Socialists and Progressives Just Trounced the Democratic Establishment

On Tuesday, insurgent challengers beat out their opponents in races across the country by running on bold left platforms.

Miles Kampf-Lassin May 16, 2018

Democratic socialist Summer Lee won election to the Pennsylvania statehouse running on a campaign of economic and racial justice. (Lee for PA)

If mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment weren’t already wor­ried, after Tues­day night, they should be. In pri­maries across the coun­try, at least eight can­di­dates run­ning on explic­it­ly pro­gres­sive plat­forms won out, includ­ing open social­ists and polit­i­cal new­com­ers who took out long­time incumbents.

Far from being isolated events, these victories are emblematic of a vast left electoral insurgency that has been sweeping the country since the 2016 presidential election.

These vic­to­ries are proof that the recent suc­cess­es of left chal­lengers are no fluke. Rather, the wins show that vot­ers who are tired of the type of mil­que­toast, means-test­ed poli­cies pushed by cen­trist Democ­rats are will­ing to embrace can­di­dates run­ning on bold, redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies. And far from being too far left to win, these can­di­dates have the polit­i­cal winds at their backs.

In the Pitts­burgh area, two mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), Sum­mer Lee and Sara Innamora­to, won hot­ly con­test­ed races for the Penn­syl­va­nia state­house. Lee and Innamora­to, run­ning in Dis­tricts 34 and 21, both won out against incum­bent Democ­rats — Reps. Paul Cos­ta and Dom Cos­ta. (Full dis­clo­sure: The author is a DSA mem­ber but did not work on any of these campaigns.)

The Costas are cousins and mem­bers of a pow­er­ful polit­i­cal fam­i­ly in the region, and have been rep­re­sent­ing their dis­tricts for many elec­tion cycles. Their defeat reveals pro­found changes in the polit­i­cal land­scape over recent years, as well as the grow­ing pow­er of the move­ment to elect chal­lengers like Lee and Innamorato.

That move­ment was pow­ered in large part of by the DSA, which endorsed both Lee and Innamora­to — each first-time can­di­dates — and helped orga­nize large-scale vol­un­teer efforts to sup­port their campaigns.

Lee, run­ning against Paul Cos­ta, cen­tered her cam­paign around poli­cies that would pro­tect low-income res­i­dents in her dis­trict, many of them peo­ple of col­or. In addi­tion to sup­port­ing uni­ver­sal health­care, free pub­lic edu­ca­tion, and a $15 min­i­mum wage, Lee also put her weight behind revi­tal­iz­ing blight­ed neigh­bor­hoods, stem­ming the tide of mass incar­cer­a­tion and pro­tect­ing long-term res­i­dents from being pushed out by the forces of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion — forces she claims Cos­ta helped to propel.

At her vic­to­ry par­ty on Tues­day night, Lee eager­ly summed up the spir­it of polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that fueled her cam­paign: If your politi­cians are not serv­ing you, get rid of them.” As she faces no Repub­li­can oppo­nent in the fall, Lee is poised to become the first African-Amer­i­can woman to rep­re­sent West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia at the state level.

Innamora­to was sim­i­lar­ly buoy­ant fol­low­ing her win, telling sup­port­ers: We accom­plished the impos­si­ble.” Her oppo­nent Dom Cos­ta was wide­ly con­sid­ered one of the most con­ser­v­a­tive Democ­rats in the state leg­is­la­ture, and even asked Repub­li­can vot­ers in the dis­trict to write in his name on their ballots.

Where Cos­ta had pre­vi­ous­ly backed restric­tive bills around immi­gra­tion and repro­duc­tive rights, Innamora­to voiced sup­port for a swath of pro­gres­sive poli­cies around these and oth­er issues crit­i­cal to Pitts­burgh area vot­ers. She also faces no GOP oppo­nent, and is assured vic­to­ry in Novem­ber. Both Lee and Innamora­to trounced their oppo­nents, win­ning with over 60 per­cent of the vote.

In a state­ment, Pitts­burgh DSA co-chair Adam Shuck writes that These wins indi­cate that a renewed, vibrant left in Amer­i­ca is not an aber­ra­tion, but instead that work­ing peo­ple are ready for real change, pro­gres­sive poli­cies and a soci­ety that works for all of us, not a select few.”

In the Philadel­phia region, Eliz­a­beth Fiedler and Kristin Seale won their pri­maries for the state­house in Dis­tricts 184 and 168. Fiedler and Seale were also both endorsed by the DSA, and their vic­to­ries marked a sweep for the social­ist orga­ni­za­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia, where all four of their endorsed can­di­dates — all women — won out over male opponents.

Since Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 pres­i­den­tial run, the DSA has stepped up its elec­toral oper­a­tions and has recent­ly scored a num­ber of high-pro­file vic­to­ries, includ­ing Lee Carter’s elec­tion to the Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates and Seema Singh-Perez’s elec­tion to the Knoxville City Coun­cil. Last year alone, 21 can­di­dates endorsed by the DSA, many of them mem­bers them­selves, won elec­tions across the coun­try. Tuesday’s Penn­syl­va­nia sweep adds to this wave. 

Also in the Pitts­burgh area, Brad­dock may­or and out­spo­ken pro­gres­sive John Fet­ter­man — who had been endorsed by Sanders — won an upset vic­to­ry over incum­bent Mike Stack in his race for Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor, mean­ing he will run along­side Gov. Tom Wolf in November. 

In Lan­cast­er Coun­ty, pro­gres­sive can­di­date Jess King — also endorsed by Sanders — eas­i­ly won her pri­ma­ry after her oppo­nent Christi­na Hart­man dropped out of the race to run in a dif­fer­ent dis­trict (which she then failed to qual­i­fy for). King will face incum­bent Repub­li­can Rep. Lloyd Smuck­er in November.

And Tuesday’s pro­gres­sive vic­to­ries are not con­fined to Penn­syl­va­nia. In Nebras­ka, Kara East­man won a shock­ing vic­to­ry over for­mer Rep. Brad Ash­ford in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic House primary.

East­man set her­self apart from Ash­ford, a mod­er­ate Blue Dog” Demo­c­rat who had the back­ing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (DCCC), by run­ning on a broad left agen­da includ­ing Medicare for all — a pol­i­cy that is becom­ing increas­ing­ly main­stream in Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pol­i­tics but which many mod­er­ates remain unwill­ing to sup­port. Ash­ford had been wide­ly expect­ed to pre­vail, and his loss comes as a blow to cen­trist forces in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty who had hoped to run the one-time Repub­li­can in the fall. 

East­man had the back­ing from a num­ber of nation­al pro­gres­sive groups includ­ing the Jus­tice Democ­rats and the Pro­gres­sive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (PCCC).

Fol­low­ing the vic­to­ry, PCCC co-founder Stephanie Tay­lor said in a state­ment: Kara East­man taught the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment a les­son: The way to inspire vot­ers in 2018 is to cam­paign on a bold pro­gres­sive agen­da of Medicare for All, high­er wages for work­ers, and oth­er eco­nom­ic pop­ulist ideas that help work­ing fam­i­lies and chal­lenge cor­po­rate power.”

In Ida­ho, Native Amer­i­can state leg­is­la­tor Paulette Jor­dan won the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion in the state’s guber­na­to­r­i­al race, beat­ing out busi­ness­man A.J. Balukoff, who had been the party’s nom­i­nee in 2014. Jor­dan ran on such pro­gres­sive poli­cies as enact­ing uni­ver­sal health­care, fight­ing cli­mate change and rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. She will face Repub­li­can Lt. Gov. Brad Lit­tle in Novem­ber, and if she wins she will become the first Native Amer­i­can gov­er­nor in U.S. history.

Far from being iso­lat­ed events, these vic­to­ries are emblem­at­ic of a vast left elec­toral insur­gency that has been sweep­ing the coun­try since the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. While Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty insid­ers have mount­ed cam­paigns to keep out pro­gres­sive chal­lengers — most vis­i­bly in the rejec­tion of Rep. Kei­th Elli­son as DNC chair — vot­ers con­tin­ue to ele­vate can­di­dates run­ning on res­olute left platforms.

Rather than shy­ing away from the types of poli­cies that would upend the sta­tus quo and chal­lenge the cor­po­rate inter­ests that dom­i­nate both major par­ties, these can­di­dates are embrac­ing them. And they are will­ing to take on entrenched pow­ers with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in the process.

At a time when vot­ers are seek­ing an alter­na­tive to Pres­i­dent Trump and his GOP cabal, as well as the types of poli­cies that have led to wage stag­na­tion, ris­ing health­care costs, mass incar­cer­a­tion and cli­mate dev­as­ta­tion, Tuesday’s vic­to­ries point a way forward.

As DSA’s Nation­al Elec­toral Com­mit­tee co-chair Tascha Van Auken says of the elec­tion results: A polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion is com­ing, and estab­lish­ment politi­cians can get on board or be swept away.” 

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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