A Democratic Spring: 12 Left Challengers Taking On the Party Establishment in 2018

The scattering of challenges to the Democratic establishment after Bernie Sanders’ run has become a tidal wave.

Theo Anderson May 14, 2018

Art Direction/Design by Rachel K. Dooley, Illustration by Lorelyn Medina

The shock of Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion inspired an orga­nized, deter­mined resis­tance on many fronts and in many forms. One could be called a demo­c­ra­t­ic spring”: a long-ger­mi­nat­ing rebel­lion with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that gained strength with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 pres­i­den­tial bid and might just save the with­ered insti­tu­tion from itself.

Primaries, more than general elections or party conventions, are the soil in which party transformation takes root.

The Left has sprout­ed an inde­pen­dent elec­toral infra­struc­ture, includ­ing the for­ma­tion of new groups like Our Rev­o­lu­tion, Jus­tice Democ­rats, Indi­vis­i­ble and Brand New Con­gress; the invig­o­ra­tion of exist­ing polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions like the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty; and a shift toward greater elec­toral engage­ment by groups like People’s Action and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.

Anoth­er trend, pro­pelled by Trump’s grotesque misog­y­ny and the emer­gence of the #MeToo move­ment, is a surge in the num­ber of women run­ning for office. As of mid-April, 331 women had filed to run, eas­i­ly beat­ing the old record of 298, set in 2012. Of those, Democ­rats out­num­ber Repub­li­cans 248 to 83.

Yet anoth­er is the gal­va­niza­tion of young peo­ple. A March sur­vey by Harvard’s Insti­tute of Pol­i­tics found that 37 per­cent of peo­ple under 30 def­i­nite­ly plan to vote this fall, the most inter­est ever record­ed in the poll, with Democ­rats dri­ving the surge. In 2014, only 23 per­cent of respon­dents under 30 had def­i­nite plans to vote.

Remov­ing Trump from office, whether through the impeach­ment process or the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, is a high pri­or­i­ty for pro­gres­sives. But when Trump is final­ly gone, an even more daunt­ing chal­lenge will remain: cre­at­ing a polit­i­cal sys­tem that rep­re­sents the peo­ple and the pub­lic interest.

This goal will not be achieved overnight, to say the least. It’s worth remem­ber­ing that the cur­rent incar­na­tion of the GOP began to take shape in the mid-1970s, with the fusion of cor­po­rate inter­ests and a resur­gent Chris­t­ian Right. At the time, the Repub­li­can vision of break­ing unions, redis­trib­ut­ing wealth to the wealth­i­est, slash­ing cor­po­rate tax­es, gut­ting the pub­lic sphere and pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion must have seemed an impos­si­ble moun­tain to climb. Reform­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty into a vehi­cle for a pro­gres­sive agen­da is no less daunt­ing, giv­en the way cor­po­rate mon­ey has swamped and deformed our democracy.

But a key les­son of the GOP’s rad­i­cal shift to the right is that par­ty trans­for­ma­tion is pos­si­ble, and pri­maries, more than gen­er­al elec­tions or con­ven­tions, are the soil in which par­ty trans­for­ma­tion takes root. Pri­ma­ry can­di­dates often offer com­pet­ing visions for the future, and chal­lengers to an incum­bent must either affirm or deny the party’s sta­tus quo.

Sanders’ 2016 bid is a case study on the effect a seri­ous chal­lenger can have. His rel­a­tive­ly nar­row loss to an icon of estab­lish­ment pol­i­tics, Hillary Clin­ton, sug­gests the depth of anger and des­per­a­tion for reform with­in a broad seg­ment of the par­ty. The impli­ca­tions of the Sanders cam­paign will unfold for many years, but one clear effect is the spread of pol­i­cy ideas push­ing the par­ty left, includ­ing Medicare for All, a $15 min­i­mum wage, tuition-free col­lege, free or sub­si­dized child care, crim­i­nal jus­tice and cam­paign finance reform, pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion, and poli­cies address­ing eco­nom­ic inequality.

The 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form at least nod­ded to many of these ideas, large­ly because of Sanders’ influ­ence. Over the past 18 months, in a series of state par­ty con­ven­tions and spe­cial elec­tions, these ideas have been the dis­tin­guish­ing mark between pro­gres­sives and estab­lish­ment Democ­rats. The cur­rent midterm con­tests are the most force­ful and com­pre­hen­sive expres­sion of this ongo­ing chal­lenge and will set the stage for epic bat­tles to define the par­ty in 2020 and far beyond.

The nation­al news media have spot­light­ed and obsessed over a few races, most notably Marie New­man in Illi­nois, Stacey Abrams in Geor­gia, Randy Bryce in Wis­con­sin, Cyn­thia Nixon in New York and Ben Jeal­ous in Mary­land. All mer­it the atten­tion, but the focus on a few high-pro­file can­di­dates obscures the pas­sion for change and the range of issues inspir­ing a pletho­ra of pro­gres­sives to run — in defi­ance of Trump, sure­ly, but also in response to the fail­ures of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

The dozen can­di­dates for state and fed­er­al offices pro­filed in the fol­low­ing pages have attract­ed rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle nation­al press, but they offer a wide win­dow on the mul­ti-dimen­sion­al move­ment to trans­form the par­ty. In a U.S. House race, for exam­ple, Sarah Smith pri­or­i­tizes an anti­war stance. In state leg­is­la­ture races, Jovan­ka Beck­les focus­es on afford­able hous­ing and Alessan­dra Biag­gi calls out cam­paign finance cor­rup­tion. Some will win and some will lose, but all are aim­ing to help grow orga­ni­za­tions, coali­tions and a grass­roots base that have the pow­er to fun­da­men­tal­ly change the sta­tus quo — begin­ning inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and radi­at­ing out.

Whether this momen­tum will amount to a polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion is unknow­able. One painful truth under­scored by the Trump era is that, though the arc of his­to­ry is long, it doesn’t bend toward any def­i­nite con­clu­sion. And yet, pri­ma­ry by pri­ma­ry, issue by issue, per­haps pro­gres­sives can bend it ever so slight­ly toward jus­tice once again.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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