Hope for Progressive Victories May Lie in Races You Haven’t Heard About Yet

Election Day is now upon us. The country is in a particularly precarious place; the COVID epidemic rages on, the U.S. economy teeters on the brink of recession, and a significant swath of candidates currently seeking elective office appear not to believe in the basic tenets of democracy.

While we may not know the results of many individual elections by the time polls close around the country, we should be able to quickly identify some emerging trends that will tell us something about what the next two years (and beyond) may have in store.

Will Democrats Retain Control of the Senate?

Prognosticators and opinion surveys give the Democrats a better chance of retaining control of the Senate than the House on Tuesday. Democrats currently control 50 seats, so they must pick up additional seats in the case of any incumbent losses to retain control of the chamber.

Polls close between 7 and 8 pm ET in two important states, Pennsylvania and Georgia. In Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman has seen a substantial early lead in public polling erode after a major stroke he suffered over the summer hampered his ability to campaign. This race is now considered a complete toss-up; a win for Fetterman and the Democrats would provide some breathing room and a tiny bit of cushion to offset the loss of one seat later in the night. If Mehmet Oz wins, Democrats will have their backs against the wall to maintain Senate control.

In Georgia, Raphael Warnock is an incumbent Senate Democrat, meaning that a loss in that state would leave Democrats at a deficit of one seat. They have few opportunities to make up that loss — the next closest races are all in seats currently held by Democrats.

The party’s first opportunity to flip a Republican seat will come in Wisconsin, where Mandela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, has run a competitive race against incumbent Republican Ron Johnson. In the early days of his campaign, Barnes ran as a full-throated progressive, touting endorsements from Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. However, with Johnson leaning heavily into false Republican critiques that Democrats are “allowing crime to run rampant,” Barnes has moderated his tone and brought his stance on defunding the police more in line with the Democratic mainstream. Polling has moved decisively in Johnson’s favor in the last month, so if Barnes pulls out a win here, it will likely be in the context of an unexpectedly great night for Democrats.

Can Democrats Limit House Losses?

The outlook for House Democrats, per polling, is quite grim. We should probably prepare to be subjected to numerous House investigations of Democratic leaders and their families over the next few years.

For progressives, the prognosis is not quite as bad. The Squad, the progressive bloc of House members who often work together to push left-leaning legislation, can add a few new members. Greg Casar, who won a competitive primary in Texas’s 35th district, will likely skate into office after receiving the rubber stamp on Tuesday. Summer Lee, long thought to be in a safe blue district, is now facing the perfect electoral storm and is locked in a tight race for Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional seat. If Lee loses, it will likely portend an absolute drubbing for Democrats; if she wins, she will be one of the few candidates this year to overcome a spending barrage from AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Elsewhere, Michelle Vallejo (in Texas) and Jamie McLeod-Skinner (in Oregon) are two progressive candidates who either beat establishment picks (in Vallejo’s case) or powerful incumbents (in McLeod-Skinner’s case) to secure the Democratic Party line on the ballot. Now, though, both are struggling within razor-thin margins to beat their Republican opponents, in two races that have gotten comparatively little support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

What Are Other Races to Watch?

As I’ve argued here, some of the best wins for progressives this year have been in races that rarely attract the attention of the national spotlight.

Los Angeles’s City Council has been embroiled in controversy since audio leaked of several members using racist language and discussing partisan gerrymandering in a private conversation. Fortunately, the composition of the city council is likely to shift dramatically after Tuesday. Eunisses Hernandez is a progressive, Latinx activist who beat incumbent Gil Cedillo (since implicated in the aforementioned scandal) for his city council seat in June. She may be joined on the council by Hugo Soto-Martinez, the Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidate running in east Los Angeles’s District 13. Soto-Martinez made a strong showing in his first place finish in the June primary, and will look to repeat that success and join Hernandez and others as part of the city council’s growing progressive bloc.

Meanwhile, St. Louis’s Board of Aldermen, the city’s governing body, could have a new, progressive president in Megan Green. Green, already a district member on the Board of Aldermen, has long led a campaign to create a progressive supermajority on the board. Winning the presidency would be a coup for Green and for progressives in St. Louis.

Ballot Measures Could Have Major Impacts

Finally, some of the most progressive policy making this year may come via ballot measure.

After Kansas shocked the country by decisively rejecting a state constitutional amendment declaring no right to abortion, pro-choice activists are fighting against similar measures in other states. Kentucky and Montana both have anti-abortion measures on the November 8 ballot, Amendment 2 and LR-131, respectively. Meanwhile, in Michigan, California and Vermont, voters will decide whether to enshrine the right to abortion in their state constitutions.

With housing costs spiraling out of control, municipalities across the country will vote on different proposed solutions to the housing crisis. In San Francisco, Proposition M would institute a tax on vacant residential units, with the proceeds from the tax going towards rent subsidies and affordable housing. (The measure was developed and is being championed by Democratic Socialist Dean Preston, the real estate lobby’s least favorite member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.) In Denver, housing activists are pushing Initiated Ordinance 305, which would assess a flat tax per rental property to landlords that would be used to fund legal assistance for tenants facing eviction. In Portland, Maine, another housing-related ballot measure would attempt to ameliorate housing issues in the city by prohibiting corporate entities and non-local owners from issuing short-term rentals.

And in Washington, D.C., progressive activists have been working for passage of Initiative 82, which would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers in the city. If the ballot measure sounds familiar, it’s because D.C. residents passed a very similar measure in 2018. That measure was then overturned via legislation by the D.C. City Council amid heavy lobbying from the restaurant industry. Voters will have a chance to reassert their democratic will on Tuesday.

Many of these efforts are even more remarkable for the fact that they are being led by local activists often operating outside of any official Democratic Party channels and without the massive financial and organizational resources that such an affiliation brings. Activists are agitating for, and winning, expanded abortion rights, more affordable housing and a living minimum wage.

If Democrats do lose power at the national level in these midterm elections, successes further down-ballot may point the way for progressive politicking over the next few years. With gridlock and partisan rancor in Washington sure to characterize the period until the next presidential election, activists might do well to focus on local work and effecting change in their own backyards.