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Even the most dispiriting election results in the last few years have had important bright spots for the Left, and this year’s deeply unusual midterm election result is no different. In a cycle that transformed overnight from predictions of a Democratic bloodbath to widespread Republican despair, the Left has achieved some major victories that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Resizing the Squad
The major top-line success for the Left this election is the addition of several new insurgent candidates who, like “the Squad” of 2018, were backed by progressive outside groups — notably the Working Families Party (WFP) and Justice Democrats — with little or no support from established party networks. The total of such members now rises to twelve, after four such insurgent candidates sailed to victory in safe blue seats for which they won primaries earlier this year. This year’s crop is Summer Lee (PA-12), Greg Casar (TX-35), Delia Ramirez (IL-03), and Maxwell Frost (FL-10).
This group is notable, among other things, for its seriousness commitments to left-wing policy.
Take the thirty-three-year-old Casar, a three-term Austin City Council member who this March romped to victory in a four-way race with more than 60 percent of the vote. Though hailing from an affluent family, Casar was politicized on the left in college and became policy director for the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, where, among other things, he helped mobile-home residents organize.
In his first few years on the Austin City Council, Casar successfully led the push to raise city workers’ minimum wage, and also authored ordinances that outlaw requirements for disclosure of jobseekers’ criminal histories and that mandate paid sick leave for workers. (The latter triggered years of furious business efforts to kill the measure, which finally succeeded in 2020, when the state supreme court struck it down.) He was particularly active in the fight over Austin’s notorious housing affordability issues, and successfully spearheaded measures to top up the city’s affordable housing fund, provide assistance to tenants thrown out of demolished rentals, raise subsidies for affordable housing, mandate units in new developments for low-income renters, and put in place a sixty-day eviction moratorium at the start of the pandemic.
In Illinois, housing affordability issues also loomed large for Delia Ramirez in her four years in the Illinois statehouse. Ramirez, thirty-nine, whose working-class upbringing as the daughter of immigrant parents partly drove her decision to run, had pushed for bolder action on the affordability issue from the beginning. In 2019, she called for a sixfold increase to the affordable housing funding proposed by Governor J. B. Pritzker, and she teamed with a Republican colleague to propose a tax credit for affordable housing construction. Ramirez’s emergency housing assistance bill, which temporarily stayed some foreclosures, sealed eviction records into 2022, and allocated money for renters and homeowners struggling during the pandemic. It was ultimately signed into law by Pritzker in May 2021.
Other successes included leading the charge in 2019 to codify abortion rights statewide, regardless of federal law, and spearheading a provision expanding Medicaid to undocumented immigrants, making Illinois the first state in the country to do so. In the primary for Illinois’s Third District, Ramirez ended up trouncing her nearest rival, a two-term alderman who racked up major endorsements, by a more than 40 point margin.
Similar issues animated Lee, the thirty-four-year-old two-term state representative who narrowly won a five-way race to become the first black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress. Hailing from the former steel town of Braddock — which was governed for thirteen years by fellow Berniecrat and now senator-elect John Fetterman — Lee had already taken on the establishment twice and won. She’d knocked off a ten-term incumbent and member of a Pittsburgh political dynasty in 2018 to become one of four candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to enter the statehouse that year, and put away an establishment-backed challenger to win reelection two years later.
Once in the House, Lee faced an uphill climb owing to more than a decade of GOP control of both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In an unfriendly legislature, she protested and used her bully pulpit to get her political priorities on the table. These have included a COVID moratorium on evictions and police reform legislation. The latter was advanced during the 2020 George Floyd protests, when she used parliamentary pressure to force the GOP leadership to take up the measure. As a result, Pennsylvania now has a far from perfect but landmark misconduct database for police hiring.
The victories of these insurgent candidates are especially important in a house that will have a slim, possibly single-digit, majority, meaning Republicans and significant numbers of corporate Democrats will likely collaborate on a host of retrograde policies that will need to be blocked.
The other major headline-grabbing victory for progressives was that of John Fetterman, who decisively won his Senate race in Pennsylvania with a populist campaign. True, he did move to the center on certain issues — most notably fracking, which he’d once deemed “a stain on our state,” calling for a moratorium — but flip-flopped in order to be competitive in a state that has been officially called “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” Still, with maybe one exception, Fetterman appears to stand to the left of every other Democratic Senate candidate this cycle, backing sentencing reform, marijuana legalization, moving toward universal health care, raising taxes on the rich, and enacting a $15 minimum wage, among other things.
That one exception is Vermont representative Peter Welch, who easily won the race for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Senator Patrick Leahy. A Bernie Sanders ally since the Vermont socialist’s days as mayor of Burlington, Welch has long been, and remains, a full-throated advocate for Medicare for All and lower prescription drug prices, and cosponsored the Green New Deal resolution. Despite an outrageous scandal that saw Welch pushing to protect opioid makers’ interests while trading stocks in those same companies, his addition to the Senate, together with Fetterman, will help tilt the upper chamber somewhat to the left, and will give the usually isolated Sanders two progressive allies.
Also winning in Vermont, this time in a race for the US House, was the leader of its state senate, Becca Balint, who was endorsed by Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal en route to taking the House seat previously held by Welch. Balint likewise ran on backing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, and has won plaudits for helping to codify abortion rights at the state level, negotiating a solution to a pension crisis with unions at the table, and working to end qualified immunity for police (though only a watered-down bill on the issue ended up passing). Balint also fought for years to raise Vermont’s minimum wage to $15 and to put in place paid family and medical leave, but both were repeatedly vetoed by the state’s Republican governor after passing in the legislature.
Fetterman and Balint were both endorsed by WFP, which had a particularly good election cycle after making its first concerted foray into races at the federal level. WFP knocked on an estimated four hundred thousand doors in Pennsylvania, as well as holding a thousand-person phone bank there on Election Day. Other major races it was involved in, like Karen Bass’s mayoral bid in Los Angeles, have also gone its way.
Success for socialists
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) had a pretty good election night too. The group has consistently gotten more and more of its members elected at the local and state levels in every election since 2016.
This cycle, sixteen of DSA’s thirty endorsed candidates won their elections. Though three of those winners were House incumbents Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Rashida Tlaib, most of the losing candidates fell in primary elections earlier in the year.
DSA candidates Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martínez beat incumbents in the Los Angeles City Council seats they ran for, promising to deal with the city’s homelessness crisis through more affordable housing, and stressing preventive measures over incarceration to deal with crime. The organization estimated it knocked on more than thirty-five thousand doors to get Soto-Martínez elected in the primary and another fifteen hundred in the general. It continues the organization’s success in reshaping the city’s politics, with the DSA-endorsed Nithya Raman having already won a seat on the council two years ago.
Wisconsin is getting its first socialist state assembly members in more than three decades in the figures of Darrin Madison and Ryan Clancy, who similarly stressed public investment and mental-health funding as a solution to crime, as well as measures like boosting affordable housing, funding public transit, progressive taxation, and better wages and conditions for workers. Elizabeth Fiedler and Rick Krajewski will enter the Pennsylvania statehouse on similar platforms, including backing a ban on fracking.
Colorado likewise will see two more DSA-backed members in its statehouse: Javier Mabrey, an anti-eviction advocate who campaigned on tenants’ rights, and affordable housing in particular, and Elisabeth Epps, who, like Hernandez, is a prison abolitionist, and the founder of a nonprofit paying out cash bail for those too poor to afford bond in Denver. New York has likewise elected Sarahana Shrestha and Kristen Gonzalez and to its state assembly and senate, respectively, with the latter further entrenching socialists’ political influence in Astoria, Queens, where they have officials at every level of elected office.
Rounding out the list are Erika Uyterhoeven, who made treating affordable housing as a right rather than a commodity central to her reelection campaign for the Massachusetts House, Gabriel Acevero in Maryland, where he had waged a high-profile battle to allow the public to access police misconduct records, and Rachel Ventura, who heads to the Illinois’s state senate calling for a tax on stock trades while lowering property taxes and promising to reduce wealth inequality and invest in infrastructure and renewables.
Not on the DSA’s list but victorious was Anthony Quezada, who will sit on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and has promised to use the position to protect and expand the county’s public health system, its natural resources, and tackle homelessness. Quezada’s win builds on the significant gains the socialist movement has made in Chicago over the past half decade or so.
One clear theme running through all of these candidates is a focus on homelessness, tenants’ rights, and affordable housing, likewise a top priority for socialist slates in both New York and Chicago in recent years. While socialists may struggle to enact big-ticket priorities like universal health care at the state and local levels, housing is a policy area they can more easily intervene in directly. Given the surge in housing costs all across the country ― and, as we’ll see, the victories of ballot measures aimed at dealing with these crises ― this is clearly a potent and winning issue.
Progressivism on the ballot
Ballot measures were another front on which DSA saw success. Six of the fourteen votes the organization endorsed ended up going its way.
Voters defied the restaurant industry in Washington, DC, to pass Initiative 82, which mandates that tipped workers get paid the district’s minimum wage regardless of what they make in tips. The public also voted down draconian abortion restrictions in both Montana and Kentucky, and voted overwhelmingly in favor of Illinois’s Workers’ Rights Amendment (WRA), which would write into the state’s constitution a ban on right-to-work laws while guaranteeing the right to organize and collectively bargain. One wrinkle: the WRA at this point is just short of the 60 percent of votes on the measure that it needed to pass under one optional set of procedures; its fortunes now rest on getting 50 percent approval from everyone who voted in the election.
There were mixed results in Portland, Maine, where DSA had success passing progressive ballot measures in 2020, and where it pushed three ballot measures this year. Initiative B, which would have put restrictions on short-term rentals to halt the growth of Airbnb and similar businesses, lost with 55 percent of the vote going to the no side. Initiative D, which would have raised the minimum wage to $18 an hour by 2025 and let tipped workers get the same rate of pay as everyone else, only got 38 percent of the vote. But initiative C, which puts into place a ninety-day notice for lease termination and other tenant protections, passed with 54 percent of the vote.
Results were similarly mixed in California, where a Pasadena measure setting up rent control and eviction protections is narrowly winning, with votes still being tallied, and a San Francisco measure to move mayoral elections to presidential election years has passed, while another to tax owners of vacant residential units is currently lead in the count. An added property tax to fund the City College of San Francisco failed, as did a new business tax in the city to fund childcare for preschoolers, while an empty homes tax in Santa Cruz is currently trailing. It was a similar story in Colorado, where a tax on landlords to finance an eviction defense fund was sturdily rejected.
Looking beyond ballot measures pushed by DSA, affordable housing was everywhere, particularly in California, which is years into a severe housing crisis. Los Angeles passed a mansion tax, Berkeley passed an empty homes tax, and Oakland created an affordable housing fund. Beyond California, similar measures passed with sometimes huge majorities in Austin, Columbus, Kansas City, Palm Beach County, Charlotte, and Buncombe County, North Carolina ― places all situated in red states.
In fact, this election continued the trend of voters in red states expressing support for progressive politics. South Dakotans finally approved Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, becoming the seventh state to do so by ballot measure, two years after they voted to legalize recreational weed. (That last one was blocked by the courts afterward, though, and voters have now rejected it at the ballot box in a second vote.)
Nebraskans voted to raise their minimum wage from the current measly $9 and hour to $15 by 2026, two years after voters in Florida ― which just handed Republicans a major win ― did the same. Though more of a purplish state, 54 percent voters in Nevada similarly chose to raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2024 and eliminate the stipulation that lets employers pay workers less if they have health insurance, at the same time that they just threw out their Democratic governor and are close to doing the same to one of their Democratic senators.
Other high-profile measures that won were Arizona’s Proposition 209 (with 72 percent of the vote), which sets limits on the collection of and interest rates on medical debt, and Massachusetts’ Fair Share Amendment, which raises taxes on millionaires to pay for public investment. Meanwhile, Missouri voted 53 percent to legalize recreational marijuana, the only of four conservative states (Arkansas and the Dakotas being the others) to do so this year. With Maryland doing the same, weed is now legal in half of the United States, which should hopefully force some rethinking around the Biden administration’s so-far conservative approach on the substance. Colorado, meanwhile, has decriminalized psychedelics.
Relatedly, Tennessee, Oregon, and Vermont all voted with robust majorities to finally outlaw involuntary servitude for those convicted of crimes — thus closing an exemption that was written into the original Thirteenth Amendment of 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States. In fact, conservative Tennessee voted in favor of doing so by a much wider margin (a hair under 80 percent) than liberal Oregon (55 percent). Louisiana, meanwhile, voted firmly to keep it in place. And in Alabama, voters decided to ratify the state’s rewritten constitution, which, among other things, takes out racist language providing for segregated schools, poll taxes, and a ban on interracial marriage, which were invalidated by courts long ago.
No red wave
These results point to another notable trend. While Republicans and the Right more generally have seized on the issue of crime ― pushing liberal officeholders to the right on policing in the process, and fomenting genuine backlash against some left-wing candidates over the issue of cutting police budgets ― the midterms were far from a rebuke of progressive ideas on criminal justice.
Progressive prosecutors won all over the country, including in red states, despite a Republican messaging strategy going into the election that targeted them as stand-ins for Democrats’ supposedly soft-on-crime policies. Perhaps most head-turning was the win of Kimberly Graham, who ran for district attorney in Polk County, Iowa, on ending low-level marijuana convictions and eliminating cash bail for many nonviolent offenders. Graham trounced her Republican opponent, a thirty-year “tough on crime” incumbent, by 14 points, one of the few Democrats to survive a red wave that did come to Iowa.
Reformist prosecutors likewise won in Dallas, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, and Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police had sparked the massive racial justice protests of 2020. There public defender Mary Moriarty likewise beat a “tough on crime,” police-backed Republican on a platform of launching a police accountability division, becoming the lead prosecutor for Hennepin County, in which Minneapolis sits.
Zooming out to wider Minnesota, Sanders ally and attorney general Keith Ellison survived a stiff challenge from a corporate lawyer and political novice who spent the campaign attacking him over crimes the Minnesota AG’s office largely isn’t responsible for prosecuting. Ellison, who had led the high-profile prosecution of the police officer who killed Floyd and was accused by his opponent of supporting defunding the police, presented himself as “the people’s lawyer,” stressing his record on consumer protection and corporate accountability, while also pointing to his prosecutions of violent crimes.
The new insurgent members-to-be all have records of standing up to law enforcement, whether Frost’s participation in the 2020 protests, Casar’s push to reallocate funding from the Austin Police Department, or Lee holding up the state legislature to get police accountability taken up. Meanwhile, despite being hammered on crime by Dr Oz, Fetterman narrowly won among those who saw it as their top issue — this for a candidate who has taken broadly progressive positions on marijuana, sentencing reform, and dealing with nonviolent offenders. Hernandez and Epps show that even candidates who self-identify as abolitionists can win races.
Socialist candidates often had a carefully crafted message on crime, running less on defunding the police than on police accountability, noncarceral sentences for nonviolent offenders, and promising to address the recent rise in crime rates through social investment. Of course, not every criminal justice reformer won. A reformist candidate lost in Plymouth County, Massachusetts; Alabama voters expanded the list of crimes one can be denied bail for; and scandal-plagued sheriffs still won reelection.
Crime remains a tricky issue for the Left. But broadly, progressive stances on criminal justice, particularly when it comes to treatment of low-level offenses and holding bad cops to account, clearly continue to have purchase among voters ― or at least aren’t automatically electoral poison.
Unfortunately, some left-wing victories came at the expense of the cause of Palestinian justice. Having watched another Sanders ally, Nina Turner, get both of her congressional campaigns sunk by a flood of outside spending from pro-Israel groups, several candidates moved to the center on Israel and Palestine.
Fetterman vowed to “lean in” on the US-Israel relationship, and said he was “not really a progressive in that sense,” saying he was “dismayed” by the Squad’s vote against Israeli missile defense funding last year. He was endorsed by Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), the group that defeated Turner, which put together a six-figure mail program to help him beat Mehmet Oz.
In Texas, Casar took himself out of the running for Austin DSA’s endorsement after upsetting members by publicly distancing himself from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and pledging his commitment to US military aid to the country, prompting one AIPAC donor to remark it was “a very good example of how [the spending] is working.” In Florida, Frost disappointed the Palestinian activists he had stood with early on by modulating his position on the conflict, reportedly explicitly as a way to keep DMFI from entering the primary. Elsewhere, progressives Marie Newman and Andy Levin were defeated in their primaries thanks in part to DMFI money.
One notable exception was Lee in Pennsylvania, who overcame big AIPAC spending in both the primary, where a deluge of AIPAC-funded negative ads saw her massive early lead vanish, and the general election. But Lee only survived the first race thanks to an all-hands-on-deck intervention by progressive outside groups like Justice Democrats at the last minute, which depleted the resources they had to spend on other races. The organization’s executive director, Alexandra Rojas, has pointed to this to stress the need for progressives to get serious about the money race, something that would not just help candidates win but prevent them from taking centrist positions for fear of being outspent.
A good result
The socialist movement has had to swallow its share of bitter losses in the electoral arena these past few years, like Bernie Sanders’s 2020 Democratic primary defeat and Buffalo mayor Byron Brown’s victory over India Walton. But the reality is that every election since 2016 has brought with it new, important victories for the Left.
Between Fetterman’s Senate win, the new insurgents in the House, and the spate of state and local wins around the country, the 2022 midterms have surely been one of the most successful elections for the Left over the past six years. Now the question is what those who have won elected office do with their newfound power and stronger numbers.
This story was first published at Jacobin.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.