One of the country’s most ambitious liberal campaign groups is endorsing five “game-changing” Democratic candidates for governor — three of them in races where better-funded candidates have grabbed hold of the popular “progressive” label, to the consternation of activists on the ground.
On Thursday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee endorsed Stacey Abrams, who won her party’s nomination for governor of Georgia this week, as well as four candidates running underdog primary campaigns: New York’s Cynthia Nixon, Arizona’s David Garcia, Florida’s Andrew Gillum and Michigan’s Abdul El-Sayed.
“We looked for candidates who’d use their platforms to turn states into models of progressive government,” said PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor. “During a primary, everyone says they’re progressive — which, to be honest, is kind of a problem.”
In Florida, Michigan and New York, the borrowing of the “progressive” brand has been a defining story of the primaries. Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, jumped into the Florida governor’s race early and portrayed himself as the bold, liberal alternative to former congresswoman Gwen Graham — a supporter of stronger gun control and a $15 minimum wage.
Then came Philip Levine, the wealthy former mayor of Miami Beach, who went on TV early to define himself as the “progressive” with a record of raising the minimum wage and banning assault weapons — or at least passing a resolution saying that assault weapons should be banned.
Liberals have been even more frustrated in Michigan, where wealthy chemical-testing company founder Shri Thanedar jumped into a race that had pitted El-Sayed, Detroit’s former health commissioner, against Democratic state Senate leader Gretchen Whitmer. While El-Sayed had staffed up with veterans of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential bid and gone after Whitmer for donations she took from the health insurance industry, Thanedar — with no record of Democratic Party activism — immediately introduced himself as “the most progressive Democrat running for governor” and a “fiscally savvy Bernie.”
Thanedar’s cash advantage moved him into a lead in a three-way race, before either Whitmer or El-Sayed could go on the air. With more than two months to go before the primary, Thanedar’s opponents on the left — who would prefer to be talking up El-Sayed’s policies on rural broadband or health-care coverage — have been pounding the front-runner. On Thursday, the Intercept uncovered a two-year old video of Thanedar listening to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at an Iowa campaign rally, then approaching him (successfully) for a selfie.
But Nixon’s race in New York has attracted the most national attention, and it has demonstrated how the candidates opposed by progressive groups can work to outflank them. Since Nixon entered the primary against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.), the two-term governor has announced many leftward shifts on policy.
Shortly after Nixon said the state should legalize marijuana, Cuomo endorsed national legislation to decriminalize the drug. (He has supported decriminalization in New York since 2012.) The very day that Nixon joined an environmental march in Albany, Cuomo rolled out a proposal to ban plastic shopping bags.
Cuomo’s branding campaign was fully on display at this week’s state Democratic convention, where national party figures such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez spoke to talk up the New York governor’s credentials.
“Now more than ever, we need leaders who will stand up for progressive values,” Clinton said. “I was proud to stand with him when New York became the first state to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
Nixon has responded by accusing Cuomo of wearing an election-year mask, attacking him as a “corporate Democrat” and highlighting a long-running arrangement under which Republicans held a majority in the state Senate despite holding fewer seats.
“The truth is the governor isn’t a progressive, and he knows it,” Nixon said at a news conference at the start of the convention. “That’s why he and his allies have bullied progressive community groups and rallied the full force of the big-money establishment.”
The PCCC, which hosted Nixon last month at a mass training session for insurgent candidates, is offering its own boost in the form of dedicated local supporters. The organization counts 58,000 members in New York, more than 44,000 in Florida and more than 22,000 in Michigan.