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Win or lose, progressive challengers have influenced the Democrats’ agenda

When ‘primaried’ by progressives, Democratic incumbents shift further left, research finds

From left, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) speak at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016. He lost, but his run inspired a movement to continue his “political revolution.” In both 2018 and 2020, roughly 100 progressives contested Democratic primary elections for the House; they ran on Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, supported by such progressive organizations as Justice Democrats. About 8 percent have been elected, the most prominent of whom are known as the “Squad.”

The 2022 congressional primaries recently ended. About 70 Sanders-style progressives ran, fewer than in previous years. Seven won primaries in strongly Democratic districts. However, only o­ne defeated a Democratic incumbent. That’s the fewest since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory over Joseph Crowley in 2018.

Some argue that progressives’ primary losses show their momentum declining. But my research finds that even when they lose, progressive insurgents influence the policy positions and priorities of the incumbent — and the broader Democratic Party. The post-Sanders progressives have a lot to do with Democrats’ ambitious agenda under President Biden.

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Who are the post-Sanders progressives?

To identify progressive insurgent candidates who ran in 2018 and 2020, I compiled the names of those endorsed by the post-Sanders movement’s core groups: Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, Brand New Congress, Sunrise, Democratic Socialists of America and Working Families Party. From there, I looked at candidates supported by progressive groups that were more peripheral, like Blue America and 350 Action. When the endorsements did not overlap, I removed any candidates who did not explicitly support Medicare-for-all. In 2018, 103 candidates met these criteria. In 2020, 96 did.

Challengers increase incumbents’ likelihood of co-sponsoring with the Squad

In 2018, incumbent Democrats saw challengers defeat their colleagues. In 2020, when facing such a progressive challenge, incumbents significantly increased their sponsorships of bills introduced by the Squad, which in 2018 consisted of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and has since expanded to include Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).

To calculate sponsorship rates, I started by enumerating the post-Sanders progressives in the House, from those in the Squad to others like Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and former Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.). Together, they sponsored about 700 bills in the 116th Congress and the first year of the 117th Congress, or from the start of 2019 to the end of 2021. I then calculated the proportion of these active bills that each primaried incumbent co-sponsored before the challenger announced; from that announcement until the primary election; and then afterward.

Strikingly, half of the 44 Democrats who were primaried but kept their seats increased their rate of sponsorship by more than 59 percent from before the challenger announced to afterward.

I then looked specifically at incumbents in New York and Massachusetts, states where in 2018 progressives defeated incumbents, who might take the threat even more seriously. When challenged, these incumbents increased the proportion of bills they sponsored with the most prominent progressives by 90 percentage points more than other challenged incumbent Democrats.

Research finds that members of Congress largely use sponsorship to advertise policy positions to colleagues, constituents, and donors. In other words, sponsorship is a way to build their intraparty brand. Here, once challenged, incumbents acknowledged the appeal of progressive politics and quite literally signed on — what political scientist Tracy Sulkin has called “issue uptake.”

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Progressives’ fingerprints are on Build Back Better, although their influence shrank at every legislative stage

Progressive insurgents’ influence on policy can be seen across the Democratic agenda. I continued my research by conducting semi-structured interviews with more than 40 unsuccessful progressives who ran in 2018 and 2020. Many reported that they observed incumbents adopting their ideas or reframing themselves as progressives. But they saw their biggest overall impact in President Biden’s proposed policies.

Progressives’ election and policy pressure on primaried incumbents have pushed the progressive wing of the party to the left and, through that, changed what policy positions are associated with being a moderate.

Biden has had a career-long reputation as a moderate. Yet his Build Back Better agenda contained sweeping proposals that would greatly expand U.S. social programs and wealth redistribution. As some progressives noted and took credit for, its first iteration, although not called the “Green New Deal,” drew on that resolution’s ideas to inform its environmental and labor policies. They also saw their influence in the scale and number of new programs it included, like paid family leave.

In a narrowly Democratic Congress, as these ideas moved from campaign proposals to Democrats’ initial $3.5-trillion Build Back Better bill to the $1.75-trillion version that the House passed, progressives’ influence diminished along with the scope of the proposals. But they saw their impact in that the main Democratic fault line lay not between Biden and Sanders but between Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

While Build Back Better did not pass, the recent Inflation Reduction Act resuscitated that bill’s reduced climate provisions. Biden further used his authority to cancel $10,000 to $20,000 of student-loan debt, as promised in his campaign. Although progressives wanted much larger actions on both fronts, they understood their movement played a part in making these urgent issues top legislative priorities for Democrats.

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The dynamics of progressive primary challenges and progressive policy have changed since 2018

On the one hand, progressives had an easier time winning in 2018, before Democrats and affiliated groups began taking their challenges as seriously as they did this year. On the other, their ability to impact policy even though most lose depends on incumbents taking their challenges seriously enough to try to minimize their chances by adopting their ideas.

Despite their influence, post-Sanders progressives have not transformed Democrats as much as the tea party movement transformed Republicans. Only one successfully beat an incumbent in this year’s primaries. Democrats may adopt fewer of their policy positions when challenged in the future.

But the number of progressives in Congress will grow because of this year’s primaries. Progressives are in Congress in part because their ideas have gained new relevance over several tumultuous years of democratic, economic, racial, climate and health crises. With their increased presence in Congress and the widened popularity of their ideas, some proposals that appeared politically impossible just a few years ago have become viable among Democrats. How many more become law depends in part on how Democrats do this November.

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Amelia Malpas (@ameliamalpas) is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University and a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College.