Despite El-Sayed’s Loss, The Left Scored Some Huge Wins—and Showed It’s Winning the War

From Kansas to Michigan to Missouri, voters proved that left politics can win in the Midwest. Get ready for the coming wave.

Theo Anderson

After being endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, James Thompson sailed to victory in Kansas. (J Pat Carter for the Washington Post)

Tuesday’s primaries were like the midpoint of a novel. There was plenty of plot development without much resolution — but you can see where things are heading.

The elections advanced several plot points that are key to the progressive movement’s fate in the general elections—and its prospects well beyond November.

A number of the highest-visibility races were either a draw or a disappointment for progressives and Democrats. Left challenger Abdul El-Sayed lost his Democratic primary race for governor in Michigan. And Democrat Danny O’Connor narrowly lost his special election for the House of Representatives in Ohio.

Yet the elections did advance several plot points that are key to the progressive movement’s fate in the general elections — and its prospects well beyond November.

The last two years have clarified the stakes. Donald Trump tells a conservative story about how America was once great, how we lost it, and how we can get it back. That story is rooted in misogyny, bigotry, degradation of the environment, freedom for corporations to abuse their power, and complete disregard for workers’ rights and welfare. He is explicit about the movement’s intentions.

Tuesday’s elections delivered a powerful response to Trump’s narrative. And they served to disprove the notion that left-wing policies can’t win in the Midwest.

Kansas has been ground zero for right-wing ambitions and zealotry over the past half century. It’s the home of the Koch brothers — the libertarian oil tycoons behind a wide swath of anti-union and anti-environmental campaigns. And it’s the site of a recent experiment by Sam Brownback, the former governor, to juice the economy by slashing taxes. The experiment failed, spectacularly. Brownback is now in hiding as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.” Whatever that means.

Kansas appears to have seen enough. A progressive civil rights attorney, James Thompson, won the nomination in the Fourth District, on a platform calling for Medicare for all, marijuana legalization, an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences, investment in programs to end homelessness and a robustly progressive platform across the board.

In July, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for both Thompson and Brent Welder, who ran in the Third District. Welder narrowly lost — but he lost to Sharice Davids, a former mixed martial arts fighter who would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress if she wins in November. And that seems like a distinct possibility. The Republican incumbent, Kevin Yoder, isn’t polling well in a district that Hillary Clinton actually carried in 2016.

Organized labor is a second target that punched back on Tuesday. There was the high-profile, high-stakes case of Missouri, where voters soundly defeated anti-union right to work” legislation that was passed by the state legislature. Unions were all in on defeating Prop A,” organizing door-knocking campaigns to educate voters and vastly outraising corporate groups that supported the law. Missouri would have been the 28th right to work” state.

But it wasn’t just Missouri. There was good news for organized labor across several of Tuesday’s races. El-Sayed’s loss was disappointing for progressives, for example, but the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer — who supports such policies as a $15 minimum wage and repealing right to work — has broad and deep support from most of the state’s unions. That support is part of the reason she won by a wide margin. That support will be crucial to her prospects in November against a Trump aligned Republican, Bill Schuette who is seeking to fill the shoes of Rick Snyder, another Tea Party, anti-union Republican governor with low approval ratings. The race is winnable, and it would be a big boost for unions and Democrats.

And while El-Sayed didn’t make it over the finish line, he ran an impressive race, closing the gap in the final weeks of the campaign and injecting a bold left-wing vision into the primary, with his laser focus on implementing Medicare for all, improving environmental safety for Michigan residents and expanding the power of working people. We have likely not seen the last of his political career, after all he is only 33.

Women and minorities were the third target that registered a strong response to Trump and the GOP’s right-wing assaults. Women won both of the Democratic primaries in states with gubernatorial races — Michigan and Kansas. And they won across a wide array of Congressional races. In Michigan, for example, women won eight of fourteen contests for House seats.

One of them was Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American who won the nomination in an uncompetitive district, Michigan’s 13th, and will become the first Muslim woman in Congress, after becoming only the second Muslim woman to be elected to a state legislature. (She served in Michigan’s legislature from 2008 to 2014.) She ran on a decidely left platform and was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats.

Tlaib once got booted from a Trump rally for yelling at the president, demanding to know whether he’d ever read the Constitution.

That was in 2016. Now, two years later, Tlaib is set to become a member of Congress. It wasn’t an earth-shaking win, and it didn’t attract the same spotlight as Ocasio-Cortez’s race. But it does put another democratic socialist in office. Another woman. Another religious minority.

The plot gradually thickens, and you can begin to see more clearly where this story is leading. 

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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