Porter, these candidates can not only advocate for progressive policies but set an example for future candidates running in tough races.
One prominent race like this is in Nebraska, where Kara Eastman, a progressive social worker, is seeking a rematch on competitive Omaha turf. In 2018, after beating conservative former Democratic Congressman Brad Ashford in the primary, she was abandoned by the party apparatus; they assumed her progressive platform could not win in the district. Despite the lack of institutional support, she only lost the general election by two points. Last week, she convincingly beat Congressman Ashford’s wife in this year’s primary, and this time the party is all in on a race, which will be a target for the Biden campaign as well. (General November 3.)
But perhaps more than any other race in the country, Candace Valenzuela, a middle class Afro-Latina mother of two young kids, has a chance to become the face of a new progressive Democratic majority elected in the suburbs. Valenzuela was housing insecure growing up and speaks openly about her experiences with homelessness. Like so many moms who were called to run in 2017, she used her biography and experience to relate to her community as she was elected to the local school board. Now she is running for Congress. Endorsed by Porter along with dozens of other lawmakers and liberal groups, Valenzuela represents a new brand for left politics. She can prove that progressive candidates can carry not just any suburban districts, but those Trump carried by six points. (Runoff July 14, General November 3)
Both Eastman and Valenzuela have been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren through her new organization Warren Democrats, a group that prioritizes electing progressives up and down the ballot in safe seats and swing suburbs, showing that the progressive agenda can be effective in battlegrounds. Warren Democrats and other organizations like Way to Win, which had a successful 2018 cycle, offer a path forward for progressives weary of losing in parts of the country that aren’t already progressive.
All of these progressive candidates are competitive. They can win their primaries this summer and become members of Congress this November; but they need what remains of the infrastructure on the left to prioritize their races.
What does the left need to do to win these races?
On Tuesday, progressives won an ally in New Mexico. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Latina attorney representing Native tribes and a breast cancer survivor, won her primary. She supports an across-the-board progressive platform, yet contrary to the simple narrative where progressive outsiders always stand in opposition to the establishment, Fernandez has won the backing of local elected officials, convention delegates, and EMILY’s List. AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Haaland had also endorsed her campaign. She beat a white moderate in Valerie Plame, the former CIA officer whom the Bush administration outed as retribution for her husband’s opposition to the Iraq war, but who has a checkered history of antisemitism. This was a big victory for the progressive movement in Congress. In Pennsylvania, N+1 editor and activist Nikil Saval prevailed over incumbent Larry Farnese by creating a broad coalition that included local labor and progressive endorsements. Progressives win when they are able to create broad coalitions with organizations like EMILY’s List, BOLD PAC (the Congressional Hispanic Caucus), the LGBT Victory Fund and other caucuses.
Additionally, these progressive candidates need money. More than anything else, the institutional and grassroots left can help these candidates win by giving and raising money, or creating earned media and online support that will help them raise funds. Nearly all of them are up against well-funded opponents who have access to corporate and institutional money. And, unlike in previous cycles, the pandemic has forced candidates to run without door-to-door canvassing operations. If these candidates go into their elections underfunded and unable to pay for sustained television advertising, they will be all-but guaranteed to lose. In order to prove those heralding the defeat of the progressive movement wrong, and then win genuine policy concessions, the left needs to prioritize these races. National organizers should avoid long-shot races, where time and money will be unable to elect undisciplined candidates. Activists should skip internecine internal fights over policy minutiae and get serious about the need to elect qualified and experienced candidates supportive of their movements.
Winning Primaries isn’t The Whole Battle
Amid a discussion about challenges for the left, it’s noteworthy that even some establishment candidates have adopted ideas from the left. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), a once-conservative challenger to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, supports a proposal to provide Americans $2,000 stimulus checks every month until the economy recovers. And many moderate Democrats elected in 2018 now support Pramila Jayapal’s Paycheck Guarantee Act. Even the DCCC has recruited some progressive candidates. The red-to-blue list, the express lane of establishment endorsements, includes Jon Hoadley, a progressive state rep in Michigan; Gina Ortiz Jones, a gay veteran in Texas supported by MoveOn.org; and Hiral Tipirneni in Arizona, an E.R. doctor and ally of progressive health-care activist Ady Barkan. Tipirneni’s race could surprise pundits who think progressives can’t win red-to-blue races. One of the Democrats’ top recruits is Wendy Davis, the former Texas state senator who famously filibustered anti-abortion legislation for over 12 hours in 2013. She subsequently ran for governor on an ambitious platform dedicated to civil rights and economic prosperity. Both Jones and Davis have been endorsed by Warren Democrats. These candidates may not be as flashy as some primary challengers, but they can push the party to adopt popular ideas from their swing districts.
While the presidential primary is over this cycle, the fight for progressive politics is not; if the left wants power, it needs to get serious about these down-ballot races, in both the primary and general elections. Losing them will further entrench incumbents who stymie progressive legislation. But even winning just a few of these races can fundamentally change the course of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. It is worth remembering that despite a few high profile wins, candidates like these mostly lost their races for Congress in 2018; yet just four members of The Squad and a few undaunted moms like Porter and Haaland, managed to shape many of our current political debates. Through a combination of winning primaries, supporting diverse left-leaning candidates in open seats, and disciplined coalition building with the establishment, progressives still have an opportunity to win in 2020.
Sean McElwee is the executive director of Data for Progress.
David Gordon is the president of NYU College Democrats and an elections analyst at Data for Progress.