During the 2016 presidential election, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, made a now-infamous claim:
“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” he said, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio, and Illinois, and Wisconsin.”
This centrist strategy of trying to win over moderate Republicans, to say the least, has backfired miserably for Democrats. And in many ways, the 2018 midterm elections will be a referendum on this entire approach—with a rising tide of progressive candidates who stand to make substantial gains in Congress and state legislatures.
Frustration and a wide dislike of President Donald Trump and Republicans in power have fueled anticipation of a so-called Blue Wave in the November 6 elections. Powering this wave is a progressive movement pulling the Democratic Party to the left and scoring historic victories in communities the party’s establishment has traditionally ignored.
In Pennsylvania, despite Schumer’s prediction, a group of democratic socialists are demonstrating that Democratic candidates need to run unapologetically progressive campaigns in order to win.
“Buying into this polarizing narrative of us and them, but thinking success is mimicking everything the Republicans do has definitely been the heart of the problem in my district,” says Kristin Seale, the Democratic candidate for state representative in Delaware County, a suburb of Philadelphia where Republicans have historically dominated.
Seale is one of twenty-six candidates in the United States formally endorsed by the national chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). She joined Philly DSA, the Philadelphia chapter, due to its ties to the labor movement and what she saw as their shared values.
“As a candidate, I’m working full time because my family depends on my income,” Seale tells The Progressive. “I can’t afford to take nine months off to campaign, but I’m set on proving working people can do this. If public office, even at the state legislative level, is only for the wealthy, then we’re in a lot of trouble.”
“I can’t afford to take nine months off to campaign, but I’m set on proving working people can do this."
In 2016, Seale represented Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District as a labor delegate for the Bernie Sanders campaign at the Democratic National Convention. The next year she was elected with three other Democrats to her local Rose Tree Media School Board; Democrats swept all four seats in the race. If elected as state representative, Seale would be the first woman to hold the seat in a district where the population is 52 percent women.
Her platform, in a Democratic landscape that has quickly veered left, is starting to sound familiar: Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and strong opposition to fossil fuel projects—in her case a natural gas project proposed in her district by the same company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline. “They are using eminent domain to build the pipeline, claiming it’s a public utility even though it’s a for-profit pipeline to export natural gas to Europe for plastic manufacturing,” Seale says. “The operator has the worst leak record in our state.”
Three other DSA members are running for state representative positions in Pennsylvania: Elizabeth Fiedler in a district outside of Philadelphia, and Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee in the Pittsburgh area. All three are running unopposed after unseating Democrat incumbents in their respective primaries earlier this year.
“Our lives are more valuable than huge corporate profits and that is a message I believe resonates for working people regardless of where they live,” says Fiedler in an email to The Progressive. “For elected officials and political candidates to effectively fight for working people, it’s important to look where their funding comes from. We did not take money from Big Oil and Big Gas, or from the health insurance, pharmaceutical, or banking industries.”
Innamorato adds, “We need new, fresh voices, who are free from corruption, who are brave enough to talk about comprehensive economic reform that centers on people and not corporate profits. With this movement on the left, we hope to not only build a party that understands working people’s issues but be the party comprised of working people.”
In New York, the progressive movement has rallied in opposition to a rogue group of Democrats in the New York State senate who caucus with Republicans in exchange for perks, bigger offices, and stipends—undermining progressive efforts and legislation in the state over the past decade. Since these Democrats formed the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in 2011, dozens of progressive bills that have passed in the state assembly were sidelined over the years by the senate.
Democrats in New York officially hold thirty-two out of the sixty-three state senate seats, but the eight Democrats in the IDC and another Democrat outside the group have kept the Republican Party in control. A recent report by state Senator Brad Hoylman cited more than twenty bills created to benefit New York’s LGBTQ community that died in the senate since the IDC was created.
In the September 13 primary elections, all eight members of the recently dissolved IDC and another Republican-caucusing Democrat senator, Simcha Felder, faced progressive primary challengers.
One of these challengers, Julie Goldberg, became inspired to run against Senator David Carlucci as she learned more about the IDC and its role in preventing two of her local school districts from receiving proper funding awarded in a lawsuit. The New York State legislature has yet to allocate the money owed.
“The New York State assembly passed three-year plans to fund out these plans and the bills have always died in the state senate, thanks to the IDC and the Republican Party,” Goldberg says. Though she lost to Carlucci by 8 percentage points, six out of the eight former IDC members were defeated, including the group’s founder and leader, Jeff Klein.
Across the country in California, money is pouring into a state assembly race in the San Francisco Bay Area, breaking local records for what’s shaping up as another contest between the Democratic establishment and progressives. (In the Golden State, the top two candidates from primary elections make it onto the general election ballot, regardless of party.)
Buffy Wicks, a former Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign staffer, received nearly half a million dollars before the primary election from Govern for California, a philanthropist group co-founded by Walmart board chairman Greg Penner and wealthy investors David Crane and Ron Conway. Her progressive challenger, Jovanka Beckles, is a DSA member and Richmond City Council member who is part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a coalition of progressive candidates and elected officials.
“We have this system now where profit comes before the well-being of community and human beings.”
“My campaign is people powered, people first. Above all. I am about putting people over profits,” Beckles says. “We have this system now where profit comes before the well-being of community and human beings. I’m committed to reforming that system.”
Before the June primary, Wicks’s wealthy donors made the state assembly race the most expensive in the district’s history, filling her campaign coffers with more than $1 million. Though Wicks has never before held political office, she managed to win the primary in June with help from wealthy fundraisers and endorsements from Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean; and the Democratic candidate for governor of California this election cycle, Gavin Newsom.
By contrast, Beckles relied on small donors within her district, refusing to accept corporate money. She’s received endorsements from Our Revolution, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Working Families Party.
“I’m up against a candidate who just moved into the district, raised more money than anyone in the history of this district’s elections, and that’s why it’s so important to reform this system to get money out of politics,” Beckles says. “We’ve been so programmed to think money equals victory. But in 2014, Chevron inserted $3 million into a city council election here in Richmond, but when we came together as a community we were able to beat that kind of money, and we can do it again.”
In Colorado, progressive candidate Emily Sirota won the Democratic primary for a state assembly district in Denver despite facing similar hurdles. Planned Parenthood’s political arm poured $20,000 into opposing candidate Ashley Wheeland’s campaign as a response to Sirota’s support for local Planned Parenthood staffers working to unionize. Wheeland, previously a staffer of former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who now represents fracking interests in the state, received an early endorsement from Salazar; Sirota was backed by Our Revolution and Bernie Sanders.
“Progressives need to be very clear about our priorities,” Sirota says. “We are going to challenge the corporate forces defending the status quo, and focus intently on passing policies that economically empower Coloradans—policies like paid family leave, better funding for public education, universal pre-K, stronger workplace protections for employees, and tougher measures to prevent people from being ripped off by drug and health insurance companies. For too long, we’ve been told this agenda is unrealistic—but these are the policy priorities that this moment requires and that the vast majority of the public is rightly demanding.”
After the 2016 election, Sanjay Patel, his wife, Stacey, and several other Bernie Sanders supporters started running for local Democratic Party positions in Brevard County, outside of Orlando in Central Florida. Within this predominantly Republican area, there was little infrastructure or activity among Democrats, allowing for an easy progressive takeover of the party. Since then, Democrats have managed to win three municipal elections in the county, despite the fact that more than 80 percent of voters in some of those races were registered as Republicans.
“In the six-week period leading up to those elections, we knocked on more doors than any other county in the state of Florida,” Patel tells me. “Over 16,000 doors.”
“We knocked on over 16,000 doors.”
This November, Patel is running as the Democratic candidate for Congress in Florida’s Eighth District against incumbent Republican Congressman Bill Posey. “We’ve suffered from a lack of people knowing what we’ve stood for,” Patel says of the Florida Democratic Party failing to compete in several regions throughout the state. “If we really want to transform the country and make sure we’re fighting for environmental, economic, and social justice for all, we need to embody those values in our actions.”
In Georgia’s First Congressional District, progressives have suffered from a similar lack of Democratic Party energy. In 2016, the party didn’t even bother to field a candidate to run against incumbent Republican Congressman Earl “Buddy” Carter.
But the Democratic Congressional candidate in the district this year, Lisa Ring, is trying to change that. After serving as co-chair of the Georgia Delegation for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, she took over as chair of the Bryan County Democratic Committee and became vice chair of the rural caucus for the Georgia Democratic Party, where she has helped build three more county Democratic committees in her district.
“I found the First District really had a void of leadership politically,” Ring says. “Often there were seats unchallenged, it was just a Republican incumbent winning every election. We have seventeen counties [in the First District] and only a few had county committees and those that existed were not working together. So there was no organization and no leadership.”
Today, Ring says, “We’ve made it OK to be a Democrat and a progressive. I disagree with the centrist approach. I think what we’ve seen in Georgia is that’s a losing strategy and what you end up doing is not inspiring anybody.”
She dismisses the notion that her Congressional district isn’t winnable for a Democrat. The Cook Partisan Index rates the district a +9 in favor of Republicans, but Ring argues the rating is skewed due to a lack of a Democratic candidate running last election cycle.
“We increased Democratic turnout in the primary by over 12,000 votes, while Republican turnout decreased by 18,000 votes,” Ring says. “We can flip this district. There are a lot of factors to consider, and I think people around the country are going to be surprised.”