The insurgent left largely fell short in the Midwest, but they're playing the long game

  • A slate of insurgent progressives who hoped to ride to victory on the coattails of New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mostly fell short on Tuesday.
  • But their campaigns have put pressure on the “establishment” wing of the party, and will likely reverberate through November’s elections.
  • Overall, female candidates – including one Democratic socialist – won the night.

A slate of insurgent progressives who hoped to ride to victory on the coattails of New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mostly fell short on Tuesday.

But their campaigns – powered by young people, people of colour, and left-wing heavy-hitters – have put pressure on the “establishment” wing of the party, a trend that will likely reverberate through November’s elections.

In Michigan, one progressive insurgent – Democratic Ssocialist Rashida Tlaib – eked out a victory, while four others, including gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed and House candidate Fayrouz Saad, did not. (Notably, all three of these candidates are Muslim, and Tlaib will likely become the first Muslim congresswoman.)

Both El-Sayed and Saad were beaten by female candidates with backing from major party institutions, including Emily’s List, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and labour unions. Gretchen Whitmer, a former leader in the state Senate, has spent years growing political roots in Michigan and won the gubernatorial race with 50% of the vote, while Haley Stevens, a Democratic consultant who helped lead President Barack Obama’s auto task force, got a lift after Hillary Clinton recorded a rare, last-minute robo-call for her.

Democratic activists say that El-Sayed, backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, should see his loss as a first foot in the door.

“We haven’t heard the last of Abdul El-Sayed,” said Sean McElwee, a progressive activist and pollster. “This is a genuinely impressive state-wide performance and proof that young progressives have something to say. It’s time for the party to listen.”

And they see Tlaib’s victory as a boon for Democratic socialism and progressivism more broadly.

“The future of the Democratic Party is progressive women of colour with deep roots fighting for their districts,” McElwee said. “Progressives should be thrilled about Tlaib’s victory.”

In Kansas, Brent Welder, a labour lawyer promoted by Sanders and Ocasio as the most progressive candidate in the state’s third congressional district, lost to Sharice Davids, an attorney and Kansas’ first gay and Native American congressional nominee. And in Missouri, Rep. William Lacy Clay beat insurgent challenger and community activist Cori Bush, who received strong support from Ocasio-Cortez.

McElwee said no one should be surprised that progressive leftists tend to do better in deep-blue places like the Bronx and Detroit. It makes sense that first-time outsider candidates – particularly with new ideas – would have a harder time in the Midwest.

“Progressives tend to endorse underdog candidates,” McElwee said. “Underdog candidates tend to lose – that’s why they’re called underdog candidates.”

He added that as the progressive left grows, its candidates will improve in quality, viability, and diversity.

But others in the Democratic party say the candidates who won on Tuesday are progressive leaders in their own right, nominated to defy the president.

“Anyone who tries to see every 2018 primary as if it was redux of 2016 doesn’t really understand what Democrats are voting for right now,” said Jesse Ferguson, a top spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “The candidates who are winning primaries are almost all progressive leaders who have demonstrated something special about them and their campaign which makes Democratic voters ready to trust them to take on Trump and take away his full control of government.”

Jess McIntosh, a Democratic consultant, argued that characterising a Democrat like Davids as part of the political “establishment” is wrong-headed.

“Congratulations to @sharicedavids in #KS03!” she tweeted. “<whispers> there is no political reality in which a Native American LGBTQ woman candidate is ‘establishment.'”

Time’s Charlotte Alter pointed out on Wednesday that while young and insurgent candidates have had mixed success this year, female candidates are doing remarkably well.

In addition to Tlaib, Whitmer, Davids, and Stevens, Laura Kelly won the gubernatorial primary in Kansas and former Acting Secretary of Defence Elissa Slotkin won another Michigan House primary on Tuesday.

In May, Dave Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political report looked at the 65 House Democratic primaries (without incumbents) that featured at least one man and one woman. The female candidates defeated their male opponents in 45 of the 65 races (69%).

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