Progressives eye shift in strategy after high-profile losses

Greg Nash

Progressives are looking to change up their ground game after losing several high-profile races they expected to win.

Following Nina Turner’s defeat in an Ohio special House election, left-wing Democrats have privately acknowledged that aspects of their strategies have not served them well politically. While some suggest only modest revisions are needed at this point, others are considering more robust changes to their internal operations to avoid future bruises.

The conversations, which are occurring largely out of the public view, are the latest sign that progressives are aggressively searching for ways to retain momentum and counter the emerging orthodoxy that moderate Democrats are preferable for 2022.

“Nina’s race shows — and perhaps some others — that we’ve got to up our game,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, the leading group that backed Turner’s bid in the state’s 11th Congressional District. “That means upping our phone game, upping our canvas game, upping our text game.”

Geevarghese is just one of several top progressive operatives and activist leaders who are now considering how to do better business.

When Turner, the apparent front-runner for much of the primary, lost to moderate Rep.-elect Shontel Brown (D), many within the party sought to diagnose what led to her downfall, including corporate versus grassroots fundraising, time spent on air and the power of influential surrogates.

Where Turner relied heavily on individual small-dollar donations, Brown embraced funding from other sources like political action committees. When Turner ultimately lagged for cash, Brown’s campaign funds allowed her to hit the airwaves at a critical moment. And while Turner had Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on her side, Brown benefitted from the magnetic force of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose signature power boost helped shake up the race.

But Geevarghese and aligned Democrats see problems beyond just Turner. If anything, they say, her bid was a gut check to make more investments and longer-term changes to the existing playbook, especially for races that attract a lot of eyeballs.

Geevarghese told The Hill that he is in the process of establishing an “organizing training institute” within Our Revolution so that progressive candidates are better equipped to reach voters on the ground and so that they are not caught flatfooted.

“We’re going to be putting our members systematically through a curriculum that will train them up, not just on running effective political campaigns, but also running effective issue campaigns,” he said.

“The outcome in Ohio really underscored the importance of us ramping it up. It was something we were going to do a little bit later in the fall and we decided to do it even sooner.”

The program launched on Wednesday with about 100 first-time trainees.

Other progressives view a late start among their liberal cohort as a critical misstep in a lot of lost races. Many Democrats on the left believe that problem did not start with one particular election, but rather is part of a decades-long decision not to invest in the type of campaign infrastructure that would help aid lasting victories.

Making up that ground will take more than a cycle or two, they say. And there needs to be a degree of expectation-setting that goes along with future inevitable drubbings.

“I do think we’re going to suffer more hard losses,” said Brooke Adams, who serves as movement politics director for People’s Action. “Some of these districts actually require a four- to six-year organizing plan.”

Anticipating that, Adams and other senior staff are implementing communications and operational framework earlier than in previous cycles. A big part of that now involves broadening their focus beyond Democratic primaries to also target swing districts — including rural and suburban areas — that require even more preparation to win.

“The really key part of our strategy is getting to voters early,” Adams said. “We started building our deep canvas program in many swing districts now, even though we’re way ahead of when the election is going to start because we really need to inoculate people against this right-wing messaging.”

There have been a handful of progressives who have ousted Republican incumbents, including Reps. Andy Kim (N.J.) and Katie Porter (Calif.), who was backed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). But the track record is limited. And among challenges to other Democrats, down-ballot candidates propped up by progressive groups have also faced hurdles.

Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 victory over longtime incumbent Joseph Crowley, as well as victories by fellow Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), gave some in the movement hope that more successes would follow. Over the next cycle, Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) further proved there was a lingering appetite for candidates like their recent predecessors.

But even some self-identified progressives argue that that formula — which has been successful mostly in solidly Democratic districts — is hard to replicate with regularity. There’s a tacit acknowledgement that candidates with significant star-power capabilities are so far shaping up to be the exception, not the norm, in the Biden era. 

“We keep trying to find a lightning-in-the-bottle candidate like AOC,” said Democratic operative Michael Ceraso, who worked on Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2016 and now-Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s in 2020. “She is one of a kind, let’s stop trying to replicate her success.”

One bright spot for the left is the poll-tested idea that progressive issues have become more popular as of late. That applies to some areas that have already been implemented during President Biden’s administration.

After winning against Sanders in the presidential primary last year, Biden pledged to include parts of the agenda popularized by the democratic socialist while in office. Senior White House officials have so far kept that mandate by working with leading progressives in Congress, creating a dialogue that lawmakers say is helpful.

Progressives see an increase in planned federal spending on areas like infrastructure and climate as proof that there’s a demand for it worthy of the West Wing’s time. And they say the fact that Biden has temporarily suspended evictions and student loan repayments is further evidence that their priorities are politically palatable for Americans.

But left-wing Democrats are still grappling with how to send more of their own to Washington, where they would theoretically have more bargaining power. Beyond Turner, progressive primary candidates in New York City’s mayoral race and Virginia’s gubernatorial election have lost to their more moderate counterparts.

In Manhattan, Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams successfully crafted his campaign around Biden’s vision for the party, including strongly distancing himself from hot-button slogans like “defund the police.” In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a staunch Biden loyalist, created a pathway to compete for another term as governor in a state with pockets of strong GOP support.

Centrists have rejoiced in their flank’s recent successes. Elected Democrats and pundits have used the victories as strategic bullet points in their blueprint for the midterms. Essentially, that includes reemphasizing the existing wisdom that running farther to the left is a failing strategy at the national and congressional levels and that the Democratic Party’s base is, indeed, moderate.

Progressives, meanwhile, are worried that a losing streak may eventually deflate the movement they’re trying to build. They push back against the overarching notion that they can’t win but acknowledge that tweaks are needed to get back on track.

“I think some candidates saw that if we don’t do something in 2022 to change our strategy to get better results, you’re going to have a mass exodus of volunteers, of warriors, and of people who have been committed to progressive issues because they’re going to tire. They’re going to get worn out,” said Aimy Steele, a progressive elementary school principal who narrowly lost a bid for the North Carolina state House.

“All of us are going to have to be really mindful of how we engage with the next election,” she said. 

Tags 2022 2022 midterm elections Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Joe Crowley Nina Turner Pete Buttigieg progressives Rashida Tlaib

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