Progressives are facing down a seeming disconnect over what’s politically achievable in Washington and what wins elections back home.
On one hand, they’ve won major policy battles from the White House to Capitol Hill this month, moving Democrats beyond what many thought was possible to accomplish under President Biden.
On the other, they’ve struggled to translate those victories to the campaign trail and are coming out of the primary season suffering damaging losses and bruised confidence.
In November, those two realities will be put to the test.
“Progressives continue to win the battle of ideas, we just don’t always win elections,” said Max Berger, a Democratic strategist with the social justice organization More Perfect Union and a veteran of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass) presidential campaign.
After more than a year of setbacks, liberals have had a good few weeks in Washington.
They were pleasantly surprised by the multibillion-dollar investment they secured toward climate measures from the Senate and White House and were equally happy when certain tax reform and health care provisions were included in the Inflation Reduction Act. They saw the scope of the package as proof they can get much of what they want with enough pressure.
Liberals put student loan relief high on the president’s radar early in his administration and their push persisted even as he tackled massive crises, from inflation and gas prices to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
They argued that Biden could cancel borrowers’ debt through executive action, bypassing the ideological disputes of Democrats in the Senate that have stalled his agenda at other critical junctures.
And after Biden announced a plan this week to cancel $10,000 in debt for those making less than $125,000 and double that for Pell Grant recipients, some felt even more optimistic about the power of the progressive movement.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said her flank had been “doggedly pursuing this,” for months, dating back to a conversation with Biden in March. She has maintained a line to the White House on the issue.
Those accomplishments have the left wing swatting back at what they see as uncredible critiques that their goals aren’t realistic.
Moderates have made the case that independents in particular find progressive policies unappealing. They fought to trim the price tag on earlier versions of Biden’s climate and spending package as well as on certain health care and education priorities. Some centrist lawmakers lobbied against student loan forgiveness up until the final decision, arguing that it would further increase inflation.
But on Thursday, liberals got more good news. A Gallup poll taken in the wake of the series of progressive wins showed the president’s approval rating jumping to the highest spot in a year — 44 percent — in part due to an increase in support from independents.
Still, for all progressives’ celebrations on the policy front, they saw plenty of disappointment at the ballot box.
One state with hit the left particularly hard: New York. Home to “Squad” members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and Jamaal Bowman (D), the state is usually seen as a bastion of support for progressive lawmakers.
But Democratic Trump impeachment counsel Dan Goldman, who was seen as more moderate, is projected to win the primary in the state’s 10th Congressional District, besting a field of progressive candidates including Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who ran in the 10th District instead of the 17th. And Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) dispatched a progressive challenger by 30 points.
Earlier in the year, former state Sen. Nina Turner, a co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, lost for a second time to Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), who had the support of the party establishment. And in a closely watched primary in Texas, Jessica Cisneros, a young activist and attorney lost by a hair to the establishment’s choice, conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. Cuellar’s supporters — and congressional leadership who weighed into the race — argued a progressive could not win his district.
Strategists attributed many of the losses to the amount of money backing more moderate candidates.
“Fragmentation plays a big part, as divided lefty fields opened up paths for … Goldman,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist who worked on the New York race. “But you just can’t talk about progressives’ primary hardships without addressing the tens of millions of dollars in corporate dark money parachuted into major races.”
The worry over so-called dark money has been weighing heavily on progressives this cycle. The left has been drastically outspent by special interest groups that poured money into several important races to defeat them.
Protect Our Future, the political action committee affiliated with tech megadonor Sam Bankman-Fried, has spent money in both Democratic and Republican primaries, and a PAC called Mainstream Democrats has worked to protect moderate incumbents, including Cuellar.
Progressives also say the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been spending more aggressively and out-in-the-open this cycle.
And Goldman, a Levi Strauss & Co. heir, angered his progressive challengers by pouring millions of his own money into his campaign.
Bill Neidhardt, a Democratic operative with Left Flank Strategies and former campaign spokesperson for Sanders, agreed with the damning influence he sees outside spending factoring into party primaries this cycle.
“Much of it comes down to big money in politics, with conservative Democrats using corporate PACs, or even self-funding in the case of millionaires like Dan Goldman,” said Neidhardt.
“But I would also challenge the notion that progressives are coming up short. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is going to be stronger than ever next Congress with new members who beat out moderates like Becca Balint, Greg Casar, Delia Ramirez and Summer Lee,” he added.
One notable sleeper came from Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 25-year-old Sanders-backed gun control activist who won the primary for Florida’s 10th Congressional District on Tuesday. The district’s blue tilt means he will likely become one of the youngest members of Congress next year.
And on the Senate side, voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin opted to nominate two progressives — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes — to help Democrats with their quest to keep their majority.
“The candidates have gotten a lot better honestly,” said Berger, noting that left wing groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party have fine-tuned their operations to recruit and train contenders to mount credible challenges. “There’s more people who have experience who have decided to take the lead.”
Some progressives also see the potential in future contests. Even if Democrats lose the House and their collective legislative power diminishes, there are signs of interest for a more liberal candidate than Biden or other possible contenders in 2024.
According to a new USA TODAY-Ipsos poll released on Friday, Sanders leads in favorability among almost two dozen candidates in a hypothetical match-up.
“Progressives are more popular than they appear,” said Burns. “And even with a torrent of money, corporate-backed candidates are still barely squeaking by.”