It’s been a rough year for progressives, or so the headlines tell us. Pundits have been quick to elegize the left electoral movement after several high-profile primary defeats in New York, Illinois and Texas. “Left loses momentum.” “Progressives are in danger of losing influence.” Pundits are “seeing limits on the political support for their reformist vision of the country” with this year’s “spate of losses” only the “latest blow to progressive power,” as the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party struggles “to find a winning formula.”
The jubilant mood at the Vermont senator’s September roundtable with a group of progressive House primary winners, then, might come as a surprise. “The Squad” — the moniker claimed by the troupe of progressive and democratic-socialist insurgents who started elbowing their way into the House in 2018 — is expected to number in the double digits in 2023, with at least four likely inductees poised to safely win blue districts in November. All in all, progressives are set to claim at least six Congressional seats opened up by redistricting and a record number of retirements.
“I was elected to the House and took office in 1991, and I can tell you there was nothing — nothing — like what we will be seeing in Congress next year,” Sanders said.
If that’s the case, it will not only be thanks to the political talents of the candidates themselves, but to the work of groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party (WFP), among the most prominent of the multiplying constellation of organizations devoted to overturning the Democratic establishment. For this faction, the fight is bigger than any one election cycle, whether defined by shock progressive upsets as in 2018 or this year’s handful of undeniably bitter losses. And they measure success as much by the lengths their opponents are going to stop them as by the number of congressional seats they control.
ATTACKS AND PARRIES
Few would deny the left electoral movement has suffered major setbacks since Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
Sanders’ brutal 2020 primary losses — after the Democratic establishment belatedly rallied around Joe Biden — were intertwined with a powerful Republican ground game that torpedoed many progressive campaigns alongside establishment Democrats that November. Sanders ally Nina Turner lost her bid for Ohio’s 11th District seat in 2021, and her campaign failed again nine months later. The Democrats’ 2021 electoral setback was widely spun as a repudiation of the Left.
This year’s primary season also saw painful progressive losses. Despite holding an anti-choice record in a post-Dobbs moment, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) narrowly fended off a second primary challenge from immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros in the 28th District. Progressive first-term Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) fell to centrist Rep. Sean Casten, while Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) prevailed over his progressive challenger, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, in what Maloney called a win for the “mainstream.” In all, centrist Democrats challenged by progressives ended up winning 14 of 22 primaries this cycle — roughly two-thirds. “The main problem was corporate PAC dark money,” says Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats. “The scale of it,” says Maurice Mitchell, National Director of the WFP, “I can’t overstate.”
The pro-Israel group Democratic Majority for Israel infamously intervened in Turner’s 2021 race, rapidly dissolving her massive polling lead with a blitz of negative advertising that painted the longtime Democrat as insufficiently loyal to the party, part of the pro-Israel lobby’s emerging strategy to make criticism of Israel a congressional nonstarter. After that, the floodgates opened.
By May of this year, Super PACs and outside spending organizations had poured more than $53 million into House Democratic primaries, according to an analysis by Politico. Venture capitalist and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s Super PAC dropped more than three-quarters of a million dollars in the last three weeks of the race to defeat Cisneros. Opportunity for All Action Fund, a dark money group run by Democratic operatives, spent more than $125,000 on digital ads and production to successfully stave off gun control activist Kina Collins’ bid to defeat 13-term incumbent Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.)
“You could be a great candidate, have a legislative record that shows you can be effective, but money in politics is what kept me and my team up [at night],” says Delia Ramirez, who ran and won the primary for the newly drawn 3rd District in Illinois.
Incumbent Squad members Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) each faced primary challengers backed by dark money. Billionaire hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and other pro-Israel interests targeted Tlaib; Trump backers and Minnesota business tycoons tried to oust Omar; and Bush faced a flood of attacks from entrepreneur Steven C. Roberts, head of a sprawling business empire who also happens to be the father of Bush’s challenger.
Then there was the cryptocurrency industry, something of a wildcard. Cryptocurrency billionaire Samuel Bankman-Fried, 30, bought nearly $700,000 in TV airtime for ads backing the ultimately victorious insurgent progressive Maxwell Frost in Florida’s 10th, but Crypto PAC Protect Our Future put up $1 million for Turner’s opponent.
“The main attack point was that these candidates were insufficiently loyal to the Democratic Party and Biden,” says Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats.
“Strong, Democratic, progressive Black women” were particularly questioned on their credentials, Rojas says. Issues the Right has weaponized — such as defunding the police—were less important as individual attacks than as part of a tapestry of negative messaging telling loyal Democratic voters that insurgents were inexperienced, unserious and out of step with the party, according to those involved in the campaigns. “They tested those attacks early on and poured lots of money to make sure the message they went with was salient enough with a large swath of voters,” Rojas adds.
It’s not just progressives who stand to lose. Former Congresswoman Donna Edwards, too, fell to a hailstorm of money from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), despite her endorsement from both establishment figures like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi and the Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution.
The dark money spigot won’t shut off anytime soon. In September, the Democratic National Committee blocked a resolution to ban outside spending in primaries.
But if the progressive movement is on the ropes, no one’s told its leaders.
“I think it’s been mis-portrayed as a bad year for progressives by the media,” says Greg Casar, a democratic socialist candidate who won his primary for an open House seat in Texas, and who (like other winning candidates) had the crucial backing of groups like WFP and Justice Democrats. “We’ll have a historic number of progressives, true progressives, in Congress.”
According to the Brookings Institution, 50% of all candidates endorsed by Justice for All, Our Revolution, Indivisible, or by Sanders or members of the Squad, won their primaries. Justice Democrats saw three of its five carefully chosen challengers win their primaries, its highest success rate ever. The WFP, meanwhile, saw what it calls its best-ever winning streak, with victories in eight of the 14 non-incumbent House bids it prioritized, a number that doesn’t include incumbent Reps. Omar, Bush and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who won despite stiff challenges.
And while the WFP’s overall win rate in House primaries might be lower this year (57% for non-incumbents vs. 77% in 2020), the group is on track for its best year ever in terms of a more important metric: winning seats in Congress. Rob Duffey says the group invested more heavily in federal primaries in blue districts, rather than winning primaries in red seats that are long shots in the general elections.
In a blow to centrist Democrats, WFP endorsee Jamie McLeod-Skinner ousted Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), the Blue Dog who led the corporate-backed effort in the House to derail the Build Back Better Act, the omnibus climate and social policy bill that was a priority for progressives. Another WFP candidate, Sanders-endorsed Vermont state Sen. Becca Balint, won her primary against Vermont’s lieutenant governor for Vermont’s only House seat, making her a shoo-in for the seat that, 30 years ago, catapulted Sanders to national prominence.
But four winning primary candidates in particular have excited those involved: Casar (Texas-35th), Ramirez (Ill.-4th), Summer Lee (Pa.-12th) and Maxwell Frost (Fla.-10th)—young, nonwhite and largely working-class candidates with bold progressive platforms. All were backed by the WFP, and Casar and Lee also had support from Justice Democrats. Should they win in November, as expected, their cohort’s entry into Congress would match the size of the original Squad that sent shockwaves through the political landscape in 2018 — something overshadowed by the media’s disproportionate attention to losses.
TACTICS AND STRATEGIES
Those involved in these winning campaigns credit a number of factors in fending off big money. One was starting early, sometimes 14 months before voting.
“It was important to firm up as much support as possible early, so that when lies or mischaracterizations hit, they don’t stick,” says Casar. “And we worked really hard to pay for early polling to show how much broad support we had, which can help keep that right-wing money from coming in.”
A more uncomfortable fact is that some candidates have also neutralized the impact of big money by going centrist on Israel. Casar distanced himself from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) in aletter to a local rabbi, affirming his support for continued military aid to Israel as long as it’s not used to violate human rights, while stressing his support for a two-state solution and opposition to Israel’s steadily expanding illegal settlements in the West Bank. The letter was made public by Jewish Insider, and in the ensuing outrage Casar pre-emptively rescinded his request for Austin DSA’s endorsement. Casar’s campaign says that he had been “pressed by many groups” to change his positions on the Middle East and that he “decided to stay true to his own values and write down his thoughts in a letter” instead. But one AIPAC donor remarked that the “Casar race is a very good example of how [our strategy] is working.”
Casar’s not the only one. Frost, a former activist in the Florida Palestine Network, changed his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his campaign — eventually both disavowing BDS and backing military aid to Israel — and alienated key early advisors as a result. Frost told the Intercept, which broke the story, that the evolution “wasn’t really about the spending” but “about the dialogues in district and my conversations with people,” but campaign sources told the outlet the question of outside money and how to keep it out was top of mind. In Pennsylvania, WFP-backed Senate candidate John Fetterman took a similar tack, pledging “unwavering” commitment to Israel, and receiving a DMFI endorsement and spending boost in return.
Another factor was the candidates themselves. “The quality of the candidate matters so much,” says Waleed Shahid. “You can have the math on paper that the demographics and the path to victory are such and such, but if the candidate’s not an authentic messenger or grounded in good values, it’s going to be hard to make that case.”
The candidates’ years of involvement in organizing gave them pre-established public profiles, plus deep connections to local leaders, activists and potential allies — as did their time in elected office. Casar, at 33, was a three-term Austin City Council member who worked as policy director for the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, lobbying for workers’ rights and helping mobile home residents organize against rent hikes and evictions. That work helped him secure the crucial backing of local unions, who mobilized what Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy calls “the whole toolkit,” including block-walking, phone calls, joint events and mail to local members.
“The fact that so many unions were engaged there was very unusual,” Levy says.
Illinois state Rep. Delia Ramirez, 39, is a daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who spent her childhood talking with unhoused Chicagoans who gathered at the church soup kitchen her family lived above. She had no plans to run for the new, majority-Latino 3rd District in Illinois until friends and colleagues urged her — including some who put aside their own ambitions. Ramirez says the experiences of her mother, a homecare worker with diabetes, and father, who worked in a bakery for 20 years until a cancer diagnosis forced him to retire, were key to her decision.
“When [Dad] retired, he got a frozen pie — not retirement benefits,” Ramirez says.
Ramirez came up through Illinois progressive political networks as the campaign manager for progressive watchdog Common Cause Illinois and, later, co-chair of the Elected Officials Chapter of United Working Families, the Illinois WFP affiliate. “We were with Greg [Casar] from day one, and that’s true with Delia as well,” says Mitchell. “This is a story about leadership development and candidate pipelines.”
State Rep. Summer Lee, 34, one of four candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to enter the Pennsylvania state House in 2018, has said she only ran for office because she saw it as an “organizing opportunity.” Having worked as an organizer for a $15 minimum wage, she brought her activist roots to the statehouse, joining protests that erupted after the 2019 acquittal of a Pittsburgh cop who killed an unarmed Black teenager, and giving a famously critical keynote address to a 2020 Women’s March gathering. “I hope that you will get up, that you will take your pink pussy hat off,” Summer told the Vermont crowd, “and go up to your sister of color and tell her that, ‘I am here. What do you need?’ ”
Lee’s organizing roots and legislative record on labor rights also won her the support of three large SEIU locals and the United Electrical Workers union.
Maxwell Frost, who rounds out the group, worked on the Florida
ACLU’s successful felon re-enfranchisement campaign and was national organizing director for the gun control group started by Parkland shooting survivors. At 25, Maxwell stands to be the youngest member of Congress, a Generation Z Uber driver shaped by the era-defining anxieties around climate, economic precarity and gun violence.
Frost, too, says he had no plans to run until prodded by local organizers. A month before he announced, he connected by phone with the mother he’d been separated from at birth, who he learned had spent her life “in a cycle of poverty.” “She never had healthcare, she wasn’t in a financial position to have another child,” Frost says. “I was number eight, which is why she put me up for adoption. Hearing that from her really changed everything for me.”
Apart from Frost, each candidate climbed the ladder of elected office starting at the local or state levels. Their impressive legislative records were “undeniably a benefit,” Mitchell says. “There’s an advantage of demonstrating, as a progressive, that you know how to run and win, that it leads to concrete victories for working people they can feel and see in their lives.” Typical centrist attack lines about pie-in-the-sky ideas that can never come to pass “ring hollow when your constituents have seen you govern,” Mitchell adds.
On the Austin City Council, Casar pushed through affordable housing measures and a 60-day eviction moratorium at the start of the pandemic. Even his legislative defeats helped burnish his public standing, as when he ended up the lone council vote against restoring the city’s ban on homeless camping, or when his measure mandating paid sick leave for workers was struck down by the state Supreme Court.
In Illinois, Ramirez authored an emergency housing assistance bill, signed into law in May 2021, that temporarily stayed some foreclosures and allocated money for struggling renters and homeowners during the pandemic.
Lee, who had to work within a long GOP-controlled Pennsylvania legislature, drew on her activist roots to jumpstart action on police reform during the 2020 George Floyd protests, leading the effort to commandeer the House podium at the start of voting. She successfully forced foot-dragging Republican leadership to move, and she did so with more establishment-friendly Democrats. The result was a state law creating a landmark (if flawed) misconduct database for police hires.
These records made charges of party disloyalty a tough sell. “To accuse them of being Republicans didn’t really work,” Shahid says. Their legislation had been publicized as victories by local Democratic branches in party press releases, such as the paid sick leave ordinance passed by Casar, who calls himself “a proud member” of the Democratic Party. When Ramirez spearheaded the codification of abortion rights in Illinois in 2019 and successfully passed a provision—inserted at the end of a 465-page budget bill in 2020 — to expand Medicaid to undocumented immigrants, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker touted both as major accomplishments.
This history was especially useful given the timing of this round of primaries, which happened to land in the period of Democratic despondency between the death of Build Back Better and the August passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
“We stressed that we are the people who really want to deliver on the Democratic agenda that’s been promised,” says Rob Duffey, WFP national communications director. For candidates without a large legislative record, like Kina Collins, that timing may have hurt. She fell in a low-turnout election in Chicago, where doorknockers in typically blue-voting African-American neighborhoods met voters complaining the president wasn’t doing anything for them, Alexandra Rojas says.
Through it all, the winning campaigns continued the strategies progressive challengers have become known for, namely the blister-inducing doorknocking and phonebanking that’s been the bedrock of left-wing upsets going back to Sanders’ first mayoral victory in 1981. Central as these tactics are, however, they’re clearly no longer enough.
“That can’t make up for the imbalance in paid communications,” Shahid says. “Our adversaries are spending six, seven figures on mailers and ads, and we can’t abandon that terrain to them. For older voters, it’s the main way they get information.”
One clear trend is that progressive candidates who are outspent 2-to-1 can win, while those with steeper ratios aren’t as lucky. “When our candidates were outspent to that level, our opponents could shape the narrative in ways that became overwhelming for us to reshape, even with all the advantages we had,” Mitchell says. WFP-backed Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam was outspent 14-to-1 and lost her bid for North Carolina’s 4th District.
Lee saw a 25-point lead wither in only a month to less than 1% under a blizzard of dark money-financed negative advertising. But Justice Democrats and others were able to put together their own resources to stay within that 2-to-1 ratio and help Lee eke out a win.
“Summer’s race was one we knew we could win, but it required us to go all in,” says Rojas. “After that, we didn’t have the money to spend in the same way on others.”
In the end, Justice Democrats and other outside groups came up with $1.7 million to offset the nearly $3 million spent against Lee. Only $22,000 separated Ramirez and the runner-up in her race, while Casar faced no serious outside spending in his four-way primary. Frost, as a dark horse political novice, did not draw much resistance in his race — but as time has proven, such out-of-nowhere upsets hardly make for reliable left-wing victories.
“A big part of what I’m thinking about is what I can do between now and the next cycle to build that war chest,” Rojas says. “In the same way that progressives care about organizing people, we have to start caring about organizing money.”
That predicament may require finding progressive counterparts to legendary establishment fundraisers like Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Rojas says endorsements from Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez were “incredibly impactful” for this year’s challengers, providing a fundraising boost and local media attention, which brought volunteers and resources.
“They’re a big part of this question,” Rojas says.
SINK OR SWIM
As counterintuitive as it seems, the groups challenging the corporate establishment view the flood of dark money as a marker of success.
“Their money is a response to our victories,” Mitchell says. “They wouldn’t be spending this much if our strategies weren’t working, or on candidates who have no path to victory.”
These victories defied a number of pernicious narratives. Republicans have claimed since 2020, with some evidence, that Latino voters are a conservative constituency drifting steadily away from the Democratic Party. Yet Casar and Ramirez won big in majority Latino districts running on unabashedly progressive platforms. Casar, in March, romped to victory over his three opponents with more than 60% of the vote. Ramirez trounced her nearest rival, a two-term alderman who racked up major endorsements, by more than 40 points; her undocumented husband wasn’t even able to vote.
“Latinos are overwhelmingly working class in Texas,” Casar says. “We need to make sure we don’t just say we’re the party of the working class, but show we are.” Casar is the son of a doctor and grew up in an affluent neighborhood, but spent his pre-political career and time in elected office waging high-profile fights for working-class issues.
“I want to continue to be an organizer inside Congress,” Casar says. “My goal is to be the most pro-labor congressperson from the South.”
Despite a bipartisan effort to turn “defund the police” and reform efforts into a political liability — partly based on the claim that minority voters are most concerned with law and order — Casar, Ramirez, Frost and Lee all backed Black Lives Matter protests (Frost was arrested) or even supported the defunding demand.
“Defund the police, socialism — all those big slogans have come up on the campaign trail,” Rojas says. The difference, she says, was the candidates’ long-term approach to politics that saw them campaign for 12 to 14 months and spend even longer organizing and building public profiles, giving them the public trust and infrastructure to weather such attacks.
“The tactic that all of our candidates have taken is to bring together broad coalitions by going out, knocking on doors, meeting people, having honest conversations,” Rojas says, whether about Medicare for All, about what “defunding” really entails, or what democratic socialism actually means.
More than anything, this round of successful insurgencies proves — if the Midwest victories of Tlaib, Omar and Bush hadn’t already — that the Left has a constituency broader than what the establishment claims. “There’s a neoliberal narrative that benefits the opposition that suggests progressives can only win in coastal urban centers,” Mitchell says. “But what we know is that a progressive, pro-people platform is attractive to people of all persuasions.”
THE LONG DETOUR
Even a 10-member Squad will be a tiny minority in a Democratic caucus made up of hundreds of congresspeople, let alone the full 435-member House. And there’s every likelihood the House will be GOP controlled in 2023. While those involved caution it’s early, discussions about the road ahead have already begun, starting with staffing and connecting incoming members to the existing Squad so “we can start working together as early as possible,” Rojas says.
Groups like the WFP and Justice Democrats don’t merely come to the aid of challengers when they run for federal office, but are part of a network of outside groups working with and supporting them through their time in office, a fact particularly instrumental in a House with a narrow majority.
“My goal is to be the most pro-labor congressperson from the South.” —Greg Casar
For an electoral Left that is still maturing, “the next frontier is learning how to wield our leverage and power inside the halls of Congress and other legislative bodies,” Shahid says. “If these members of Congress have a clear organizing program on the inside and the outside, they can really make a difference, because the margins will probably be slim.”
But maybe they won’t have to settle for pure defense. “No matter what, we’ll still have a Democratic president,” Casar notes, pointing to the sometimes confrontational public advocacy from progressives like Bush and Ocasio-Cortez that led to executive orders extending the eviction pause and canceling some student debt. “I’ve been starting to have discussions about how to work to grow the labor movement or bring abortion care to states like Texas through executive action,” Casar says.
Meanwhile, progressives will keep their eyes on the long game, continuing to grow their numbers in Congress, building out the progressive bench that will feed future Squad expansions, and putting the pieces in place for the next Democratic majority.
“Many of the candidates we’ve elected are in their 30s — or 20s, in the case of Maxwell,” Duffey says. “They’ll be in their seats for a decade, probably. Even if they’re not in the majority next year, there will be a future majority.”
Ramirez agrees: “We have to prepare ourselves strategically to move the needle, to get the folks we need at the table, to get sponsors for bills, so that when we regain the majority, we’ll be ready.”
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