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Don’t Let the “Red Ripple” Overshadow the Local-Level Progressive Victories

Progressive policies are winning where activist networks are able to speak directly to families, friends and neighbors.

New Georgia Project canvasser Mardie Hill speaks to a resident about the upcoming primary election on May 23, 2022, in East Point, Georgia.

Democrats headed into Tuesday’s midterm with a grim outlook, per most pollsters. While it’s too early to call some of the closer elections, it seems that the party did a bit better than expected. House control is still likely to pass to the Republicans, but the Senate looks well within Democrats’ reach. And while we won’t know about some of the more intriguing races for a few days, there is enough information here to start making some projections about what this election means for the next two years in U.S. political life.

What Does This Mean for the Democratic Party?

It’s still too early to tell what Senate control will look like, but the Democrats may again be saddled with the dreaded 50-50 split, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as tiebreaker. This means another session where Democrats will struggle with their own conservative wing of the party, exemplified by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. And, they’ll probably be doing so with the added difficulty of an intransigent, Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Republicans don’t want to work with Biden on compromise legislation, preferring to stir the pot with congressional investigations, far right policy making and grinding the gears of the Biden presidency to a halt. Even if Democrats can still get bills through the Senate, they’re unlikely to receive much cooperation in the House. Any bill that does manage to make it to Biden’s desk will have had to appease the Democratic Party’s conservative wing and peel off enough Republican support in the House to pass; that sort of legislation is unlikely to be the bold, progressive policy making we need from the Democratic Party.

This means that, absent more signature legislation to hold up in the next campaign cycle, Democrats will have to work hard to seize the narrative heading into 2024. The party did not impress on this front in these midterms; they allowed Republicans to saddle them entirely with the blame for inflation, they floundered in responding to GOP attacks on crime and public safety, and they permitted entirely specious insinuations about LGBT-friendly policies in public schools to run rampant.

The success of these various smear campaigns attests in part to Republicans’ strengths in public messaging, but it also lays bare Democrats’ inability to coalesce around shared policy. Democrats ran a strong campaign centered on abortion where there is broad policy agreement within the party (with some notable exceptions). They were clear about their stance on abortion rights, with President Biden promising to codify Roe if given the chance. Elsewhere, however, they struggled to offer a unified vision of how to tackle the issues voters were most concerned about in these elections.

If the party wants to keep its head above water over the next two years, it will have to get better at offering bold policy prescriptions across the board and sticking to them. In seeking to concretize their platform heading into 2024, Democrats might consider paying attention to public polling over the last few years. There, voters have consistently expressed a preference for single-payer health care, want the government to do more to address climate change (regardless of party affiliation), and agree that housing affordability is reaching crisis levels. Without the ability to legislate effectively on these issues, Democrats will also have to push the White House to become more aggressive in utilizing executive orders to enact policy and keep its base mobilized. Enthusiasm among Democratic voters for Biden’s student debt relief order should be an encouraging indicator for this approach.

What Does This Mean for Joe Biden?

For an incumbent president, the enthusiasm for a second run by Joe Biden has never been particularly high. Prominent members of his own party, as well as rank-and-file Democrats, have worried about Biden’s prospects in a second presidential run. Tuesday’s mixed results are unlikely to offer much clarity about Biden’s status as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer. Biden’s approval ratings have been low for some time, and his low-key approach to campaigning this year was probably appreciated by candidates in closer races.

In an ideal world for Democrats, they could punt on Biden’s decision to run again for as long as possible. However, Democrats appear to be rapidly approaching an event horizon that may force Biden’s hand: Donald Trump’s announcement that he intends to run in 2024. A Trump candidacy will certainly generate a media black hole that spurs a feeling of intense urgency among Democrats to respond forcefully.

Democrats may do well to ignore that feeling and let Republican Party infighting take center stage for a bit. First, Biden is still the sitting president; if he decides to run again, he will not be starved for media attention the way a new candidate might be, so there is less of an imperative for Democrats to dominate the news cycle in the coming weeks. Second, if Biden decides not to run for reelection, the media is sure to descend on the pomp and pageantry entailed by a Democratic Party primary, thereby providing ample opportunities for the eventual nominee to make their case to the U.S. public.

We will get a clearer picture of Biden’s effect on voters’ choices during this election in the coming days, but for now, the mixed outcome does little to push the conversation about whether Biden should run again in either direction.

Progressive Victories Continue Through 2022

Farther down the ballot, meanwhile, a “progressive ripple” of candidates and ballot measures supported by progressive organizations rolled to one victory after another.

In Kentucky and Montana, voters appear to have resoundingly rejected two anti-abortion measures, following Kansas’s vote earlier this year. These victories — in deep red states, nonetheless — underline how profoundly out of step with popular opinion the Supreme Court and ultraconservative state legislatures around the country have become. Meanwhile, in California, Vermont and purple Michigan voters codified the right to an abortion in state law.

In congressional elections, Greg Casar and Summer Lee both won, and will become two of the newest members of the growing progressive bloc in the House of Representatives. Casar’s path to victory was never in doubt after he won his primary, but Lee had to weather millions of dollars in opposition independent expenditures by two pro-Israel PACs in both her primary and general election. She’s one of the few candidates to survive the intense spending frenzies from the two groups, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI).

At the state and local levels, progressives won races in St. Louis, where Megan Green will become the president of the Board of Aldermen; in Wisconsin, where two democratic socialists are headed to the state assembly; and in Colorado, where two progressives, including Elisabeth Epps, a prison abolitionist, will join the statehouse.

Progressive ballot measures also succeeded in many places: Maryland and Missouri both passed measures legalizing marijuana; measures to create more affordable housing are leading in San Francisco and Pasadena, California; and in Washington, D.C. voters overwhelmingly supported a measure to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers, capping a four-year battle with the city council there.

Taken together, these results suggest that progressive arguments about policy are winning at the local level, where activist networks are able to speak directly to their families, friends and neighbors, and making inroads in state-by-state policy making, too. While it’s important to stay vigilant about the possibility of a massive rightward shift in coming elections, so far, it appears that the left still has ample room to make its case.