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Progressive insurgents lost big in the midterms

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Democratic congressional candidate Randy Bryce
Democratic congressional
candidate Randy Bryce

Scott
Olson/Getty Images


  • While some progressive insurgents in blue districts made
    gains in this year’s midterms, a slew of leftist firebrands
    running in red and purple districts fared poorly on Tuesday.
  • Candidates from Virginia to California threw out the
    conventional playbook for red state Democrats, testing the theory
    that unabashed leftists can energize new voters in middle
    America.
  • While some point to historically slim margins and energized
    voters in states like Texas and Georgia, others say the party
    needs to refocus on candidates with broad appeal. 

While some progressive insurgents in blue districts made gains in
this year’s midterms, a slew of leftist firebrands running in red
and purple districts fared poorly on Tuesday, losing races that
Democrats knew would be tough but were nevertheless optimistic
about winning.

Candidates from Virginia to California threw out the conventional
playbook for red district Democrats, testing the theory that
unabashed leftists can energize new voters while spurning
conservatives — and it didn’t pan out quite as they’d hoped.
Meanwhile, the path to Democratic control of the House was paved
by more moderate candidates who ran on fixing Obamacare and being
a check on President Donald Trump. 

“The candidates who excited the progressive base got cooked,”
said Sean McElwee, a progressive activist and pollster who helped
push Democratic incumbents and candidates to join his call to
abolish ICE. “It really does seem that the sort of big winner
over the night were ‘normie’ Democrats.”

Kara Eastman, a social worker who defeated the Democratic
establishment’s pick in her Nebraska primary and ran on bold
progressive policy goals — including Medicare for All and
abortion rights — lost her competitive swing district by three
points. Some Democratic strategists think Eastman ran her general
election campaign too much like her primary bid. 

“She made the campaign about her particular view on healthcare —
single payer — rather than building a coalition of voters who
could have been swayed to vote for a Democrat by the GOP ACA
repeal efforts,” Ian Russell, a Democratic congressional
strategist, told INSIDER. 

Other progressive disappointments include Randy Bryce, who ran
for House Majority Leader Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin; Dana
Balter, an academic beaten by a moderate GOP incumbent in her
Syracuse, N.Y. district; and consumer law expert Katie Porter is
trailing GOP incumbent Mimi Walters in Orange County,
California. 

Some say the losers were weak or flawed candidates to begin with.
Others say progressive groups like Our Revolution and Justice
Democrats didn’t do enough to direct resources their way. 

“I think it says more about the fact that some progressive
groups talked a big game but when it came down to financial
support, they didn’t spend the money to help their candidates,”
Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist and former spokeswoman
for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, told INSIDER. 

Despite Tuesday’s losses, McElwee argued that the broader arc of
the party is bending leftwards.

In virtually every district where a Democrat was successfully
primaried, the replacement was to the left of their predecessor.
Insurgents made some key gains in blue districts where Democratic
voters embraced younger, more progressive, and more racially
diverse candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City
and Ayanna Pressley in Boston.

“In blue districts the Democrats
are getting bluer and in purple districts they’re also getting
bluer,” McElwee said.

But many on the left have pointed
out that solid Democratic centrists also didn’t do particularly
well on Tuesday. Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who ran to
the center as a fiscal conservative, lost by 11 points to
conservative hard-liner Rep. Marsha Blackburn. 

Sens. Joe Donnelly of
Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — both of whom ran as
moderates — lost by far larger margins than did Rep. Beto
O’Rourke in Texas, who was defeated by Sen. Ted Cruz by just
under three points. In Florida, Andrew Gillum came within a
single point of becoming the purple state’s first black
governor. 

Democrats point to the fact that
unapologetic progressives like O’Rourke, Gillum, and Stacey
Abrams in Georgia energized historic numbers of voters and came
closer to winning than more moderate candidates have in those
states in past years.  

“I believed going into election
night that Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams — that
they represented the future of the Democratic party, and that is
true win or lose,” Jon Lovett, a former Obama speechwriter, said
on Wednesday’s “Pod Save America” podcast.  

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