5 Takeaways From This Year’s Democratic Primaries

Johnny Nguyen 09:50

With some important exceptions, the Democratic Party's left wing is rising.

Delaware voters cast their statewide primary ballots last week, drawing to a close a primary season that began in February. 

For Democrats, the year’s down-ballot primaries showcased the growing strength of its activist progressive wing — which continued its winning streak with a handful of congressional and state legislative races — as well as its limits. The party’s establishment maintained dominance in Senate races, and the left squandered some straightforward opportunities for the House of Representatives.

Here are five takeaways from the Democrats’ internecine contests this year:

Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, defeated Rep. Lacy Clay. Her win in Missouri is one of five times left-wing candida
Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, defeated Rep. Lacy Clay. Her win in Missouri is one of five times left-wing candidates have unseated House Democrats since 2018.

Progressive challengers have put House Democrats on notice.

After Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) ousted then-chair of the House Democratic Caucus Joe Crowley in 2018, centrists were eager to write off her victory as a fluke. Ayanna Pressley’s defeat of veteran Boston congressman Michael Capuano later that cycle likewise elicited dismissals that the left’s success was limited to districts where a white incumbent represented a majority-minority district.

As primary voters rejected progressive presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year, it looked like Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley might indeed be exceptions, rather than harbingers of a new era.

Then, in June, the left earned its first big win of the cycle when Black middle school principal Jamaal Bowman unseated New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. That same day, attorney Mondaire Jones won a primary in the New York City suburbs to succeed retiring Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. Though Jones, who is Black and openly gay, had the advantage of running for an open seat, he had originally entered the race as a challenger to Lowey, and his candidacy likely played a role in her decision to announce her retirement last year.  

Two months later, nurse and Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush pulled off an impressive upset against Rep. Lacy Clay, whose family has represented St. Louis in Congress since the late 1960s. 

Together with Marie Newman’s somewhat more expected victory over conservative Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski in March ― Newman, who also had the backing of mainstream liberals groups, had nearly beat Lipinski in 2018 ― the activist left, led by groups like Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and the Working Families Party, can claim credit for ousting five incumbent House Democrats over the course of two election cycles. 

For powerful Democrats who have eluded the insurgent wave, such as Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, five victories in two cycles is nothing to brag about. 

But a few big wins can have an outsize impact by nudging other entrenched incumbents to the left or inspiring early retirements. Progressives now have primary challenges down to something of a formula, carefully picking incumbents in districts where there is a mismatch between a white incumbent and a majority-minority constituency (Crowley, Capuano, Engel); a member who is no longer present in the district (Crowley, Engel); or someone who has forgotten how to run in a competitive race (Engel, Clay). 

Defeating Clay also showed that the left is capable of making inroads against Black incumbents in districts with a large Black population, putting the lie to the idea that the anti-incumbent wave is a movement primarily pushed by hyper-ideological, white gentrifiers.

And the 2020 wins flexed the muscle of a new progressive campaign infrastructure that developed after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided, in 2019, to blacklist vendors that work for primary challengers. A left-wing candidate hoping to replace a more moderate Democrat now has the benefit of specialized polling, media and fundraising firms, and super PACs willing to match establishment dollars on television.

Leonela Felix is one of a host of progressive candidates who won competitive primaries in Rhode Island. She prevailed in a pr
Leonela Felix is one of a host of progressive candidates who won competitive primaries in Rhode Island. She prevailed in a predominantly white working-class part of Pawtucket.

The left is building a bench in state and local governments.

The more local a race was, the more success left-wing candidates had this election cycle. In state legislative and municipal races, progressives have the advantage of catering to a smaller, more specific electorate. And social movement-driven candidates’ reliance on highly motivated volunteers carries disproportionate weight. 

Progressives ousted incumbents or won open seats in a series of key state legislative and municipal races in the blue states of New Mexico, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island. Their successes are the product of work by both new groups, like the Democratic Socialists of America, that have exploded in the wake of Sanders’ presidential runs, and more seasoned players like the Working Families Party, which has quietly been building up state and local progressive infrastructure for several election cycles.

As The Intercept reported in detail, the slate of progressive wins in Rhode Island’s Sept. 8 Democratic primaries exemplified a division of labor, adoption of professional campaign tactics, and coalition building that showed what new left-wing organizations are capable of achieving when at their best. Progressive candidates won a total of 15 seats in Rhode Island’s state House and Senate, chambers run by a state Democratic Party that is notoriously corrupt and socially conservative. David Segal, a former progressive Rhode Island state representative who now runs the advocacy group Demand Progress, estimated that this cycle’s victories bring the total number of progressive pickups in the legislature to 23 seats since 2016, when the Working Families Party’s state chapter was first up and running.

If you want to bring people into the fold, you’ve got to meet them where they’re at. Leonela Felix, who won her Democratic primary for a Rhode Island House seat

Healthy collaboration between groups with varied missions and ideological perspectives was a critical component of the left’s success in Rhode Island. Not all of the winning candidates were endorsed by the same organizations, but the different groups focused on their individual goals, rather than policing the tactics preferred by their counterparts in other corners of the left. 

The Rhode Island Political Cooperative functioned as a left-wing candidate recruitment and training center and campaign consultancy. Reclaim Rhode Island and Providence DSA provided the troops necessary to canvass as many blocks as possible in a small state where field work can be a game changer. And the Working Families Party helped candidates craft their strategies and build institutional coalitions with labor unions and other mainstream organizations.

One particularly notable win was Leonela Felix’s victory over Deputy House Majority Leader Raymond Johnston in the blue-collar city of Pawtucket. Felix, a Dominican-American immigration attorney, won in a predominantly white and aging part of the city, thanks to a message that combined traditional progressive ideas like investing in renewable energy jobs and increasing social program spending with an anti-status quo argument. She generally eschewed using controversial slogans like “defund the police” in favor of talking about improving access to health care and other services that might prevent crime.

“If you want to bring people into the fold, you’ve got to meet them where they’re at,” Felix told HuffPost.

The next order of business for Rhode Island’s progressive movement is leveraging its new power to thwart moderate Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plans to seek budget savings necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic through spending cuts. Some of the newly elected lawmakers, including Felix, have already urged Raimondo to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, rather than cut important services.

Jake Auchincloss, a former Republican and Marine veteran, is decidedly to the right of Rep. Joe Kennedy III, whom he is due t
Jake Auchincloss, a former Republican and Marine veteran, is decidedly to the right of Rep. Joe Kennedy III, whom he is due to succeed in the House.

The left missed some opportunities.

National coverage of the Democratic primaries in Massachusetts rightly focused on Sen. Ed Markey’s defeat of Rep. Joe Kennedy III, an important win for the left in a solidly Democratic Senate seat.

But in two of the Bay State’s House races, moderate Democrats showed their resilience against the ascendant progressive ecosystem. In Western Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District, Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, defeated Alex Morse, the progressive mayor of Holyoke, by 17 percentage points. Neal’s fundraising edge and a plot by college students to smear Morse shaped the outcome, but Neal’s margin of victory defied public polling, which had predicted a tighter race. Progressive outside groups spent $1.5 million on Morse’s behalf to help even the scales. The previous candidate to challenge Neal raised a tiny fraction of Morse’s war chest, and received 12 percentage points less than Morse did — raising questions about whether Morse was a worthy investment for national progressives, given Neal’s strength in his district.

Jake Auchincloss is going to be Richie Neal ― and we could have stopped that. Sean McElwee, Data for Progress

Meanwhile, in eastern Massachusetts’ 4th district where Kennedy’s departure opened up a seat, Jake Auchincloss, a moderate former Republican and Marine, narrowly won the Democratic nomination thanks to a crowded progressive field. Jesse Mermell — a former Planned Parenthood official and aide to former Gov. Deval Patrick, who emerged in the final days as the preferred, more-progressive candidate — lost to Auchincloss by a single percentage point. Ihssane Lecky, a financial regulator backed by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Natalia Linos, an epidemiologist, both received more than 11% ― a share of the vote that critics believe deprived Mermell of enough liberal support to win. Becky Grossman, a local elected official backed by progressive Rep. Ro Khanna and daughter-in-law of a famous Democratic Party power broker, won 18% of the vote.

To some progressives, the losses on either side of Massachusetts are a sign that left-wing institutions ― and the donors and voters who take their cues from them ― need to do a better job of consolidating behind a single progressive candidate. That’s particularly true in open seats, which have less cachet than primary challenges against incumbents, but statistically offer the left a greater chance of victory.

“This is devastating,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of the polling firm Data for Progress, said of the results. His firm published a poll weeks before the election predicting that Auchincloss would narrowly beat Mermell. 

“The solution to having to primary Richie Neal 20 years from now is to not have Richie Neal in Congress,” he added. “Jake Auchincloss is going to be Richie Neal ― and we could have stopped that.”

There’s also at least one case of a progressive challenger who came close to ousting an incumbent with little to no help from left-wing groups. In New York’s 12th District, Suraj Patel, an attorney and hotel development executive, lost to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a 14-term incumbent, by 3 points following a prolonged period of vote counting in which the New York City board of elections disqualified thousands of mail-in ballots for technical reasons. Patel, who stayed neutral in the presidential primary, could claim neither the mantle of Sanders’ movement nor the socialist ideology and modest background of a figure like Ocasio-Cortez. He is the son of Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. with little but gradually built a successful hotel development company. The family’s business was the subject of federal labor complaints that allowed Maloney to cast aspersions on Patel’s pro-union credentials.

But in a district comprised mostly of residents of Manhattan’s affluent East side, Patel was likely the most progressive a candidate could be while still having a shot at winning. He attacked Maloney’s past flirtations with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, her support for tough-on-crime policies that fueled mass incarceration, her opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, and her reliance on corporate PAC money.

Had left-wing institutions taken a greater interest in the race, they might have succeeded in nudging out two rival progressive challengers, Lauren Aschraft and Pete Harrison, who were to Patel’s left but never gained much traction.

“Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot” if they only run socialists against establishment incumbents, said Cassie Moreno, Patel’s campaign spokeswoman.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) easily defeated a progressive primary challenger. His success shows how incumbents are beginning
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) easily defeated a progressive primary challenger. His success shows how incumbents are beginning to take challengers more seriously.

The Democratic establishment is learning how to outmaneuver the left.

Establishment Democrats are adjusting to the growing strength of the insurgent left flank in two key ways. First, they have started taking challengers seriously and spending the money to show it. Neal, who hit Morse’s mayoral record hard from the moment Morse entered the race, exemplified this trend. 

Likewise, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat in South Texas, beat left-wing challenger Jessica Cisneros, an attorney, by less than four points in March. In a pre-election bid to shore up his credentials with loyal Democrats, Cuellar invited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appear at his campaign headquarters in Laredo.

At the same time, some establishment Democrats have chosen to adopt the left’s positions as their own in a bid to inoculate themselves from a potential challenge. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced legislation decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, co-sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and welcomed Sanders and Warren onto his party leadership team. He is now advocating for the Working Families Party to retain its place on New York’s ballot line ― a position that puts him at odds with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Perhaps the greatest example of a mainstream Democrat embracing the activist left’s agenda is Markey’s decision to transform himself into a progressive champion ahead of his reelection battle. Markey’s record combines a host of staunch liberal stances ― such as early advocacy for nuclear disarmament and climate action ― with votes for the Iraq War and the 1994 crime bill that progressives look back on in horror. 

Anticipating a primary challenge from Kennedy, Markey decided to go all in with the Democratic Party’s youthful left flank. Together with Ocasio-Cortez, he co-authored the Green New Deal resolution and has become an outspoken proponent of even the most controversial progressive causes, like abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.  

However much of Markey’s evolution came out of political expediency, left-wing groups like Sunrise Movement evidently believe their role in his reelection has been mutually beneficial. Progressive activists helped Markey win, demonstrating their strength and winning them an ally in the process.

Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker's near-defeat of Amy McGrath in the Kentucky Democratic Senate primary is the closest the
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker's near-defeat of Amy McGrath in the Kentucky Democratic Senate primary is the closest the left came to winning in a Senate race.

The left has no chance to elect a new senator this year.

While progressives did manage to defend Markey, they otherwise had little-to-no impact on the battle for control of the Senate. Establishment candidates romped to victory in Colorado, Maine and Iowa. A primary runoff in Texas pitted two establishment-oriented candidates against each other. The left’s biggest success in a Senate race was nearly beating Amy McGrath in Kentucky, which is the Democratic Party’s 13th-best opportunity to pick up a Senate seat. 

Senate races are, quite simply, much more important, much more expensive and much harder to win the House contests. A House incumbent losing to a primary challenger is typically not going to dramatically shift the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, while every Senate race has the potential to make or break legislation and the ideology of the Supreme Court.

The left’s total failure to add a Senate candidate to its ranks in the Trump era stands in stark contrast to what the Tea Party did during the first years of the Obama administration: Candidates aligned with the Tea Party won Senate primaries in Pennsylvania, Utah, Nevada, Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin and Colorado over the course of the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Five of those winners went on to join the Senate: Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. 

The small left-wing contingent in the Senate may still grow — Markey’s victory could inspire some liberals to adopt bolder stances — but progressives will have essentially no power to actually dictate legislation if Democrats gain control of Washington in November.

There is a flip side: The left also hasn’t won a Senate primary only to lose to a Republican in the general election. Controversial Tea Party candidates lost in Delaware, Indiana and Missouri, making it harder for Republicans to win a Senate majority. That prompted the GOP establishment to confront the Tea Party head-on, rendering it far less effective in the 2014 election cycle and onward.

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