Progressives watching the latest US primary results last Tuesday night might have felt understandably torn.
While two of the most leftwing members of the House, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri, easily fended off their challengers, Andy Levin lost in his Michigan primary to a much more centrist colleague, Haley Stevens.
The results epitomized the mixed success that progressive Democrats in the US have seen in this primary season, which will draw to a close over the next few weeks.
Although a number of progressive candidates have secured important victories in congressional primaries, centrists have prevailed in some of the most high-profile races. Rather than being discouraged by their losses, however, progressive groups are celebrating their wins and strategizing about how to continue pushing the Democratic party to the left on crucial issues as they look ahead to November’s midterm elections.
Those progressive groups point to the success of congressional candidates like Greg Casar and Jasmine Crockett in Texas and Summer Lee in Pennsylvania to demonstrate how their movement made important gains this year. All three of those candidates won their primaries in reliably Democratic districts, meaning they will almost certainly be elected to Congress in November, boosting the strength of the left of the party.
“I started the season with trying to temper my own and my organization’s expectations for what we were able to accomplish,” said Natalia Salgado, director of federal affairs for the Working Families party. “I’m walking away feeling like we far exceeded what our expectations were, and I feel like we truly met our moment.”
The primary victories of incumbents like Tlaib and Bush have also proven how progressive lawmakers can have staying power in Congress and potentially build long political careers.
“I think a lot of centrists try to paint our movement and the candidates that come from our movement as being sort of temporary,” Salgado said. “I think what [Tlaib and Bush] demonstrate is that progressives are not only able to speak with authenticity and credibility to their electorates, but they are also able to go into Congress and govern like serious lawmakers.”
But progressives have also seen some bruising primary losses this year.
In Texas, Jessica Cisneros lost an extremely close runoff race to Congressman Henry Cuellar, who is the last anti-abortion Democrat serving in the House. Progressive Nina Turner lost her rematch primary race against Congresswoman Shontel Brown, and Maryland’s Donna Edwards, seeking to return to the House after leaving office in 2017, was defeated by a more centrist candidate.
Progressives have blamed some of those losses on massive spending from outside groups aimed at undermining their candidates. Pro-Israel groups like the United Democracy Project, affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), and the Democratic Majority for Israel spent millions of dollars attacking progressive candidates and promoting their centrist opponents.
The UDP spent more than $4m against Edwards alone, even though the former congresswoman had secured the endorsements of prominent Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
“I think that should be a real wake-up call for the entire Democratic party, not just progressives,” said Usamah Andrabi, candidate communications manager for the progressive group Justice Democrats. “Mainstream Democrats and Democratic leadership think that they have power over these corporate Super Pacs, but I think [Edwards’s] election shows just how wrong they are.”
Andrabi and other progressive leaders have also criticized Democratic leaders for helping to prop up centrist incumbents like Cuellar. In the final days of Cuellar’s race against Cisneros, Pelosi recorded a robocall for the congressman, while the House majority whip, Jim Clyburn, traveled to Texas to campaign alongside his colleague.
To Andrabi, Democratic leaders’ aid to Cuellar sent a dangerous message to voters that the party does not live up to the values it espouses ahead of November, when Republicans are heavily favored to regain control of the House.
“How can you be the party that supports reproductive freedom, while also supporting the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House?” Andrabi said. “It just doesn’t line up.”
But Salgado saw a silver lining to the many hurdles that progressive candidates have faced this primary season. The extensive efforts by big money groups and centrist leaders to promote their preferred candidates demonstrated that progressives are being taken seriously as a political movement, she argued.
“If progressives weren’t being successful and weren’t seen as a threat, I don’t know that the forces of the Democratic party – with a capital D – and the centrist and moderate forces in our country and the big money forces would have coalesced in the way that they did,” Salgado said.
Even in the races where progressives lost, their supporters say those candidates helped to shape the conversation around important issues such as racial justice and the climate crisis. Given that the Democratic party has moved to the left in recent years, progressives hope that their candidates’ platforms will help persuade voters to embrace even more liberal reforms.
“There has been a real battle, especially in the last decade and a half, to redefine what the Democratic party means,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president and executive director of the young progressive voting group NextGen America. “Whether it’s the minimum wage, taxing the rich, climate change, or policing and immigration, progressives are actually winning. They are moving the Democratic party in the right direction.”
As the primary season starts to wind down and Democrats prepare for the general elections in the fall, progressives have promised to do everything they can to prevent Republicans from regaining control of Congress. Salgado said her group was eager to use the insight it has gained over the past several months to help Democratic candidates win in November.
“We truly have a winning formula for being able to beat back big money,” Salgado said. “When we head into the general election, when we’re all on the same team, let’s take the lessons learned from this cycle … to keep out the true enemy, to keep out insurrectionists, to keep out fascists from taking over our country.”
Centrists and progressives alike agree that the stakes could not be higher for this year’s midterm elections, which will mark the first time that every House member will be on the ballot since the January 6 insurrection.
As Donald Trump and many of his allies continue to spread lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election, progressives are committed to putting any lingering disappointment about primary results behind them.
“Even if you didn’t get the candidate of choice, the future of democracy is in your hands,” Salgado said. “For me, the choice is clear, and for voters, we hope the choice is clear as well.”