The left wing of the Democratic Party may have lost the war over the party's presidential nomination, but its members are quietly winning battles in states and cities across the country.
Progressive candidates have knocked off incumbent officeholders in places such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico in recent weeks in elections that are marking the end of an older generation of the political establishment.
Those elections may be a preview of the rest of the primary season, when long-serving Democrats find themselves the targets of well-organized campaigns to oust them. On Tuesday, voters head to the polls in New York, where at least two veteran lawmakers — Reps. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers pay tribute to Colin Powell NYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney MORE (D) and Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeSenators look to defense bill to move cybersecurity measures State and local officials celebrate passage of infrastructure bill with billion in cyber funds The developed world should help countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis MORE (D) — face serious threats from progressive rivals.
Some of the winners identify themselves as democratic socialists. Others stick with calling themselves progressives. But virtually all of them are younger than the incumbents they have beaten, a sign in many cases that the millennial generation is beginning to make its mark on the Democratic Party.
At least four Pennsylvania Democratic state legislators lost their seats in last week's primary. Two of the winning challengers in the Philadelphia area scored endorsements from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersStudy: Test detects signs of dementia at least six months earlier than standard method The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Omicron tests vaccines; Bob Dole dies at 98 Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away MORE (I-Vt.). In Pittsburgh, Emily Kinkead, a progressive making her first run for office, ousted state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl (D), the brother of the city's former mayor.
Two other Democratic incumbents trail their rivals by margins narrow enough that they could be reversed as more ballots are counted.
"I consider myself to be a proud progressive," said Amanda Cappelletti, who beat a sitting state senator to claim the Democratic nomination in a Philadelphia-area district. "I wanted to figure out the best way that I could serve and help people, and this would be a good opportunity to use my skills."
In New Mexico, insurgent progressive challengers ousted five moderate and conservative Democrats, including state Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen and state Sen. John Arthur Smith, the chairman of the Finance Committee.
In Washington, democratic socialist Janeese Lewis George upset Councilman Brandon Ward (D), a close ally of and former staffer to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). Two progressive candidates are leading the race to replace disgraced former councilman Jack Evans in a race that remains too close to call.
The wins for progressive candidates come two years after the first round of Sanders-supporting candidates such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezPressley looking for whoever 'borrowed' her Mariah Carey Christmas album Pressure grows to remove Boebert from committees Kevin McCarthy is hostage to the GOP's 'exotic wing' MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Omicron tests vaccines; Bob Dole dies at 98 Pressure grows to remove Boebert from committees Omar calls McCarthy 'a liar and a coward' for reaction to Boebert comments MORE (D-Minn.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibPelosi: Democrats can't allow 'indecent' Boebert comments to stand Omar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats September video shows Boebert made earlier comments suggesting Omar was a terrorist MORE (D-Mich.) came to prominence by ousting incumbents or establishment-backed rivals. Progressives claimed sweeping wins in Boston in 2019, when for the first time a majority of the City Council was made up of nonwhites and women.
Advances in technology have allowed progressive candidates to make inroads in big cities once dominated by party bosses, said Waleed Shahid, who directs communications for Justice Democrats, a progressive group that backs insurgent challengers.
"The internet is defeating these political machines. Where 20 years ago you would have to have the blessing of local party leaders just to get on the ballot, now you can have a good social media operation and leapfrog the party leadership and establishment networks," Shahid said.
This year, another progressive, marketing consultant Marie Newman ousted Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois's Democratic primary in March.
More surprises are likely ahead. After Ocasio-Cortez upset Rep. Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyTrucker unseats longtime NJ Senate president by spending almost nothing — here's how Former lawmakers sign brief countering Trump's claims of executive privilege in Jan. 6 investigation Bottom line MORE (D) in 2018, progressives have made a point to go after Engel and Clarke.
Reps. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyTwo women could lead a powerful Senate spending panel for first time in history Lobbying world Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority MORE (D-N.Y.) opted to retire rather than face what would have been almost certain primary challenges. In September, Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealGOP fears boomerang as threat of government shutdown grows House passes giant social policy and climate measure The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay MORE (D-Mass.) will face off against Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse (D), who has proved an adept fundraiser.
The primary challenges are coming as a younger, more progressive millennial generation becomes a potent force in politics.
Surveys show the millennial generation is more liberal than preceding generations, and as it moves into early middle age, it is accounting for a larger slice of the electorate — especially in larger cities, which have disproportionate numbers of millennial voters.
"The millennial generation is historically liberal. There's never been a generation, particularly of white voters, that has been as consistently Democratic," said Sean McElwee, who heads Data for Progress. "More and more, the typical always-shows-up voter is more progressive. They are urban professionals who are settling down, having kids and are not becoming conservative but instead are voting progressively in Democratic primaries."
Though Ocasio-Cortez has become the symbol of the rising generation of progressive officeholders, the movement is increasingly looking to down-ballot races both as an avenue for making policy changes at the state level and as a way to build a bench for the future.
"You can feel a change in the focus that grassroots progressives have put on some of these local races, really since 2016. I think part of it came from a recognizing, waking up from the Obama years just how much Democrats had lost," said Neil Sroka, who directs communications for Democracy for America and also won a city council seat himself. "The Trump moment exposed the ways in which cities and local offices could be a real buttress against a government that was 100 percent in the control of right-wing Republicans. I think that there has been a real awakening."
Sanders's two presidential campaigns served as one catalyst for the new round of progressive challengers but so too has police violence against unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and the New York City borough of Staten Island, Shahid said. Some of the most significant offices in which progressive insurgents have ousted long-serving Democrats have been in district attorneyships in places such as Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Suffolk County, Mass.
The progressive candidates who are leaping into races across the country increasingly have Justice Democrats, Democracy for America, Data for Progress, and a host of other local and national organizations to support them. Those groups have helped first-time candidates overcome what in previous years would have been insurmountable hurdles.
"You can't do it alone. You have a team, and when you're passing legislation, it's about the greater we," Cappelletti said. "Many of these progressives probably have that same mentality that this is a greater us and we moment."
--This report was updated on June 14 at 9:36 a.m.