Bernie Won

A dominant Election Day for Sanders-backed progressives

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Kathy Willens/AP Photo

In New York, Kentucky, and Virginia, ballots are still being counted. The slow count comes as no surprise, as voting systems recently overhauled by coronavirus won’t report final, much less official, results for days. And yet, in New York and elsewhere, Tuesday night was a dominant showing for progressives, who handily won numerous upset victories in high-profile races, building on what’s become a triumphant election season for a resurgent left in the past few weeks.

Going into Tuesday, there were a number of Democratic primaries that progressives hoped to be competitive in. In safe blue House districts in New York, in particular, where the real contests do not happen in the general election but in the primary, there were a handful of seats that seemed to be within reach. In districts where left-wing groups expected their candidates would keep things close, they won by significant margins. And even in districts where they looked like long shots, some upsets are currently brewing that may still be too close to call.

The headline race of the evening came from New York’s 16th District, where Jamaal Bowman took on Eliot Engel, a standard-issue liberal on domestic policy but a foreign-policy hawk who voted for the Iraq War and against the Iran deal. Engel had the cavalry called in on his behalf after polls showed Bowman was gaining on him; he closed the race out with a who’s who of Democratic-establishment endorsements, including Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn, Adam Schiff, and, laughably, the Congressional Black Caucus (which frequently is more an incumbent protection society than anything else). Even despite that support, and a sizable financial advantage, polls showed Engel trailing by as much as 10 percent going into Election Day.

Jamaal Bowman will arrive as one of the brightest progressive lights in Washington, an advocate of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and meaningful police reform.

The result wasn’t even that close. Though there are still ballots to be counted, the race was effectively called when Bowman cracked open a 62-35 lead Wednesday morning. The possibility of a Bowman victory seemed like a long shot just a few weeks ago; now, the former middle school principal will head to Congress in 2021 having felled the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee by 27 points. Bowman will arrive as one of the brightest progressive lights in Washington, an advocate of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and meaningful police reform. You might even call him a democratic socialist. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi loses a close ally and the Israel lobby loses one of its most reliable supporters.

That result alone would have sent shock waves through the New York Democratic Party, but progressives weren’t done yet. In neighboring NY-17, Mondaire Jones, another Medicare for All and Green New Deal supporter, triumphed by such a significant margin that the result was called early Wednesday morning as well, after Jones had raced out to a 20-plus percent lead over a fairly crowded field. That cluster included David Carlucci, a onetime member of New York’s Independent Democratic Conference, a group that helped Republicans maintain control of the state Senate despite a Democratic majority.

Jones would also be the first openly gay black member of Congress, if not for the result in New York’s 15th District, the most left-leaning district in the country. Alarm bells were sounding after late polling showed Ruben Diaz Sr., a vociferous homophobe and self-described conservative in his late seventies, holding a narrow margin over a crowded field. But Diaz came in a distant third, while Ritchie Torres, a gay Afro-Latino New York City Councilmember from the South Bronx, won the seat handily. Torres’s progressive bona fides may be up for debate after he helped torpedo a police reform bill, though he was also the council’s leading advocate for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who live in public housing. Some progressives consider him one of their own, and he was endorsed by such left-leaning House Democrats as California’s Katie Porter.

In NY-14, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose primary run two years ago inspired many of the aforementioned races, faced her first re-election challenge. For months, conservative commentators suggested that AOC was in real danger of losing, having gone too far with her opposition of Amazon’s publicly subsidized corporate headquarters in Queens and her advocacy for various progressive causes. Wall Street donors sought to make it so, helping raise over $2 million for the campaign of Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a conservative commentator for CNBC and onetime Republican. But AOC crushed her opponent, winning re-election with an overwhelming 50-point margin.

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Further down the ballot in New York, progressives and Democratic Socialists of America–backed candidates romped as well. Jessica Gonzáles-Rojas held a commanding lead over incumbent Michael DenDekker for the 34th District State Assembly seat in Queens, while socialist Jabari Brisport secured a sizable advantage over his opponent as the 25th District’s likely new state senator in Brooklyn.

Some New York races remain too close to call and might stay that way until July. In New York’s 12th Congressional District, the fabled “Silk Stocking” district of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, insurgent Suraj Patel, a former Obama staffer and Green New Deal advocate, remains locked in a dead heat with incumbent Carolyn Maloney, whose tough-on-crime track record looked like it might be a liability going forward, but had not been the object of the progressive activism seen in NY-15, NY-16, or NY-17. The progressive insurgency showed up unannounced in her district as well, however, with the Patel campaign going so far as to issue a statement Tuesday night saying they expect to win the seat when all the absentee votes are finally counted.

Another race that remains uncertain is Kentucky’s closely watched Democratic Senate primary. Early returns showed Amy McGrath, the establishment pick with seemingly infinite money at her disposal, with a narrow eight-point lead, but with only 15 percent of the vote reported. Most of that vote comes from conservative, rural counties that McGrath expected to dominate. Louisville’s Jefferson County has yet to report, though challenger Charles Booker’s exit polling showed him winning 80 percent of the vote there. If that’s indeed the case, it’s going to be very difficult for McGrath to hang on. Booker may well have pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern Democratic politics. He’d become the first person to beat a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pick in more than a decade, despite a gargantuan funding deficit. That result, too, would shake the party’s foundations.

Tuesday’s resounding performance from progressives builds on a trend that has been emerging in recent weeks, in which left-wing challengers have returned with a vengeance after the Bernie Sanders campaign was downed in March. In early June, progressives and democratic socialists alike scored major victories in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico, sweeping out conservative and moderate incumbents at the state and local level. And while Sanders himself, who was on the ballot in New York and Kentucky, did not win either state’s presidential race, the night was a triumph for him as well. Sanders raised more than $750,000 for congressional and local candidates in Tuesday’s primaries, and texted more than 120,000 of his supporters to promote the progressives he endorsed in races in New York and Kentucky. He threw his weight behind Mondaire Jones, Jamaal Bowman, Charles Booker, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all of whom went on to win.

The same can be said of AOC herself, who has quickly become a political kingmaker in New York: She endorsed Bowman, Jones, and Booker and asked her supporters to help their candidacies. Sanders’s senatorial colleague Elizabeth Warren also backed the progressive insurgents and raised money on their behalf. The only Sanders/AOC endorsee who did not win was Samelys López in New York’s 15th District, though she did handily outperform recent polling that had her at just 2 percent a few weeks ago. She doubtless lost some votes to Torres, the eventual winner, when voters feared that splitting the progressive vote would enable the reactionary Diaz to squeak out a victory.

Left-wing challengers have returned with a vengeance after the Bernie Sanders campaign was downed in March.

Credit for the progressives’ victories can also be shared by groups like Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, and the Sunrise Movement, all of which have shown they are an enduring force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party, while the massive wave of activism that has followed the murder of George Floyd certainly raised the profile of progressive African American candidates like Bowman and Booker.

Attention now turns to a handful of upcoming races where progressives might parlay Tuesday’s momentum into further victories. One such race will be the June 30 Democratic Senate primary in Colorado, where establishment pick John Hickenlooper is flailing badly against progressive challenger Andrew Romanoff, who is backed by Sunrise, among other groups. In July, Dr. Arati Kreibich’s campaign against incumbent New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a conservative Democrat who votes with Trump more than any other House Dem, is likely to be a battle as well. And in Massachusetts, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s left-wing challenge of House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal, one of the delegation’s most corporate-friendly members, could be a showdown as well.

Many of this week’s primary votes remain to be counted, and caveats are noted. But almost all of these progressive victories were considered long shots just a handful of weeks ago. Even without the presidency, the progressive insurgency that looked to have lost its way in early 2020 is back in a big way.

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