Zephyr Teachout took only 34 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but she succeeded in bringing her old-fashioned populist platform to the attention of the media and a broad audience of voters.
Outside of New York, of course, it's still only a few people who have had exposure to Teachout's unusual political views, which she summarized in an interview on Wednesday as a critique of a society corrupted by crony capitalism. The Fordham University law professor has consistently argued -- on the stump and in her academic work -- that the government should do more to ensure free competition, both in elections and in the economy. She calls for a return to the trust-busting approach of the early part of the last century: preventing single firms from amassing too much economic power and restraining their influence in the legislative process.
In one sense, she is calling for more aggressive government in these areas, but to the end of decentralizing political and financial power. Teachout believes it is a way of thoughtfully combining the slogans of movements as disparate as the tea party and Occupy Wall Street to appeal to ordinary voters.
"They are unhappy with the sense that there are big companies that are getting special favors," she said.
Public financing of campaigns was one of two main planks in her platform. And Teachout says she will continue to argue that a matching system, in which small donations to campaigns are matched by larger contributions from the public bucket, would encourage candidates to listen to the concerns of poor and middle-class voters rather than wealthy donors and corporations. The Supreme Court's recent decisions on campaign finance would probably allow for such a system, since it would only encourage speech, not restrict it.
The other plank was a renewed commitment to preventing monopolies and oligopolies in business. She argues that in industries from health care to banking to meat processing, policies adopted during the Reagan administration have permitted mergers and acquisitions resulting in the concentration of market power in the hands of a few firms. As a result, her reasoning goes, consumers pay higher prices and workers are paid less, and large firms can lobby in a coordinated way for legislative protection from would-be competitors. It's a message that will appeal to just about anyone who has recently paid a cable bill.
"We want to see mergers be a political issue," Teachout said.
That may seem like a long shot now, but net neutrality -- a term coined by Teachout's running mate Tim Wu -- has quickly become a mainstream topic of political debate, drawing 1.1 million comments to the Federal Communications Commission. Teachout and Wu worry that firms such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable can use their dominance in the market not just to fleece ratepayers, but also to punish business partners such as Netflix and suffocate new competitors in the cradle. They've called for New York to block the proposed merger between those two companies inside the state. Given Time Warner Cable's many customers in New York, it's conceivable such a move could kill the deal.
If Teachout's ideas gain broad approval nationally or influence in Washington, they'll have followed the same trajectory as those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was also a law professor before she became a standard-bearer for liberal Democrats. Although Warren doesn't often talk about her time at Harvard, her ideas on financial regulation -- which helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- emerged from her research on bankruptcy there.
Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist in Washington, warned that candidates elsewhere in the country might have a difficult time replicating Teachout's success, as Cuomo is particularly disliked by some New York Democrats.
"Some of the actions he’s taken have really antagonized the liberal wing of the party in that state," he said.
All the same, Teachout's platform has passed an important road test in upstate New York, a traditionally conservative region where Teachout beat Cuomo in two dozen counties.
Teachout acknowledged that fundraising would be an obstacle for any candidate adopting parts of her platform, but she hopes that her ideas might win financial support from the technology sector. Many small firms and venture capitalists, in addition to heavyweights such as Google, are frustrated by what they see as the government's leniency toward the dominant Internet providers.
Tim Lee foresaw Teachout's paradoxical approach -- using government power to decentralize authority -- in a 2012 essay on technology and regulation, and Silicon Valley could be a natural constituency for a platform like Teachout's.
Unlike Republican elected officials across the country, who have confronted a resilient tea party insurgency, Democrats other than Cuomo have not had to respond to serious primary challenges from the flank of the party. That could change.
"After trying to downplay the challenge for several months, he moved fairly aggressively in the last couple weeks to try and shore up his base and to mollify the left," said Manley, the strategist. "For anyone else that finds themselves in a similar situation, they're going to have to do the same thing."
As Democrats decide on a compelling agenda to rally voters in 2016 as President Obama prepares to leave the White House, the ideas Teachout has advocated could be appealing. It is true that Teachout's argument that a genuinely level playing field is only possible with government manning the bulldozer is not one that people are used to hearing, and it might not condense neatly into a sound bite. On the other hand, her arguments could speak to both progressive and conservative instincts, and similar rhetoric about big business could make a cogent rebuttal to Republicans who are likely to accuse Obama of crony capitalism.