Progressives started 2020 with the White House within their reach.
They’re ending it in a much more familiar place: on the march in ultra-liberal areas, but still without any mainstream electoral breakthroughs at the national level.
It’s a demoralizing conclusion to a year that began with so much promise. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised hundreds of millions of dollars in grassroots donations and even seized the lead at different times in the presidential primary, but their bids for the highest office stalled. The left also hoped this would be the year it proved that its bold message could capture swing seats in Congress — but that effort flopped, too.
“Progressives are like a superstar young athlete that is supposed to be coming into his prime but has still not established himself as a starter, let alone an all-star,” said Max Berger, the former director of progressive outreach for Warren’s presidential campaign. “We had a better showing this past year than we’ve had in a long time, but it’s still much worse than we might have hoped.”
In interviews with nearly a dozen left-wing elected officials, activists and aides, progressives described 2020 as a mixed bag. They are deeply disappointed by the fall of their standard-bearers in the presidential race and lack of swing-seat trophies in Congress. But they also consider it a serious accomplishment that the so-called Squad in the House is growing and that they proved the upset by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) two years ago was no fluke.
Progressives managed to take out three Democratic incumbents in House primaries this year: Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal, unseated Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the influential chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Marie Newman, a nonprofit founder, ousted conservative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.). And Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, beat political scion Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Miss.).
“The last time progressives were able to unseat a corporate-backed centrist Democrat in Congress was all the way back in 2006. In the past two cycles, we’ve unseated five different incumbents,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the left-wing group Justice Democrats, which played a leading role in helping the three successful challengers this year. “We’re much more powerful than we were during the Obama years.”
The party’s left flank also succeeded in an open primary in New York’s 17th District, a liberal area, where progressive Mondaire Jones won with the help of the Congressional Progressive Caucus‘ political arm, which made an independent expenditure for the first time ever for him. Progressives fended off a challenge to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) from Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.). And they made gains in mostly safe Democratic seats — and a handful of competitive districts — at the local and state levels, putting even more self-described socialists and racial justice activists into office across the nation.
But their inability to flip a Republican-held House seat remains a major impediment for progressives looking to persuade Democratic voters that they don’t need to sacrifice their favorite policies in order to win — and it puts them at a disadvantage in the chamber compared with the moderate lawmakers who gave Speaker Nancy Pelosi her majority.
Justice Democrats, which recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run in 2018, did not turn any red districts blue in Congress. The same is true for Our Revolution, the political organization founded by Sanders in the wake of his 2016 presidential bid, and the Sunrise Movement, a group of young activists working to address climate change.
Some progressives pointed out that moderate and establishment-oriented Democrats also did not have a great general election this year, given that they lost ground in the House.
Still, the left will likely never be able to achieve its top goals, such as passing “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal,” without the presidency or significantly greater clout in Congress. In the wake of its losses, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is planning to conduct a postmortem of the election, according to a lawmaker involved. Justice Democrats is also expecting to undergo an analysis, “especially paying attention to districts where we didn’t make it quite over … and [analyzing] places where we did do well because we want to see what works,” Rojas said.
One issue became clear in the presidential primary: The inability to win over Black voters was a leading obstacle for progressives this year. Both Sanders and Warren failed to make headway with African Americans, and South Carolina dealt as big a blow to the Vermont senator’s campaign in 2020, as it had in 2016. If he’d won or even narrowed his loss in the state, Sanders would have denied Joe Biden’s then-flagging campaign a resurrection.
“The younger generation of African American progressives — I think we can follow their lead, their advice, their strategy,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Sanders’ former campaign co-chair. “And we have to do a better job of building coalitions with the Congressional Black Caucus.”
Progressives also said that fundraising was a challenge for down-ballot candidates, despite their favorite presidential candidates raking in millions of dollars this year. Some think that super PACs aimed at helping the left should be expanded, and that more should be done to build campaign infrastructure in order to win competitive districts. Others said progressives should invest in deep organizing across the country, using Democrats’ long-term work in Georgia as a model.
“There’s been a real dearth of year-round organizing that is not just based on sheer turnout or mobilization, but is about talking to people on the issues that matter to them,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. “I think we are focused so heavily on the turnout machine part of it that sometimes we forget to focus on the real, day-to-day organizing part of it and doing a better job of that.”
Progressives called for more efforts to recruit people to run in swing seats. While the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Sunrise Movement backed a handful of candidates in such competitive districts, other liberal groups focused their efforts on just one swing-seat contender: Nebraska social worker Kara Eastman, who lost by nearly 5 percentage points — worse than she did in 2018 — even as Biden carried the Omaha-based district.
Even then, Democratic strategists said that liberal organizations invested in her campaign too late and failed to cohere around a single, simple-to-understand communications strategy.
A handful of left-wing aides are debating whether they need to fine-tune their messaging. Republican attack ads in congressional races across the country, including those targeting Eastman, painted Democrats as radical socialists, tore apart Medicare for All and ripped into activists’ call to defund the police.
“Some of us are thinking that a left version of Frank Luntz might not be a bad idea,” said Robert Hockett, a former adviser to Sanders’ 2020 campaign who is now a fellow at the progressive think tank New Consensus, referring to the GOP messaging guru. “There are certain words that unfortunately raise flags for people.”
Wendell Potter, a former health care executive who now leads the pro-Medicare for All advocacy group Center for Health and Democracy, said his organization is planning to focus on improving its messaging so that it can go beyond preaching to the choir. Another group he leads, Business Leaders for Health Care Transformation, changed its name this year from Business for Medicare for All.
“I’m from Tennessee,” Potter said. “How can I go back to Tennessee and be persuasive to folks who I know voted for Donald Trump, and talk to them in ways that they’re not going to be shutting down just when I open my mouth?”
Some progressives have even questioned whether the phrase “defund the police” should be tweaked, though others have said it would be immoral to back down as Black Americans are killed at disproportionate rates by police — not to mention the fact that it likely wouldn’t work, they said, if they tried to get protesters to abandon the slogan.
As they figure out what to do next, left-wing leaders said that election results have proven that people of color, especially those who are relatively young, perform strongly in primaries, and that candidate recruitment efforts should reflect this. Most of the progressive challengers who unseated House incumbents in 2020 were Black. Black Lives Matter also touched off one of the biggest movements in American history this year.
“In order for the progressive movement to continue to be successful and to become more powerful,” said Jones, the New York congressman-elect, “it has to bring racially diverse voices into the fold, elevate those voices to leadership, and invest in candidates from underrepresented backgrounds in our politics who can connect with the electorate in a way that, historically, older, wealthy, white men have been unable to.”
That points a way forward, in the eyes of many on the left. While they aren’t ready to give up on swing seats yet, progressives said that picking off incumbent Democrats and winning open primaries in liberal areas is a more surefire way to make gains for now.
“It wasn’t that the Tea Party won a ton of swing races,” Berger said. “That’s not what made them powerful. They succeeded because they won a lot of Republican districts, and I don’t see why our project would be significantly different.”
There are signs that the left will be even more confrontational in intraparty fights in the Biden era. The Movement School, part of a sister arm of Justice Democrats that trains progressive organizers, said it is expanding. Left-wing congressional leaders have also demonstrated that they are going to more openly embrace taking on incumbent Democrats in the 2022 midterms.
In the past, even gadflies like Sanders have been reluctant at times to get behind candidates running against their colleagues. But both he and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, sent emails last week to supporters raising money for Justice Democrats and explicitly endorsing the group’s program that recruits primary challengers.
“The lesson that progressives can draw from this cycle is the importance of getting involved in primaries,” Jones said. “There are a lot of people in the House from districts more Democratic than my own who are not where they need to be on any number of issues.”