A campaign sign for Mandela Barnes, the Democrat nominee for senate. Photo by Adam Fleischer.
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The primary elections have officially concluded, and the general election is one month away. Progressive candidates of all stripes have once again tried to gain ground by challenging incumbents and running in open seats. If you listen to the mainstream media, it’d be easy to believe that progressives were crushed during the primary season, but a closer look at the primaries paints a more complicated picture.
At the federal level, it was a rough season for progressives. Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX), one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, once again fell short (though it is worth noting that she lost by ~2,000 votes in 2020 and less than 300 votes in 2022). Other progressive challengers Nina Turner, Kina Collins, Vincent Fort and Amane Badhasso also failed to unseat centrist Democratic Representatives Shontel Brown (D-OH), Danny Davis (D-IL), David Scott (D-GA) and Betty McCollum (D-MN), respectively. In open seats, progressive Nida Allam lost to Valerie Foushee in North Carolina, conservative Democrat Dan Goldman won a seat in New York City with 26% against a split field of progressives, and Glenn Ivey defeated former Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) after running against her from the right. Additionally, Representatives Marie Newman (D-IL) and Andy Levin (D-MI) also lost their primaries in redistricting matchups against more conservative incumbents.
Despite this, many progressive candidates scored real victories. In a Texas district stretching from Austin to San Antonio, former city council member Gregorio Casar captured the Democratic nomination, and in Chicago, on the same night Newman lost, State Representative Delia Ramirez (D-IL), supported by the Working Families Party, won her primary. In Pittsburgh, State Representative Summer Lee (D-PA), initially aligned with the Pittsburgh DSA until the chapter collapsed, narrowly defeated a corporate candidate in May. On the same night that Lee won her primary, Jamie McLeod-Skinner defeated conservative, obstructionist Representative Kurt Schrader (D-OR), who was endorsed by President Joe Biden despite standing in the way of his agenda, by a comfortable margin. Later in the primary season, State Senator Becca Balint (D-VT) won the Democratic primary to succeed Representative Peter Welch (D-VT), defeating the moderate Lieutenant Governor.
In addition to this, the progressive “Squad”, made up of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Cori Bush (D-MO) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) all won their primaries. With the exception of Omar, all Squad members received at least 60% of the vote in their races. Despite a barrage of money from special interests including fossil fuels, cryptocurrency, the Israel lobby and big pharma, progressives were able to score significant victories.
At the state level, the primaries were even more fun for the left: except for a few examples, including State Representative Travaris McCurdy (D-FL), State Representative Roger Montoya (D-MN) and State Senator Jeanine Calkin (D-RI), most progressive incumbents were re-elected — many of them up against serious opposition from party leadership. In State Legislatures all over the country, progressive and socialist candidates both defended their seats and expanded their ranks. In Colorado’s 6th House District, police abolitionist Elisabeth Epps won the primary for this overwhelmingly blue seat. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) chapter elected two members, Darrin Madison and Ryan Clancy, to the State Assembly. Pennsylvania re-elected their progressive incumbents, State Representatives Rick Krajewski (D-PA), Sara Innamorato (D-PA), Elizabeth Fiedler (D-PA) and Lee, who was allowed to run for Congress and her State House seat at the same time (for the record, I don’t think Lee should have been able to do this) while progressive candidates Tarik Khan, Carol Kazeem, Latasha Mayes and Ismail Smith-Wade-El won their primaries and expanded the progressive ranks.
In Minnesota, State Senators Omar Fateh (D-MN) and Jen McEwen (D-MN) advanced from their primaries, while Zaynab Mohamed won an open seat, becoming the third DSA member in the Senate. Former State Representative Erin Maye Quade, a strong progressive, will join Mohamed and Clare Oumou Verbeten as the first Black women in the Minnesota State Senate. No DSA members won in the lower house, but progressives Alicia Kozlowski, María Isa Pérez-Hedges and Leigh Finke will very likely serve in the legislature next year. Kozlowski is Ojibwe and two-spirit and Finke is transgender, making them the only genderqueer members of the State House. Montana will also likely have its first trans state legislator in Zooey Zephyr.
In Rhode Island, the majority of progressive incumbents held onto their seats, and while seats were flipped in the Senate from progressive-to-conservative and from conservative-to-progressive, the end results did not fundamentally alter the makeup of the body, which was already markedly altered following the 2018 and 2020 election cycles. Senators Sam Bell (D-RI) and Tiara Mack (D-RI), prominent progressives in the body, beat back well-funded primary challengers. Notably, progressive Jen Rourke won the primary for the Senate Majority Leader’s seat, even though the state party supported her conservative opponent. The State House results were even better for the left: all progressive incumbents who ran for re-election held on, and Enrique Sanchez, Brandon Voas and Jennifer Stewart defeated powerful incumbents, shifting the lower house to the left. DSA chapters in New York re-elected their entire slate from 2018 and 2020 and elected Kristen Gonzalez and Sarahana Shrestha to the Senate and Assembly, respectively. Progressive-but-not-socialist State Senators Gustavo Rivera (D-NY) and Robert Jackson (D-NY) were also able to defeat challengers backed by the party machine and New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
The best results for the left, however, came from Delaware. In the State Senate, DSA member Senator Marie Pinkney (D-DE), who defeated an incumbent in 2020, and DSA member Kyra Hoffner, who challenged an incumbent in 2020, both won their elections in blue seats. In the State House, progressives Cyndie Romer, Sophie Phillips and Kerri Evelyn Harris won landslide elections in open blue seats, and DeShanna Neal narrowly defeated the House Majority Whip in their primary. Harris and Neal are both Black and queer: Harris is a lesbian woman and Neal uses she/they pronouns and has a transgender child. Additionally, State Representative Madinah Wilson-Anton (D-DE), a progressive, Black, Muslim woman aligned with the DSA who defeated a powerful incumbent by 43 votes in 2020, and State Representative Eric Morrison (D-DE), a gay man aligned with the DSA who resoundingly defeated a homophobic incumbent in 2020, were both re-elected in landslides, despite opposition from State Party leadership, who supported their primary opponents.
Although these were the most prominent examples, progressives also won seats in other State Legislatures, such as Illinois, Hawaii and Vermont. Nor does this take into account all of the state-level challengers that came extremely close to defeating incumbents and severely underfunded challengers that held incumbents to under 65% of the vote. These progressives have built a foundation and can go on to win future elections.
Although federal and state-level races are important, volunteers and activists can make the biggest difference in municipal races. Progressives won seats in many big cities across the country, including Los Angeles; Chicago; Providence, R.I.; Austin, Tex. and Washington, D.C.
On June 7, Los Angeles held local elections. The Los Angeles chapter of the DSA endorsed Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martínez, who challenged council members Gil Cedillo and Mitch O’Farrell, respectively. Hernandez resoundingly defeated Cedillo, who was elected as a progressive and had the endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) even after he became a machine politician. Hernandez captured 54% of the vote, avoiding the November runoff. Soto-Martínez came first in his primary, forcing O’Farrell, another machine politician hostile to the homeless and tenants and particularly disliked by the Los Angeles left, into the November election. Additionally, progressive-ish Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) placed first in the mayoral primary against billionaire Rick Caruso, socialist and former Green Party candidate Kenneth Mejia placed ahead of establishment Councilmember Paul Koretz in the race for City Controller, reform candidate Faisal Gill placed first in the primary for City Attorney and progressive West Hollywood city council member Lindsey Horvath nearly tied conservative State Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-CA) in her race for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Bass, Mejia, Gill and Horvath will be on the ballot in November.
Providence was another successful political experiment. Progressive and/or socialist candidates Susan Anderbois, Justin Roias and Miguel Sanchez all won their primaries for the City Council. Another progressive candidate for City Council lost by less than 100 votes, and Council President Jo-Ann Ryan, who challenged Senator Bell from the right in 2018, defeated her progressive opponent only by less than 10 points. Because of these results, progressive-aligned city council member Rachel Miller is likely to become the next council president. In Washington, D.C., progressive city council member Brianne Nadeau was able to beat back a challenge from the right, and DSA member Zachary Parker is set to join Janeese Lewis George as the second DSA member on the city council. And in Austin, Texas, Casar’s handpicked successor, activist Chito Vela, held his seat on the city council. In Cook County, Ill., Anthony Joel Quezada captured a seat on the County Commission for the DSA, defeating an incumbent and a former incumbent.
Keep in mind that this is far from an exhaustive list. Progressives and socialists occupy hundreds of council seats in urban, rural and suburban municipalities across the country, including Appleton.
Even when progressive candidates lose, the challenge in itself is a victory. Among congressional Democrats who were challenged from the left and won their primaries, co-sponsorship of legislation introduced by the progressive Democrats increased by almost 60%. It’s important to not let elections go uncontested, because primaries scare bad politicians, including other incumbents, into doing the right thing.