With nine state primaries still to come (10, counting Oklahoma’s mostly-Republican runoffs), the emerging story is less dramatic.
When it comes to policy, the left has already won the intra-Democratic war — even the most “moderate” Democrats are now running on Medicare and Medicaid expansions that go substantially further toward universal coverage than the Affordable Care Act. When it comes to candidates, the “professional” left is mostly scoring wins in safely blue districts, cities, and counties; it is shooting for the moon, and falling short, in races seen as competitive between the two parties.
It’s worth walking through the groups that claim victory after these races to explain who’s doing what. In general, the remaking of the Democratic Party is happening on a small scale with a long horizon.
Democratic Socialists of America. Thanks to Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC, as she’s nicknamed) and to Republicans who want to elevate the “socialist” brand as a way of attacking Democrats, DSA is the breakout star of the cycle. But it has a rigorous endorsement process that leads, mostly, to support in state legislative races where a powerful ground game can move a few thousand votes to win.
This week, it announced 13 new national endorsements — some overlap, but not total overlap, with candidates endorsed by local chapters. All but one of those candidates, Maine’s Zak Ringelstein, are running for state legislature or local office. Ringelstein, who earned some national attention for joining DSA during his campaign, is running a long-shot bid against Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), on the theory that the state’s new runoff system for federal elections could get a Democrat through a three-way race.
Justice Democrats. As first reported by the Post, JD began in January 2017 with the extremely ambitious goal of replacing “corporate Democrats” with brand new members of Congress, all of them committed to a platform that resembled the one Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran on in 2016.
For most of the cycle, JD’s success was limited to races where Democrats did not really plan to compete in November. In Texas’s primaries, for example, four Justice Democrats seized their nominations. But on average, Trump won their districts in 2016 by 22.7 percentage points — i.e., they were not going to be targeted by the party if Justice Democrats didn’t run. In 2016, no Democrat raised more than $25,000 in any of these districts, while three of this year’s JD candidates have raised more than $100,000.
Then came Ocasio-Cortez, and after her came — a few high-profile defeats on Aug. 7. Why were the Welder and El-Sayed losses so widely interpreted as setbacks for the left? Frankly, because those campaigns embraced Ocasio-Cortez’s win, brought her in to campaign, and welcomed the free media that came with the “next big upset” story line. This month’s other left-wing winners, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, pulled out victory in districts where the primary is tantamount to general election; Randy Bryce, the month’s one big Justice Democrat winner in a swing seat, was also endorsed before the primary by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Over the next four weeks, 13 more Justice Democrats will face primaries. One, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), is an incumbent and a shoo-in. Several, like Arizona’s Deedra Aboud and Florida’s Chardo Richardson, are challenging front-runners in Aug. 28 primaries, with less than $20,000 left to spend. The next marquee contests for the group will really come across seven days in September, with an attempt to unseat Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) on Sept. 6, primaries against Rhode Island’s governor and lieutenant governor on Sept. 12, and the primary season-ending New York primary.
Working Families Party. Founded in New York as an actual political party — the state’s “fusion” system allows candidates to hold multiple ballot lines — WFP has expanded rapidly into an organizing and endorsement structure for left-wingers in swing states. In that role, it’s had a remarkable year, focusing on two things — backup for left-wing candidates who have relationships with the party, and upsets in the sorts of municipal races where organizing can make a difference.
August has been, so far, a good month for WFP. It was part of the coalitions that backed Randy Bryce in Wisconsin and Jahana Hayes in Connecticut’s 5th district. It beat two incumbent “corporate” Democrats — one in Connecticut’s 9th state senate district, one in Wisconsin’s 9th state assembly district. But its marquee race was in Milwaukee County, where Earnell Lucas broke a 16-year conservative hold on the sheriff’s office.
David Clarke, first appointed to that role by a Republican governor, won primary after primary as a conservative Democrat. But he resigned last year, and his successor lost to Lucas, as Democratic turnout spiked for a competitive gubernatorial primary. A county with a larger population than six states will have a sheriff who ran on criminal justice reform — not a sea change for national Democrats, but the kind of win the left wants and needs in the run-up to 2020.