Progressive Democrats are enjoying a wave of victories in federal primaries across the country with some especially notable triumphs for Black activist candidates.
Those successes, candidates and strategists say, are due to a mixture of broad energy from the Black Lives Matter movement, failure of conventional policy remedies to meet the moment and a rock-solid infrastructure of progressive organizations.
The latest victory came in Missouri on the same night the state voted to expand Medicaid – a longtime liberal goal. Cori Bush, a liberal activist and registered nurse, defeated the 10-term congressman William Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary.
A few days later Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental justice activist, became the first Black woman to win the Democratic party’s nomination in Tennessee. In the process of Bradshaw’s surprise victory she defeated James Mackler, the preferred candidate of Senate Democrats’ national campaign arm.
Both candidates ran on positions familiar to the progressive community: racial justice, Medicare for All and environmental justice. The victories by the candidates, both Black women, are the latest in a strong of upsets liberals have enjoyed this year.
“People are ready to see Black women lead,” Bush said in an interview on Friday. “Ready for there to be parity, for more women to be going into Congress.”
In New York, the progressive favorite Jamaal Bowman ousted 16-term congressman Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House foreign affairs committee. The Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a member of the informal group of progressive firebrands known as “the Squad”, also survived a contentious primary fight with another local Democrat.
All together the victories mark a dramatic shift from the spate of losses the progressive wing of the Democratic party has suffered over the last year, including the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ crushing defeat in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary after a brief period of being the frontrunner.
The victories are also much-needed comfort for the progressive wing, which will probably have complaints with whoever former vice-president Joe Biden picks as his running mate.
Bush said her victory was driven by an enhanced interest in candidates with progressive policy prescriptions in a time of economic crisis, an ongoing pandemic, and global healthcare concerns.
“Covid-19 hit us and hit us hard and we were ill-prepared for it,” Bush said. “People were able to see, with me for instance, I’ve been preaching Medicare for All since 2016. People didn’t understand it back then but when Covid-19 hit people started to see it.”
The implications of these victories was summed up in the subject line of a Bowman campaign fundraising email: “The Squad keeps getting bigger.”
“That’s exactly what we’ll see on Capitol Hill,” Bush said. “We want to go in and make the Squad even bigger. The Squad that’s in Congress, that are members, as well as the Squad that are not members … We’re all like-minded to see our communities change and wanting to do it now.”
Bush offered a warning to other incumbent Democrats.
“If there are areas where we have people who are just not producing for their communities and their communities are crying out for help and they’re not getting it, which was what was happening here in our community, then hopefully someone will step up to run,” Bush said, adding she would probably be happy to help them.
Maya Rupert, the former campaign manager for Democrat Julián Castro’s presidential campaign, predicted a wave of progressives would come into Congress through this election cycle.
“I think there are going to be a lot more people that are coming in governing in a way that is undeniably and unapologetically progressive,” Rupert said.
Victories haven’t come so easily for progressive Democrats in the past few years. But that’s changed because of the major crises of the moment as the country is roiled by a long-overdue reckoning on racism, triggered by protests against police mistreatment of Black Americans.
“I think the environment is being largely driven by conversations on race. And I think increasingly that is through the lens of economics as well,” the veteran Democratic strategist Brandon Davis said. “It’s broadly defined. I think increasingly that is through the lends of economics as well. It’s broadly defined to the extent these candidates are leaning into these issues, they’re finding more traction.”
The lead-up to 2020 has been marked by a wave of outside groups boosting progressive candidates. Some of those groups enhanced their infrastructure while others emerged with very specific missions.
Marie Newman, a liberal favorite who ousted a longtime conservative Democratic congressman in Illinois’s third district congressional primary earlier this year, said “there has been a dramatic level of lifting up of these groups on every level. Organizing. Grassroots. People in every neighborhood working hard and awakening.”
I think there are going to be a lot more people that are coming in governing in a way that is undeniably and unapologetically progressiveMaya Rupert
A group called Fight Corporate Monopolies has taken aim at the Massachusetts congressman Richard Neal, the chairman of the powerful ways and means committee, over Neal receiving support from the Blackstone Group, a private investment management company. The group also backed Bush in Missouri. Other more general organizations like the Justice Democrats helped propel Bowman to victory.
Progressives argue that these victories and any more to come this cycle are showing the broader Democratic party that their positions are effective in campaigns.
“One of the biggest final remaining humps for the progressive agenda is to demonstrate to the rest of the Democratic party that our approach is good for general election politics,” said Faiz Shakir, who is a consultant with Fight Corporate Monopolies and served as Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign manager.
Monica Klein, a Democratic strategist known for her work advising liberal candidates, said the coronavirus pandemic as well as the resulting economic downturn has pushed more voters to consider candidates with progressive policy positions.
”I think from a nationwide public health crisis that has been mishandled from both Republicans and establishment Democrats to the growing Black Lives Matter protests, more and more Americans are getting frustrated with the status quo, whether that is Republicans in Washington or establishment Democrats who are not providing bold enough solutions to the crises that we’re facing,” Klein said.
There are still more contests to come though which dangle the prospect of further wins.
In Massachusetts, political newcomer Ihssane Leckey is running in a crowded race to replace Congressman Joe Kennedy. Leckey, a former Wall Street regulator who immigrated to the US from Morocco at 20 and identifies as a democratic socialist, is running to help “change the face of Congress”.
These victories are a sign of hope in our country, that the people still have the power to change the course of our nationIhssane Leckey
“These victories are a sign of hope in our country, that the people still have the power to change the course of our nation, away from fascism and into an inclusive democracy.”
She said the common thread between the string of recent progressive victories is that the candidates share the “lived experiences of the most vulnerable constituents in their districts”.
Leckey, the lone woman of color in the race who struggled through periods of poverty before becoming the first in her family to graduate from college, is running on a “justice agenda” which supports Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
She said the coronavirus pandemic had exposed the need for sweeping economic and social reform, and had helped change the minds of some voters in her district who may have supported these policies but did not understand their urgency.
“These are the issues of our time,” she said. “People were feeling the sting, even when they had a little more comfort before the pandemic. Now we’re here to ensure relief for everyone, and especially the most vulnerable.”