This was supposed to be the year the ascendant left upended the establishment in D.C. politics.

Instead, Ed Lazere, the independent at-large D.C. Council candidate embraced by left-wing activists, lost his second citywide race in two years, capping off a mixed 2020 election cycle for liberal candidates.

Janeese Lewis George toppled centrist incumbent and fellow Democrat Brandon T. Todd in Ward 4, a longtime bastion for moderates in the deep-blue city. But liberal insurgents fell short in the Ward 2 and 7 Democratic primaries before Lazere’s loss Tuesday to independent Christina Henderson, who cast herself as a “pragmatic progressive” and ran to Lazere’s right on issues such as defunding police and raising property taxes on expensive homes.

Labor unions and liberal activists now are wrestling with what worked and what went wrong, including whether they erred by coalescing early behind a White man Lazere without giving a Black woman like Henderson a shot.

And they are vowing to come back stronger for the 2022 mayoral election.

They pinned their hopes on Lazere as a candidate who could cement a majority for the left flank of the D.C. Council, which has pushed for programs such as paid family leave and higher taxes on the rich. Business groups and fiscal conservatives feared a Lazere win for the same reason.

But the longtime leader of the liberal D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute ended up finishing behind Henderson and Vincent B. Orange Sr., a moderate former lawmaker and Chamber of Commerce leader who condemned the council’s leftward turn.

Lazere ran about even with Marcus Goodwin, a business-friendly real estate developer, according to unofficial returns.

To council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who fended off a primary challenge from Lazere in 2018, the results showed the electorate craves moderation.

“A strictly ideological approach is not what voters want,” he said. “The voters are more mainstream than some of the ultraprogressive candidates would have you believe.”

At the same time, Mendelson said the new council will be shifting further left. Voters have ousted the two most fiscally conservative lawmakers: Todd and Jack Evans, the longtime Ward 2 representative who resigned amid an ethics scandal in January but attempted a comeback in the June primary. And the business-friendly candidates didn’t win Tuesday’s at-large race either.

Henderson has signaled she will ally with the council’s left flank on crucial priorities such as raising income taxes on the wealthy to fund more social services, but is also willing to hear business groups out.

“Putting council members in a box ignores the fact that D.C. for the most part is a progressive city,” Henderson said Friday on an appearance on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.”

During her campaign, she emphasized what she saw as the importance of electing more Black women to the council. Her success has prompted conversations about whether the left needs to focus on elevating candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

“I 100 percent supported Ed, but looking in the future, we need to support progressive leftist candidates of color . . . especially women, so we can have a more diverse base of candidates that reflects our diverse city,” said Jeremiah Lowery, chairman of D.C. for Democracy, which backed Lazere.

Lazere performed well in gentrifying neighborhoods but abysmally in poorer, mostly Black wards, which have the largest concentrations of the populations that liberals say they are trying to help. Henderson drew her strongest support in majority-White, high-turnout Wards 3 and 6, but also won significantly more votes than Lazere east of the Anacostia River.

The electorate’s ideological orientation will also be a factor in whether D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) decides to seek a third term in 2022.

Liberal activists frequently criticize the mayor as too cozy with developers and business leaders, and too deferential to police. But she glided to reelection without serious opposition in 2018 and has enjoyed high approval ratings. Her national profile rose this year with her defiance of President Trump and decision to paint a Black Lives Matter street mural in front of the White House.

Bowser has hinted she will run again.

Potential challengers include Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), who has filed to run for a third term but has not ruled out a mayoral bid; and incumbent at-large council member Robert C. White Jr. (D), who easily won a second term Tuesday and has criticized the mayor on policing and education.

Other council members would be more likely to get in the race if Bowser chooses not to run.

Bill Lightfoot, a Bowser political adviser who backed Goodwin in the at-large race, said Tuesday’s results had good signs for moderates like the mayor. He noted that Henderson explicitly ran as a careful politician who would not be too quick to spend or raise taxes.

“People are going to look for candidates who promote social justice — that is, as an advocate for the principles of Black Lives Matter — but balance that against a pragmatism of what government can do with shrinking or limited financial resources,” he said.

But George, the incoming Ward 4 council member, rallied left-wing activists at a virtual election night party, urging them to bring the same energy that helped her unseat Todd to the 2022 cycle.

“This isn’t a loss,” she said. “Look what we accomplished over the last couple of months. Look how many feathers we ruffled.”

Mendelson plans to seek a third term as council chairman in 2022 and is likely to face a primary challenge from the left. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), a 75-year-old moderate in office since 2012, could also face a primary opponent — or create an opening if she decides to retire.

George said she believes voters want new faces — noting that she, Henderson and newly elected Ward 2 council member Brooke Pinto are all young women and first-time officeholders.

“Progressives did do well this election. But, really, nonpolitical insiders did well,” she said. “That’s voters saying, we are tired of business as usual and we are tired of insiders and we want people with fresh ideas and energy in the council.”

Some strategists said the key to beating moderates in D.C. politics is running liberal, Black, native Washingtonians — like White and George — who have credibility among longtime residents but also appeal to young newcomers.

“This is why I think Robert won, Janeese won,” said China Dickerson, who successfully managed liberal Ward 1 council member’s Brianne K. Nadeau’s 2014 campaign, when she ousted longtime incumbent Jim Graham in the Democratic primary.

“The mayor is having to figure out how to move,” Dickerson said. “She’s trying to figure out how she brings both groups in, the longtime residents and the newer ones. It’s going to be an issue.”

Some Lazere supporters questioned whether his campaign went too far to the left on issues such as defunding police, which could explain his poor performance in high-crime areas.

White, who first won office in 2016 with a multiracial coalition, said the post-mortem of Lazere’s campaign should focus less on his ideology and more on the whether the District’s left is inclusive.

“We have to prioritize centering people of color in our progressive agenda,” said White, who irked some activists when he chose not to participate in a public campaign finance program and to accept contributions from big donors. “And that means making sure that you have people of color at the table and communities of color driving the agenda.”

Liberal activists say they don’t see the election results as a sign that voters reject their platform. Instead, they consider it a call to action to organize more east of the Anacostia River, and to recruit better candidates. They took solace in Henderson self-identifying as a “progressive,” with a focus on child care and equity that mirrors much of the platform of liberal insurgents.

“If we’re looking at results and the direction of the city, overwhelmingly, people want wealthy people to pay their fair share. People want bold action on affordable housing and child care,” said Zach Teutsch, a left-wing activist who chaired George’s Ward 4 campaign. “The moderate views are not very popular and don’t line up with the population of D.C.”

Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.