Elections produce winners and losers. There are no bonus points for participation. Democrats have been frustrated by losses in high-profile congressional races — Rob Quist bested by Greg Gianforte in Montana and James Thompson falling short to Ron Estes in deep-red Kansas. In both elections, the Democratic nominees outperformed previous Democratic showings but came up short. In the nationally publicized special election in Georgia to fill the seat of Republican Tom Price, the Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, is still locked in a dead heat. This leads pundits and many Democrats to wonder: Is the “resistance” to President Trump a dud at the polling booth?
Before the garment-rending and hand-wringing go too far, Democrats and pundits would do well to focus their eyes a little lower on the ballot. In special elections for state and local offices, progressive insurgents aren’t just coming close — they are winning and sending a message to the establishment of both parties.
In the 9th state assembly district of Long Island, Christine Pellegrino — a schoolteacher, union activist, Bernie Sanders delegate and Working Families Party Democrat — dispatched her Republican opponent by a stunning 58 percent to 42 percent. As Newsday reported, this is usually a district where Democrats hardly compete. Trump swamped Hillary Clinton here by 23 percentage points. The veteran Republican state legislator who held the seat was reelected by a 37-point margin over a Democratic challenger. But when he stepped down, Pellegrino — a first-time candidate — swept to victory.
In New Hampshire, Edith DesMarais pulled a similar upset in a state legislative race. “Republicans should absolutely be concerned,” William F.B. O’Reilly, a Republican partner in the November Team, a political consulting firm, told the New York Times. “Two Republican canaries died in the coal mine yesterday.”
Progressive candidates are rising in Democratic primaries in Democratic areas as well. In the primary for Philadelphia district attorney, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, who has defended Occupy Philadelphia and Black Lives Matter protesters, won on a platform calling for an end to mass incarceration, police reform and more. Supported by Sanders and a range of progressive groups, his candidacy was also bolstered by the money of George Soros. “This changes the game across the country,” William Cobb of the American Civil Liberties Union told Philadelphia Magazine.
In the Democratic primary for mayor in Jackson, Miss., victory went to Chokwe Antar Lumumba, running on a bold program calling for a “people’s administration” that would feature police reform and a locally grounded, cooperative strategy for economic development. Lumumba marched in solidarity with black auto-plant workers at the March on Mississippi with Sanders and the UAW and helped to found the Mississippi Human Rights Collective that led efforts to remove the Confederate insignia from the state’s flag. His victory was one of many for progressives in Democratic primaries.
Clearly the populist energy generated by the Sanders campaign and the Trump resistance has electoral power. Democrats — particularly the so-called Obama Coalition — have been notorious no-shows in by-elections and special elections. Now they are turning out in larger numbers, while Republican turnout is at question. As Republican consultant O’Reilly put it: “Special elections are a great measure of voter intensity. These are low-turnout affairs where the most motivated voters turn out. Trump voters and other Republicans simply didn’t show up, and voters from the left did.” In the high-visibility races with national attention, Republican and Democratic money floods in, turning the elections into high-stakes showdowns. Special elections outside that spotlight may well be a more accurate gauge of voter intensity.
Also notable in these victories is the growing infrastructure of progressive groups engaged in supporting transformative candidates. Our Revolution, an offshoot of the Sanders campaign, isn’t alone in the field. Working Families Party, MoveOn.org and many other groups all raise money, volunteers and attention for progressive champions.
These candidates are not your standard Democrats. Like Sanders, they are campaigning for bold change. They pledge an end to corruption. They support aggressive public action for working people — $15 minimum wage, investment in infrastructure, renewal of public education and making public college tuition free. This is now increasingly reflected at the national level as well, with Democratic legislators coming out for a $15 minimum wage, a major infrastructure jobs agenda and progressive tax reform.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the insurgency’s death are premature. In reality, it has just begun to build. Activists continue to flood Republican town meetings. GOP health-care and budget plans generate ever-greater opposition. Democrats’ victories at the state and local level may well augur what is yet to come.
Democrats start from a very deep hole, having lost more than 900 state legislative seats over the past eight years, leaving Republicans in complete control of 23 states. With Trump in the White House and the right dominating Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, capital-D and small-d democrats have every reason to despair. The Democratic Party apparatus still seems hidebound and timid. But the resistance is real. And the demand for fundamental change sparked by the Sanders insurgency is still building inside and outside the Democratic Party. Republicans are entrenched, backed by big money and a sophisticated right-wing infrastructure. But progressives are mobilized and just may be turning from protest to power.