2019-2020 was not a great year for the left in American politics. After a rather astonishing April, where seemingly every major Presidential candidate got on board with single payer, job guarantees, and other progressive agenda items, over the course of the year the left badly divided against itself and lost the Democratic nomination to a resurgent moderate wing.
For some, the left wing of the Democratic Party now appeared to be a paper tiger. The Justice Democrats were a key case study in this argument: in 2018, they’d run 79 insurgent candidates (in addition to three incumbents), of whom only 26 won their primaries, and of those only four won their general elections. 2020 wasn’t going much better, with a bitterly close loss in Texas’s 28th Congressional District.
Especially in the wake of the 2020 presidential primaries, there were many who argued that the left’s central strategy of using insurgent candidates to drive non-voters do the poll was non-viable, and that to a significant extent, the left was simply boxed out within the Democratic Party, because they couldn’t reach into moderately-liberal and moderate constituencies. The few wins that did happen were often dismissed as sui generis for a number of reasons.
As Sean McElwee notes in his roundup, progressives damn near ran the table:
- In New York’s 16th Congressional District, Jamaal Bowman delivered a knock-out (60.7 to 35.6%) defeat to long-time incumbent Eliot Engel. This was the headline matchup of the night, with all of the national Democratic leadership lined up behind one of their own, not only with their endorsements but also with $4 million in contributions and outside spending, and all of the national progressive leaders (I was particularly pleased by the endorsement of both Bernie and Warren) and progressive organizations supporting the challenger.
- In an open contest in New York’s 17th Congressional District, Mondaire Jones convincingly won in a crowded primary that featured both a former Obama Assistant U.S Attorney and state senator David Carlucci, one of the two ex-IDC turncoats to have survived the electorate’s revenge in 2018. Mondaire Jones would be the first openly gay black man in Congress, except that on the same night…
- In another open contest in New York’s 15th Congressional District, Ritchie Torres – an openly gay Afro-Latino man – won a more narrow victory in a crowded primary that could have been a disaster. The left divided between Ritchie Torres, an otherwise progressive city councilor who had soft-peddled on an important section of a 2017 police reform bill and accepted real estate donations, and Samelys López, a housing advocate who’d garnered the endorsement of AOC, Working Families Party, DSA, The Jewish Vote, and Bernie Sanders. This raised the fearsome possibility that either Rubén Díaz Sr. – an anti-gay, anti-abortion, Trump-supporting fundamentalist who had been a turncoat in the state legislature before the IDC even existed – or Michael Blake (a somewhat shady state assemblyman) might win in the bluest Congressional seat in the country. Thankfully, Torres managed to pull it out, and Rubén Díaz finished a distant third place.
- While it was never much of a contest, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was re-nominated (and effectively re-elected) by more than 50 percentage points against a conservative CNBC contributor who’d parachuted into the district from Trump Tower with $2 million in Wall Street money for attack ads (as well $1 million in her own money, for maximum dramatic irony).
- While not a straightforward left/right race, in New York’s 12th Congressional District, incumbent Carolyn Maloney is hanging on by about 500 votes in her rematch with hotelier Suraj Patel from 2018. With a lot of mail-in ballots outstanding, this one could go either way.
- DSA – together with local progressive organizations – got Zohran Mamdani (who won the support of a number of Muslim ethno-religious Democratic clubs, including a particularly visible caravan of green taxi drivers) and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas (supported by Make the Road Action) elected to the state assembly, and Jabari Brisport (also supported by NY Communities for Change and Working Families Party) elected to the state senate to join Julia Salazar (who easily won re-nomination), although some of these candidates will be sweating the mail-in ballots.
- Anti-IDC Democrats – Alessandra Biaggi, John Liu, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, Robert Jackson, and Rachel May – were re-nominated across the board, as was their party-loyalist-turned-anti-IDC ally Michael Gianaris, with many of them running unopposed. Meanwhile, the attempts of ex-IDCers Jesse Hamilton and girlfriend slasher/felon Hiram Monserrate to return to elected office ended badly, with Hamilton losing by 44 points and Monserrate losing by 30 points.
Now, this was not a total sweep. A lot of incumbent Democrats kept their Congressional seats, the Queens machine managed to hang onto the Borough Presidency (although more than a few reformers managed to win election to District Leader positions within the Democratic Party, which may well be a sign that the times are a-changing), and while progressive incumbents and organizations demonstrated some impressive electoral muscles, a red rose did not bring victory on its own.
However, Wednesday’s primary very much did provide the outlines of a new strategy for the left in Democratic Party politics.
First, this strategy runs through running progressive (and sometimes socialist) candidates of color in diverse, deep blue districts. Arguably, one of the reasons why the left has had trouble making inroads, especially in New York, is that we kept running professional white women (Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon, for example) who had trouble winning over constituencies of color despite their progressive platforms.
Second, this strategy requires the whole of the progressive community – electeds, national organizations, and local community groups – getting on the same page to prevent infighting, pool resources, and send a clear signal to voters.
Third, this strategy also requires those candidates to be able to raise money and make themselves visible. While Justice Democrats, AOC, Working Families Party, DSA, et al. had a very good night, there were plenty of good candidates with their endorsements who either couldn’t raise enough money to do mailers and ads until just before the election or struggled to raise their profile and name recognition. (One interesting development on that front is that left candidates in New York City put out some truly stunning commercials that make other professional political ads look amateurish.)
One final note…Booker is now ahead in Kentucky.