Progressives Have Won the Battle to Redefine What an “Establishment Candidate” Is

Recent elections show that in 2018, centrists no longer reign supreme.

Sean McElwee

Stacey Abrams had the support of organizations that spanned the gambit of the “establishment” while running on a strong progressive platform. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

On Tues­day night, four states held pri­ma­ry elec­tions: Arkansas, Geor­gia and Ken­tucky host­ed their first rounds of vot­ing and Texas com­plet­ed its run-off.

In many ways, the Democratic establishment has accepted that supporting positions like Medicare for All, legal marijuana and a $15 minimum wage is where the base is at, and has essentially conceded the point.

The elec­tions across the South saw a broad range of out­comes, from Stacey Abrams’ win in Geor­gia to Lau­ra Moser’s loss and Gina Oritz Jones and Col­in Allred’s vic­to­ries in Texas. Though pun­dits have tried to impose an estab­lish­ment ver­sus insur­gents nar­ra­tive on most of the 2018 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries, what has large­ly occurred is that pro­gres­sives have won the bat­tle to rede­fine what an estab­lish­ment can­di­date” actu­al­ly is.

Abrams had the sup­port of orga­ni­za­tions that spanned the gam­bit of the estab­lish­ment” while run­ning on a strong pro­gres­sive plat­form and her cam­paign cen­tered mobi­liz­ing black and low-income vot­ers, dis­play­ing a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent the­o­ry of pol­i­tics than the dom­i­nant view in past elec­tions of court­ing mid­dle-class mod­er­ates, which has large­ly proved unsuc­cess­ful for Democ­rats. As I not­ed before the elec­tion, there real­ly was no wing of the par­ty that opposed Abrams, mak­ing the nation­al media cov­er­age of the race some­what baffling.

Jones (a les­bian Fil­ip­ina who sup­ports Medicare for All) and Allred (a for­mer NFL play­er and civ­il rights leader) both could be con­sid­ered estab­lish­ment” as each was endorsed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (DCCC) but in the first round of vot­ing they oust­ed can­di­dates with more estab­lish­ment cre­den­tials and ties (Jay Hul­ings and Ed Meier, respectively).

In many ways, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment has accept­ed that sup­port­ing posi­tions like Medicare for All, legal mar­i­jua­na and a $15 min­i­mum wage is where the base is at, and has essen­tial­ly con­ced­ed the point. Cen­trist busi­ness­men are out, pro­gres­sive women of col­or are in and in a cycle where the par­ty wants to mobi­lize pro­gres­sives, women, and peo­ple of col­or, that’s a sen­si­ble strategy.

The most obvi­ous lessons from Tues­day are that women con­tin­ue to dra­mat­i­cal­ly over per­form and that pro­gres­sive can­di­dates are still win­ning pri­maries. For exam­ple, in Kentucky’s 6th Dis­trict Amy McGrath defeat­ed Blue Dog pre­ferred Jim Gray, fol­low­ing oth­er upset pri­ma­ry wins in last week elec­tions, such as Kara East­man in Nebras­ka and Tal­ley Ser­gent in West Virginia.

And final­ly, while these elec­tions all took place in red states, the results show that grass­roots activism, a focus on health­care and a mobi­lize-the-base strat­e­gy could pro­duce big vic­to­ries, as elec­tions are increas­ing­ly decid­ed by whether a party’s sup­port­ers turn out to vote, rather than per­suad­ing vot­ers of the oth­er par­ty to flip.

Below are high­lights from Tuesday’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries across the country.


Gov­er­nor: This was the mar­quee race of the night and attract­ed the most atten­tion, which was always some­what per­plex­ing. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry win­ner Stacey Abrams, who ran on a pro­gres­sive plat­form, locked down sup­port from seem­ing­ly every wing of the par­ty — from Our Rev­o­lu­tion to EMILY’s List — and giv­en the polit­i­cal cli­mate and the over­whelm­ing­ly African-Amer­i­can pri­ma­ry elec­torate, she was the favorite to win. In many ways, the media was try­ing to cre­ate a race here that nev­er exist­ed. Abrams goes into Novem­ber as an under­dog, but she’s bank­ing on mobi­liz­ing black vot­ers and pro­gres­sives through cam­paign­ing on issues like Med­ic­aid expan­sion, which would insure 240,000 peo­ple.

Accord­ing to recent polling, three in four Geor­gians sup­port Med­ic­aid expan­sion, includ­ing 57 per­cent of Repub­li­cans, but Repub­li­can politi­cians have refused to expand the pro­gram because of racism. Abrams will face off against either Casey Cagle or Bri­an Kemp, who have been in a com­pe­ti­tion to see who can embrace more overt­ly white suprema­cist rhetoric. The win­ner on the GOP side will be decid­ed in a July 24th run-off.

GA-01: Our Rev­o­lu­tion endorsed activist Lisa Ring won her pri­ma­ry with a major­i­ty of the vote, mean­ing she will take on Earl Bud­dy” Carter in Novem­ber. Trump won this dis­trict by 15 points last November.

GA-06: Lucy McBath, whose son was mur­dered by Michael Dunn in 2012 over loud music, won a plu­ral­i­ty in the first round and is the favorite going into the run-off against busi­ness­man Kevin Abel. She’ll have more time to estab­lish name iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and fundrais­ing she lacked this round due to her late entrance into the race (mak­ing her per­for­mance impres­sive). She’s run­ning on health­care for all, gun safe­ty and repro­duc­tive free­dom. Incum­bent Karen Han­del, whose con­tro­ver­sial tenure at Komen for the Cure involved over­see­ing a deba­cle that com­pro­mised women’s health and served as an embar­rass­ment for the orga­ni­za­tion, is the per­fect foil for McBath, a two-time breast can­cer survivor.

Sen­a­tor Kirsten Gilli­brand, an ear­ly sup­port­er of McBath, tells me, I was proud to sup­port Lucy McBath because she will fight hard to make sure no one else los­es their child to sense­less gun vio­lence the way she did. As a moth­er, a busi­ness­woman and social jus­tice activist, we need more peo­ple with her life expe­ri­ence serv­ing in Congress.”

GA-07: Pub­lic pol­i­cy pro­fes­sor Car­olyn Bour­deaux won a plu­ral­i­ty of the vote and is the favorite against busi­ness­man David Kim in the July run-off. The win­ner will take on Repub­li­can Bob Woodall who has raised baf­fling­ly lit­tle for an incum­bent in a dis­trict where Trump won by sin­gle-dig­its, and he will be vul­ner­a­ble in this pro-Demo­c­ra­t­ic environment.

Down-Bal­lot: Our Rev­o­lu­tion endorsed social work­er Shelly Hutchin­son won her pri­ma­ry for Georgia’s 107th State House dis­trict. In Georgia’s 5th state sen­ate dis­trict, Sheikh Rah­man won, set­ting him on the path to become the first immi­grant in Georgia’s state senate.

Arkansas and Kentucky:

AR-02: State leg­is­la­tor Clarke Tuck­er will face French Hill in this 42 Clin­ton, 52 Trump dis­trict (the ten point dis­par­i­ty indi­cates some third-par­ty vot­ers a Demo­c­rat might be able to win in a favor­able environment).

KY-01: Our Rev­o­lu­tion endorsee Paul Walk­er hand­i­ly won the pri­ma­ry to take on James Com­er in Novem­ber. Trump won this dis­trict 72 per­cent to 24 per­cent and will be a tough pick-up even in a wave environment.

KY-06: This is a some­what baf­fling place for a $3 mil­lion Demo­c­ra­t­ic blood­bath, but here we are. This deep red dis­trict went for Trump 55 per­cent to 39 per­cent, but has some ances­tral­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic roots (Demo­c­rat Ben Chan­dler man­aged to sur­vive the Repub­li­can wave of 2010 only to lose nar­row­ly in 2012). McGrath raised big mon­ey off of an ear­ly viral ad and was able to main­tain that momen­tum through the primary.

Down-Bal­lot: DSA-backed can­di­date Richard Beck­er lost in the 3th5 dis­trict while Run for Some­thing and Our Rev­o­lu­tion endorsee Adri­an Wal­lace will move on to the gen­er­al elec­tion for Lex­ing­ton City Coun­cil at Large.

Ken­tucky could be ripe for some Novem­ber upsets: the state has shown a will­ing­ness to vote for Democ­rats (Demo­c­rat Steve Beshear served as Gov­er­nor from 2007 to 2015) and teach­ers’ strike activism will like­ly fuel anti-Repub­li­can ener­gy. Repub­li­can House Major­i­ty Leader Jonathan Shell lost to a math teacher mobi­lized by the recent teacher strike activism (please cher­ish the fol­low­ing sen­tence: Shell did not answer a phone call from The Asso­ci­at­ed Press seek­ing com­ment after the race Tues­day.”). Shell was a McConnell crony instru­men­tal in leg­is­la­tion gut­ting teach­ers’ pen­sions. Democ­rats end­ed up with pro­gres­sives who can speak to that momentum.


Gov­er­nor: Lupe Valdez becomes the first open­ly gay and Lati­na woman to become a major par­ty nom­i­nee for Texas Gov­er­nor. She’ll face incum­bent Greg Abbott in a tough uphill slog. Valdez has around $115,282 cash on hand, com­pared with Abbott’s $41 mil­lion war chest (355 times more).

TX-07: Lizzie Pan­nill Fletch­er unsur­pris­ing­ly won this race. The DCCC hap­haz­ard­ly inter­vened in this pri­ma­ry rais­ing its pro­file and like­ly giv­ing the Moser cam­paign the wind it need­ed to make the pri­ma­ry. Fletch­er will face John Cul­ber­son in this dis­trict where Clin­ton nar­row­ly won in 2016.

TX-23 and TX-32: In the 23rd and 32nd, Gina Oritz Jones and Col­in Allred eas­i­ly won their run-offs. These are two of the most excit­ing pro­gres­sives this cycle. In Novem­ber, Ortiz Jones will face Will Hurd, who has been try­ing to cut a mod­er­ate” mold despite vot­ing with Trump 97 per­cent of the time while Allred will face Pete Ses­sions in a dis­trict Clin­ton nar­row­ly won in 2016.

TX-21: In the 21st, cen­trist Joseph Kopser took the nom­i­na­tion over pro­gres­sive chal­lenger Mary Wil­son. Kopser out­spent Wil­son and won 58 per­cent of the vote. He’ll face for­mer Ted Cruz chief of staff Chip Roy in this dis­trict held by retir­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lamar Smith.

Down-Bal­lot: Democ­rats are con­test­ing a dra­mat­ic num­ber of down-bal­lot races, set­ting them up to take a bite out of the mas­sive GOP majori­ties in the state.

Sean McEl­wee is a co-founder of Data for Progress and tweets at @SeanMcElwee.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue