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It’s time for Democrats to throw out old ideas about who is a ‘viable’ candidate

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This week, Florida Democrats nominated Andrew Gillum for governor. The nomination didn’t just make history because Gillum is black — though he is the first African-American candidate to be nominated by a major party for governor in Florida history — he’s also making history as part of a wave of diverse progressives with bold visions for our country’s future. He ran on a platform of Medicare for All, eliminating cash bail, and fighting the climate change that is fueling brutal flooding across his state.

But that wasn’t the only history-making win last night. In Arizona, David Garcia — a social justice progressive running to revitalize public education — won the nomination for governor. Not only could he be the state’s first Latino governor in decades — his victory also marked a milestone for the resistance movement. Garcia’s campaign exploded in popularity in the midst of the new era of mass-teacher strikes, a clear part of the growing resistance to austerity.

These two campaigns have a lot in common: they show how the progressive movement is reclaiming the soul of the Democratic Party in the Trump era. Democratic primary voters are showing up in historic numbers to stand up for diverse candidates with a bold, progressive vision for our nation’s future that throws austerity, and the idea that white and establishment equals viable, in the trash.

With all this change, it’s time for Democrats to discard old ideas about who is a “viable” candidate once and for all. The ‘safe’ moderate, self-funded, white candidates the Democratic establishment loves to back just don’t have the hearts of voters anymore. It’s voter enthusiasm that propelled Gillum to a victory that caught many pundits off guard.

But it shouldn’t have. Our schools outside the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods are struggling; too many families in rural and urban areas are working two-three jobs to make ends meet; and white supremacists are marching in the streets. In a world that has become quite dark, candidates with bold, hopeful visions for our future — candidates who are rejecting austerity and challenging a corporate worldview — are winning.

But good policy platforms alone aren’t enough in 2018. Democratic voters want candidates that feel their pain because they have experienced that pain.  

Candidates who didn’t grow up rich are connecting with voters and turning them out. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, who supports her family and worked her way through law school by taking on debt — was slammed during the primary for owing more than $200,000. But voters disagreed with pundits. Everyday families voted Stacey Abrams in and made “deep-red” Georgia a competitive race not just in spite of that debt, but I believe because of it. Voters in America understand the pain of debt.

In New York, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is such a compelling candidate not only because her agenda truly gets at the issues facing everyday people, but because her campaign connected those issues to her personal story of walking in the shoes of the people she sought to represent.  

The base wants bold visions for our future that give us hope in a Trump era filled with heightened racism and bigotry– but we also want candidates who represent the opposite of Trump’s billionaire Cabinet. Candidates who understand what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet — and who’s big progressive ideas aren’t just part of the platform because they are suddenly popular, but because those ideas would have helped them long before they had a seat at the table.

In New Mexico a year ago, common ‘wisdom’ was that Deb Haaland was an incredible progressive who just couldn’t win. Haaland, who is on track to become our nation’s first Indigenous congresswoman alongside Sharice Davids, connected with voters by laying out a bold path forward that included a Green New Deal, abolishing ICE, and universal child care. But she also spoke frankly about living on food stamps, and about life as a single mom. Ms. Haaland was outspent, but she won a six-way primary despite being ‘unviable.’

Not only are diverse progressives winning, they are bringing the resistance to the polls. Vermont netted the second highest primary turnout in the state’s history with Christine Hallquist on the ticket, who could soon be our nation’s first transgender governor. Arizona is predicting record turnout. Florida had the highest primary turnout since 2002.

The Democratic base doesn’t just want a person with a D by their name who can pay for TV ads, they want someone and something to fight for. That means someone who is going to fight for them – because they’ve been there.

Here’s the honest truth: Trump may have sparked the modern resistance, but sustaining it requires giving people something to fight for, not just against. That’s why candidates like David Garcia, Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, Paulette Jordan, and Ben Jealous are winning, despite polling, the experts and the naysayers.

George Goehl is the Director of People’s Action, a multiracial working class alliance of more than one million members, 50 local and state affiliates, and more than 400 organizers across the country.


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