This year’s Democratic primaries are largely framed as an ideological battle between the moderate and progressive wings of the national party. But the voting patterns of recent weeks have complicated that story.
In Pennsylvania and Oregon squad competitions, progressive wins led to: proclamations that the left wing of the party is to win influence, while some moderate victories defied that thinking. However, what becomes apparent as the votes are counted is that Democratic primary voters seem to care less about who the “progressive candidate” is and more about whether candidates are campaigning for progressive causes. What many of the Democrats who won this week have in common is that they all embraced progressive priorities aligned with what they were doing.
Perhaps nowhere better summed up this reality than the swing-state of Pennsylvania, where a relatively progressive and locally trusted candidate who repeatedly rejected the progressive label—Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman—the more moderate, Washington favorite, Rep. Conor Lamb, defeated in the primary race for the United States Senate.
“Because I’m not a centrist anymore, it’s hard to get things done. There’s more and more space in the middle,” Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic strategist in Philadelphia, told me about the dynamism of the state.
Across the state, candidates who delivered digestible versions of progressive messages fared well, from the leftist candidates who won races in heavily Democratic territories before state and federal lawmakers to the moderate incumbents who survived tough challenges from the left. In nearly all of these races, a general left shift was evident among the party’s grassroots and candidates.
This trend isn’t necessarily universal: Many more traditional moderate Democrats won their races in Ohio and North Carolina. And it’s possible that upcoming races in California, Illinois, Michigan and Texas will confuse this story. But for the most part, the primaries so far seem to show that progressive activism and ideas have changed what primary voters want and what their candidates have to offer.
Any team that scored on Tuesday wins
Both sides of the democratic ideological spectrum could claim victory on Tuesday. From North Carolina to Oregon, there was no uniformity in who emerged victorious.
What connects many of Tuesday’s races, however, is how few moderates openly ran across the middle of the ideological spectrum without taking on at least some of the issues and language progressives have used in previous races. That includes things like advocating a higher minimum wage, expanding access to and coverage of health care, a more open embrace of gun control and abortion rights, and at the very least tackling climate change.
In Pennsylvania’s Third Congressional District, a more moderate, established kind prevailed, where Rep. Dwight Evans defeated progressive challengers by focusing on affordable housing, criminal justice reform, gun violence and crime. A similar dynamic was seen in other seats in the state legislature, including longtime state senator Anthony Williams, who campaigned for abortion access, gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform when he first faced a serious challenge from the left. And in the Lieutenant Governor primaries, predecessor Rep. Austin Davis rivals to his left who pushed for abortion and criminal justice reform.
This trend was not only seen in Pennsylvania.
In Kentucky, liberal state leader Morgan McGarvey defeated a left-wing rival to represent Louisville’s third congressional district, which is firmly Democratic, by supporting partial cancellation of student loans, single-payer health care and the idea of a green new Deal.
A similar picture emerged in North Carolina. Center-focused Senator Don Davis, backed by outgoing U.S. Representative GK Butterfield, comfortably defeated his progressive challenger, a former state senator backed by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and a string of progressive groups. Although Davis does not support a Green New Deal or Medicare-for-all, he still campaigned for affordable health care, voting rights, reproductive rights and raising the minimum wage.
However, things were a little different in Democrat-dominated Oregon, where progressives were on the rise. The firmly centrist incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader, who campaigned for pragmatism and consensus building, is on track to lose to progressive activist Jamie McLeod-Skinner in the Fifth District, while cryptocurrency-backed attorney Carrick Flynn, who had no political experience, is also behind the progressive. state Rep. Andrea Salinas. And after a tough campaign, former state house speaker Tina Kotek defeated a moderate challenger, state treasurer Tobias Read, in the Oregon governor’s primaries.
Oregon’s results, drawing voters to the conventional, truly progressive, add an extra layer of complexity to the primary picture. Regardless, this week’s races showed that Democratic candidates of all ideologies feel compelled to appeal to their left wing.
Progressive ideas have changed the way candidates walk
Much has changed since the last midterm elections in 2018, when progressives made big gains but moderate Democrats ensured the party gained a majority in the House. So far, the party’s primaries show an electorate much more willing to accept populist, progressive(ish) ideas than before — a major victory for left-wing activists and thinkers who have managed to turn the party’s ideological center into their own. to move direction.
So far, few candidates have run openly as centrists without paying at least lip service to progressive priorities. Where they refused, as in Schrader’s race, they faced headwinds from a changing democratic primary electorate.
“Ten years ago, blue-dog and corporate Democrats would run on it” [centrist] message against progressives,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has supported several progressive newcomers this election cycle, told me. “Nowadays they are more willing to use the language of progressives against progressives in primaries – but Schrader was the exception to this rule.”
That is not to say that a moderate using progressive talking points has a sure path to success. Marcia Wilson, the chairman of the Adams County Democratic Party in rural Pennsylvania, said Lamb’s campaign showed how some Democrats fear electing an apparent Liberal who turns out to be a Joe Manchin-style Democrat.
“Democrats feel more galvanized and want to be known as Democrats not because they are unwilling to compromise, but because we want to support Democratic ideals,” she said. Wilson told me this partly explains why Lamb’s pitch to the state didn’t resonate — a more conservative background and platform in previous races made his shift to the left in the Senate primaries inauthentic.
Yet Lamb tried to bring about an ideological change. Something similar happened in previous Democratic primaries in Ohio, where more moderate candidates like Tim Ryan (running for the state Democratic Senate), Nan Whaley (running for the governor), and Shontel Brown (running the 11th congressional district) went to the polls. the left. Coming races will test this trend, but so far it seems Democratic voters want their candidates to speak like progressives, even if they aren’t actually progressives.
The general election, in turn, could change the way these candidates talk about their priorities. The citizens who usually turn out to vote in November are generally less ideological and partisan than voters participating in the primaries. And the progressive ideals beloved by hardcore Democrats may not be received as well by moderates and centrists in competitive general election seats.
When progressives – and progressive ideas – win? uphill battles however, in these swing districts, Democrats may end up with a newly empowered left flank, catalyzing the political polarization Americans have come to expect from their government.