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Progressive Candidates Endured Some National Losses, But Local Wins Offer Hope

There’s no reason to despair about the future of progressive electoralism in 2022.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a rally where she endorsed progressive candidates in elections for city-wide offices in City Hall Park, New York City, on June 5, 2021.

When Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign ended in the spring of 2020, observers wondered what would become of the many thousands of activists who had been part of the Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020. On the left, there were concerns that, without a central, unifying candidate, the energy that had amassed around progressive electoral organizing would dissipate. Now, two years beyond the end of the campaign and with midterm elections right around the corner, we can start to make some judgments about the state of progressive electoralism, post-Sanders.

While there are fewer headline-grabbing victories than in the early days of the surge in electoral organizing, the movement to elect progressives at every level of government, in every corner of the country, is still alive and well. To get a clear picture, though, one has to look at the local, as well as the national level.

This year, election results for progressive candidates at the national level have been a mixed bag, at best. This became evident early in 2022: in Texas, Jessica Cisneros failed, again, to defeat anti-abortion Democrat Henry Cuellar in her closely watched congressional primary (and subsequent runoff election). Meanwhile, in Texas’s 35th congressional district, progressive Greg Casar handily won his primary. (He’ll have an easy contest in November and will join Congress in January.) And so it continued throughout the year. In Pennsylvania’s 12th district, Summer Lee narrowly defeated the more moderate (and AIPAC-supported) Steve Irwin. Meanwhile, New York’s 10th congressional district was an absolute train wreck of personal ambition and competing progressive lobbies, allowing the establishment-friendly Daniel Goldman to secure a win with just 25 percent of the vote.

The shaky performance among progressive congressional candidates has provided ample fodder for widespread despair. In fact, almost since the current phase of electoral progressivism began surging in the United States, in 2016, many of its opponents have been quick to identify harbingers of its impending burnout.

Critics of electoral progressivism argue that the Trump years presented an anomalous backdrop against which the left could politic; or that leftists can only win in low-turnout elections; or that progressive candidates used the element of surprise to take down entrenched incumbents, a tactic that has produced diminishing returns as the establishment reorients around it. High-profile losses, like Cisneros in Texas or Nina Turner’s special election defeat, in 2021, seem to support these claims.

At a more local level, though, the picture is different. In state and municipal elections across the country, progressive and openly socialist candidates have scored numerous victories in contested primary elections this year. What’s even more striking is that candidates are succeeding in districts reflecting a wide diversity of demographic configurations. These results fly in the face of the orthodoxy that left-wing candidates can only win in diverse, young, urban areas.

In Delaware, a state known more for its corporate-friendly tax policy than its radical politics, four Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members won primaries for the state house and senate, with two other non-member DSA-endorsees winning state seats as well. In Colorado, considered a swing state until late in the last decade, two self-identified democratic socialists, one running on a police abolition platform, won races for the Colorado state house. In Wisconsin, two democratic socialists will enter the state house while others made gains on county councils, establishing a small but significant bloc of socialists elected in a state that Joe Biden won by just half a percentage point in 2020.

These victories come as the terrain for progressive electoralists has gotten more complex over the last four years. In 2018 and 2020, progressives largely went on the offensive, aggressively pursuing vulnerable incumbents and channeling the power of a new generation of organizers eager to keep their recently developed electioneering skills sharp between the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns.

In 2022, however, progressives found themselves having to play defense for their incumbent candidates as much as they were going on the offensive. In Montgomery County, Maryland, DSA member and state delegate Gabriel Acevero faced opposition from his own district colleagues, as two delegates in his multicandidate district tried to replace Acevero with a third, more establishment-friendly delegate. (They failed; Acevero won reelection in July.)

In New York City, newly elected Mayor Eric Adams leveraged his bully pulpit to back, among others, a challenger who sought to unseat State Sen. Jabari Brisport (that challenge was also unsuccessful). Members of “the Squad” in Congress — Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman — have also had to defend their seats against well-funded opponents whose backers would greatly prefer a representative less hostile to corporate interests.

Personnel have become more scattered too, as the cadre of left electoralists, lacking a single candidate around whom they can rally, have devoted their time and labor to many smaller campaigns around the country. While these campaigns benefit from their individual expertise, it makes it harder for observers and analysts to figure out whether progressives are still conducting effective and winning campaigns.

Taken together, though, the electoral results from this campaign season hardly paint a picture of a movement in decline. Rather, they suggest a maturing movement exiting its upstart phase and moving into a more established formation, struggling with many of the issues that attend formalized political structures in the U.S. This maturation separates the current progressive surge from previous left electoral efforts which have exhibited little continuity between election cycles. The fact that progressive campaigns and organizations have continued to mount electoral efforts amidst an increasingly forbidding landscape only further attests to a movement that is stabilizing and building for the long term.

There are other important indicators of stabilization, too. In the first place, progressive elected officials are learning how to legislate and beginning to effect real policy changes at the state and local levels. In New York State, for example, progressive legislators, led by DSAers who were elected to state office in 2018 and 2020, have repeatedly introduced bills that would fundamentally alter the relationship between tenants and landlords in that state. This legislative effort is reminiscent of Congresswoman Cori Bush’s bold protest in 2021 which helped to extend an eviction moratorium that kept hundreds of thousands of people in their homes. Developing a legislative record, especially one that is based on shared progressive principles, is one of the most heartening signs of a movement that is learning to build for long-term success.

Beyond that, progressive electoral efforts are helping to build a bench of elected officials. Candidates who are elected to local or state office today are set on a possible trajectory toward achieving higher offices and thus a more concrete grip on the levers of power. The U.S. right wing has long understood the importance of building a pipeline of electeds and standard-bearers, but centrist and center-left politicos who comprise the core Democratic Party leadership have apparently not internalized this lesson. (See, for example, the party’s inaction over the Biden succession question.) That progressives are attentive to this need is a testament to their vision.

While progressives have seen fewer spectacular wins at the national level in 2022, left electoral momentum continues to propel candidates to victory at all levels, across the country. These modest, countrywide victories evince a movement in a state of evolution, led by activists looking toward the future.