WASHINGTON — There’s a real divide in the progressive movement over the best way to shift the Democratic Party to the left after the 2018 midterms.
After they lost most of their biggest races, some progressives are arguing their energy is best spent on competitive primaries, like the one won by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — challenging centrist Democrats in safer, bluer districts.
Progressives spent much of 2018 focusing on winning in red and purple districts, where they argued their bold policies actually leaves them better positioned than moderates to take out Republican incumbents. But some think the results of the midterms are a sign that they need to shift that focus.
“The strategy of focusing on districts that lean Republican or are likely Republican, that’s been solidly debunked” for progressives in 2018, said Sean McElwee, the cofounder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress. “That’s been shown to be sort of a nonstarter. But winning blue to blue — that’s shown to be an amazing thing.”
In the long term, the goal for McElwee is the same as many other progressives: pushing the party to the left, and, eventually, winning in middle America as well as on the coasts. But McElwee thinks that in the short term, the best way to get there is through competing aggressively in blue districts, not red ones.
Groups like the young, insurgent Justice Democrats agree. They’ve said they’re partnering with Ocasio-Cortez to find moderate Democrats to target in the primaries — and they’re even asking the public for input about centrists to go after. It’s not an accident that the plan looks a lot like how the tea party reshaped the Republican Party in the early 2010s.
In the 2018 midterms, Justice Democrats put up candidates in primaries across the country, everywhere from rural Kansas to suburban Omaha to California to Pennsylvania — oftentimes in districts that leaned toward Republicans.
“There’s definitely going to be a focus on blue districts this time around,” said Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director. “We’re not ruling out red and purple districts, but it’s no secret that the districts where we performed really well” in 2018 were mostly already held by Democrats.
“Our strategy moving forward is to double down on that,” Rojas said.
But that sentiment isn’t shared by all of the left wing of the party. It could set up a conflict within a movement still finding its feet as it tries to wield its influence in the upcoming 2020 election. For progressives, proving that their ideology can attract swing voters in middle America, not just those in blue states, is vastly important.
Focusing more on blue districts would be “unnecessarily ceding ground,” said Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is closely aligned with Elizabeth Warren. “Economic populism is the key to winning in red and purple districts.”
“That idea is going to run into the brick wall of reality,” said Ben Tulchin, a progressive pollster for Bernie Sanders. “Raising money is hard — any institutional donor isn’t going to give money to unseat an incumbent. And a lot of incumbents, if they’re doing their job right, are going to be very popular in their blue districts. Nancy Pelosi is very popular in San Francisco.”
Tulchin and Green are among those who view 2018 as a success for progressives — even in the heartland.
“The bottom line is, I saw it as a good year for progressives,” said Tulchin, who pointed to victories by left-leaning House candidates in California, like Katie Porter and Harley Rouda.
“There were enough wins and symbolic close losses where I think we can say the tide is turning. We were building on what Bernie built in 2016 — showing there’s a path for progressives to be successful on a national scale.”
And there are people like Jared Polis who won the Colorado governorship on a progressive platform, or Porter — an Elizabeth Warren protégé — who defeated an incumbent Republican in California. Progressive groups also argue that their narrow losses in places like Georgia and Florida in 2018 prove their point: Progressives, especially people of color, can compete in red and purple states, and in some cases, can do better than moderates.
“We can’t allow one loss in one cycle to totally change things when there’s so much data to suggest our strategy is paying off,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “Our interest is long-term — we’re trying to totally reshape the nature of politics and build infrastructure that never existed. We’re really pleased and satisfied by the ground that we won.”
For many progressives, the biggest wins of the 2018 midterms were, in fact, losses: The narrow margins pulled off by O’Rourke, Abrams, and Gillum, they said, were evidence that dynamic progressive candidates could pull in support in Republican-leaning states — often outperforming the moderates who ran for office before them.
Gillum and Abrams had proved that Democrats were best served by running candidates who spoke to and energized black voters, said Jennifer Epps-Addison, the director of the president of the network of progressive groups at Center for Popular Democracy Action — particularly black women, and other people who traditionally did not vote in elections.
“Progressive candidates of color are our strongest candidates moving forward,” said Epps-Addison. “Democrats really need to work hard at bringing a race-centered and race-conscious message.”
On the more economic issues that progressives in the mold of Sanders and Warren focus most on, though, the picture is a little more muddled. Medicare for All candidates didn’t notch many victories in places that are less safe for Democrats, and despite the spin from progressives at the national level, few candidates backed by figures like Sanders won their races.
They lost House races in swing districts where they had beaten back moderate challengers, including several that they had called tests for their movement, like Kara Eastman in Nebraska, who lost by a larger margin in 2018 than a centrist Democrat had two years earlier.
If there’s one space where the issues came together — an intersectional approach on race, new voters, and economic populism — it was in districts Democrats already held and where progressives saw their best victories in the midterms, with people like Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez. And it was those kinds of races where their polar opposites, the tea party, saw huge successes years earlier.
And it’s notable that one of the very first things Ocasio-Cortez did after the election was to back such a plan, in fact, alongside the group Justice Democrats. Her chief of staff, a Justice Democrats cofounder, told reporters: “We gotta primary folks.”
Even losses in primaries influence the party, said Rebecca Katz, a longtime progressive strategist who worked on one of the biggest primaries of the 2018 elections: Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo won the primary easily. But it still resulted in what Katz calls "the Cynthia effect": Political pressure from Nixon pushed Cuomo to the left on many of the election’s most central issues, like the legalization of marijuana, which he had long opposed.
Katz argues there shouldn’t be a decision to be made between primarying Democratic incumbents and challenging Republicans in swing districts.
“Why not both?” she said. “Why can’t we fight like hell in blue districts to make them progressive, and then fight like hell in swing districts to make them Democratic? I don’t think it’s an either-or. Let’s try to do both — let’s try to win everywhere.”