NEW YORK — With less than two months until the midterm elections, progressive Democrats are facing a test of their power.
Their party is heading into the final stretch of the campaign with a robust set of legislative accomplishments that include long-term progressive priorities on issues ranging from prescription drug prices to climate change. But the left has also faced a series of disappointments as Democratic voters from Ohio to Illinois to Texas rejected high-profile progressive challengers to moderates or incumbent members of Congress during the primary season.
The frustration is particularly acute in New York, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated one of the highest-ranking congressional Democrats four years ago, injecting fresh energy among the party’s most liberal voters. This year, however, New York City Democrats chose Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who is more of a centrist, over several progressive rivals, including freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones. About 30 miles north in the Hudson River Valley, a powerful establishment candidate, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, defeated a state lawmaker running to his left and backed by Ocasio-Cortez.
Those setbacks have raised fresh questions about the progressive movement’s standing among Democrats. Progressive leaders urge against reading too much into those losses, particularly in New York, where repeated elections this summer after a redistricting battle left some voters disoriented or disengaged.
“New York was just a mess,” said Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It was like the timing of the redistricting maps. I mean, that’s not a situation that’s going to get repeated a lot.”
Progressives have notched notable victories this year. In Oregon, Jamie McLeod-Skinner ousted moderate Rep. Kurt Schrader. Activist Maxwell Alejandro Frost topped a crowded field of Democrats in Florida and is poised to become the youngest member of Congress. And labor organizer Summer Lee edged out an establishment-backed candidate in Pennsylvania.
But those wins risk becoming the exception rather than the rule as moderates have repeatedly asserted their strength in recent years. President Joe Biden won his party’s nomination in 2020 after overcoming challenges from more liberal contenders including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In New York City, Eric Adams defeated several rivals from the left for the party’s mayoral nomination last year with an explicit critique of progressives, including Ocasio-Cortez. And New York Gov. Kathy Hochul easily dispatched a more liberal rival during this summer’s primary.
“Progressive” has long been a squishy label for Democrats. It generally refers to the party’s left flank but has been embraced by rank-and-file liberals as well as those much further left on the spectrum, including self-described democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.
The term “progressive” was even the subject of the first 2016 Democratic presidential debate between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with Sanders suggesting Clinton was not sufficiently progressive and Clinton disputing that and calling him the “self-proclaimed gatekeeper for progressivism.”
Some candidates championed by progressives have grappled with the label this year.
“No, I’m just a Democrat,” left-leaning Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman said in a May interview with NBC when he was asked if he is a progressive. He said his positions were considered progressive six years ago but “now there isn’t a single Democrat in this race or any race that I’m aware of that’s running on anything different. So that’s not really progressive. That’s just where the party is.”
Texas Rep. Jasmine Crockett, who won a Democratic congressional primary in May and was endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Politico that she’d been labeled a progressive but knows most of the Democratic voters in the Dallas-area seat where she’s running identify as moderates or conservatives.
Crockett said that means she won’t align with members of the further-left subset of progressives in the House known as the “Squad,” which includes Ocasio-Cortez and has been known for challenging the party’s establishment.
“I’ve got to be very cognizant. Honestly, I love so many members of the ‘Squad’ and I think that they do right by their districts,” Crockett said. “I think in my district, while they don’t self-identify as progressive, they love a lot of the things that I stand for.”
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic caucus and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said “there’s a difference between the socialist machine and mainstream progressives.”
Jeffries, speaking to reporters in a roundtable interview a few days before New York’s August primaries, said Democrats whose legislative records are “deeply progressive” still face criticism from “online virtue signalers” because they are not further left.
“There are some forces on the left that want to define ‘progressive’ as ‘You bend the knee and we tell you what to do, and if you fail to fall in line, you’re a machine Democrat or a corporate sellout.’ That’s a joke,” he said.
Jeffries said the left had some success taking out more traditional Democrats in 2018 and 2020 as Democratic frustrations with President Donald Trump translated into energy for insurgent campaigns. But Jeffries said that once Biden won the White House and his Democratic-controlled Congress began passing legislation, Democratic voters were no longer looking for insurgency.
“At a certain point in time, voters want results, particularly when Democrats have been entrusted with majorities,” he said. “And that is what we have been delivering.”
Bill Neidhardt, a progressive Democratic strategist who worked for liberal former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that while there have been noted losses in recent contests, the Democratic Party’s left flank has seen bright spots.
“It’s not a perfect record, but it never is in elections. I would challenge anyone to show me one of those,” Neidhardt said.
Neidhardt said progressives in Congress can point to growing political power, such as Biden’s recent student loan debt forgiveness plan or Democrats’ new law, the Inflation Reduction Act, tackling climate change and capping prescription drug costs.
“That’s got the progressives’ fingerprints all over it,” he said.
Though Fetterman has shrugged off the progressive label, Neidhardt said the Pennsylvanian opposing Republican Mehmet Oz might help progressives see one of their biggest coups yet. Fetterman and Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes are running in two hotly contested U.S. Senate seats that Democrats hope to flip while hanging onto their thin majority in that chamber.
“Who’s going to defeat Ron Johnson? Who’s going to defeat Dr. Oz? It’s going to be progressives,” he said.
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