Progressive candidates seek distance from label

John Fetterman and Erica Smith
Associated Press-Keith Srakocic/Associated Press-Gerry Broome

They’re pushing for environmental reforms, embracing single-payer health care and calling for more government assistance. But increasingly, many are reluctant to call themselves “progressives.” 

Left-wing candidates from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to Missouri are shying away from the P-word on the campaign trail, in messaging and online fundraising, and even in media blitzes, signaling an attempt to rebrand their wing of the party as Democrats debate how to win the midterm elections. 

On paper, many mesh with Capitol Hill’s top leftists. Some support easing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and restarting discussions around “Medicare for All.” Others want to accept more Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country. Most would like President Biden to use executive action to give Americans more aid across the board. 

Their hesitation to be defined as such, however, is new.  

“For those people who understand root terminology, to progress means to move forward,” said Dwight Bullard, a senior adviser for Florida Rising and a local NAACP leader. “To be a progressive is to be forward thinking or constantly in a push to improve.” 

“That’s a very pragmatic definition,” he said. “A lot of people just got lost in the sauce.” 

While some high-profile contenders still use the moniker, others want to be thought of in different terms. Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who’s seeking the party’s nomination for a coveted Senate seat, prefers a different word: populist.  

He’s not alone.  

Veteran Lucas Kunce, who’s also angling for a Senate primary win in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in Missouri, similarly identifies as a populist and says he’s part of a “people-powered movement.” His fundraising page offers a variety of credentials: Marine, antitrust advocate and Democrat — but not progressive. 

Former North Carolina state Sen. Erica Smith, who suspended her Senate bid in November to instead try to replace retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) in the House, is using the term “New Deal” to describe her place within the party.  

“I’m running a campaign that’s very much centered around the promise to deliver a rural New Deal,” Smith told The Hill. “Both our campaign and the working people who live in this district care a lot more about the policies that can tangibly improve their lives than they do about any D.C. labels.” 

The shift in self-identification is subtle, but notable.  

In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, many of the nearly two dozen aspirants eager to take on former President Trump tried to out-progressive each other.  

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) ran unabashedly as progressives, while their upper chamber colleagues Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) lurched to the left over time. Vice President Harris, then a first-term senator from California, was criticized for turning too liberal and even flip-flopping on health care, while also catching heat from activists for not going far enough on issues like criminal justice reform and policing.  

But unlike the quartet of senators from liberal bastions, these 2022 Democratic candidates aren’t situated in safe, deep-blue states and districts. Fetterman, Kunce and Smith are each competing in battlegrounds that could determine which party controls the Senate and House — Pennsylvania, Missouri and North Carolina — making their choice of rhetoric more consequential, some Democrats say.  

“John is running on a set of core beliefs that frankly we don’t think are left or right, Democrat or Republican — they’re just the truth,” said Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director.  

“That you can’t survive on $7.25 an hour and that all workers deserve a real living wage. That health care is a basic human right. That climate change is an existential threat,” he said. “These are simply commonsense ideas that are overwhelmingly popular — even in some of the reddest counties in Pennsylvania.”  

“So if we are going to use any ‘P’ words to describe John, it would be populist,” he said.   

A source close to another self-styled Midwestern populist described “two lanes of populism” taking hold as contenders look for more accurate ways to portray what’s unfolding in their regions. Voters in these areas, this person said, aren’t consumed with the detailed policy proposals that excite many national progressives in Washington, D.C., and prefer an anti-establishment, against-the-system sentiment.  

“Some are just using it as a tactic. And look, anything it takes,” the source said. “But then I think there are some states where there’s actually a populist hint in it. There’s more of a grassroots populism that’s felt as the base of society.” 

The blurring of labels comes as Democrats figure out how to position the party ahead of what’s expected to be a tough fall against Republicans. Without Trump on the ticket, some left-wing candidates, including those with less name recognition, are being more judicious about how to present themselves to voters.  

They’ve been dinged not only as “socialists” by the GOP, but as too left to win general elections by some in their own party. For months, moderate Democrats have levied critiques against liberals with aspirations of defeating long-standing members. Even Biden has made it clear he believes a return to the center is necessary.  

“It is a reaction to progressivism somehow being attached to socialism or communism,” said Bullard. “You have a lot of apprehension, regression, people who just are scared.” 

Others have sought to tweak the term’s definition.  

One of this year’s top primaries, a rematch between Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) and human rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, has all the trimmings of a progressive versus moderate battle. Cisneros is challenging Cuellar, a famously conservative House Democrat, in a runoff slated for May. 

While Cisneros reads as a liberal — she ran in 2020 as a relatively unknown progressive, has the support of Sanders and Warren and is expected to join the “Squad” if she wins — she’s eschewing some core beliefs on the left, like the Green New Deal, in exchange for others, like expansive immigration reform. She even delights in reminding voters that Cuellar was in favor of increasing funding for Trump’s controversial border wall.  

That’s not to say every progressive is dancing around the term.  

In Ohio, two contenders are running as unapologetic leftists, telling voters they’re progressives in every form. House candidate Nina Turner and Senate hopeful Morgan Harper are each hoping to show that their bona fides can win against tough messaging from moderates.  

The source close to the Midwestern populist candidate said those types of Democrats do well when they distance themselves from social debates progressives get fired up over, but that also give ammunition to Republicans. 

“Populists don’t waste hours and hours on the culture wars,” the source said. “You’re never going to win.” 

Updated Thursday at 8:36 a.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Erica Smith G.K. Butterfield Joe Biden John Fetterman Kamala Harris Kirsten Gillibrand Lucas Kunce progressive candidates distance label policy populist reform midterm elections campaign Roy Blunt

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