State Watch

Progressives feel vindication after major primaries

Progressives had perhaps their best night of the primary season on Tuesday.

In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman easily emerged victorious in the Democratic Senate primary and state Rep. Summer Lee is on track to narrowly win her contest in the state’s 12th Congressional District, both outcompeting moderate Democrats. 

Maybe most glaringly, some 2,500 miles away from the Keystone State, incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a seven-term Blue Dog Coalition member who was endorsed by President Biden, is on the verge of losing his battle against liberal challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. 

The left see the contests as encouraging signs that they’re gaining steam when and where it counts, particularly after several high-profile losses in 2018 and 2020 blurred their prospects for success.

“Kurt Schrader became the national poster boy for learning the hard way,” said Joseph Geevarghese, who leads Our Revolution, a grassroots organization that formed around Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) first presidential campaign. “Progressives won some big races despite millions of dollars from corporate billionaires pouring into Democratic primaries.”

Schrader’s bid was not supposed to be particularly tricky. He earned Biden’s support more as a sign of loyalty than necessity. He then got congressional and party committee leadership on board, took in large sums of money and was seen as the establishment wing’s safest bet to stave off a relatively unknown liberal rival out West. 

When that didn’t happen, progressives were overjoyed. So much so that by Wednesday afternoon, as the results were still being counted in Clackamas County, one prominent movement leader used the word “vindicated” to describe the sentiment shared among activists and operatives who worked to oust Schrader from his seat.

McLeod-Skinner, a lawyer who ran for the House four years ago, is a smaller brand than her opponent. She opted for the small-dollar model and ultimately had less money in her coffers. Schrader accepted campaign donations from a variety of sources, including the pharmaceutical industry, and became a magnet for criticism as a result when the race became close.

“I feel vindicated,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, which endorsed several progressives, including McLeod-Skinner. “We put a lot of effort over a long period of time in these races. We were aware of the David and Goliath nature of the outside spending, so we were prepared for all outcomes.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre made the case to reporters Wednesday that both Schrader and McLeod-Skinner embraced Biden in their campaigns and said Biden was not worried about his clout in primary races.

“Not at all,” she said. “Both candidates were running on a platform that supported — embraced — the president’s agenda.”

The left also saw a promising development when Lee, a Black, 34-year-old labor activist, appeared to be the likely winner of her primary against moderate attorney Steve Irwin as results continued to trickle in on Wednesday. If she wins in the general election, she is expected to join the “Squad” in the House, further bolstering their representation in the Democratic caucus.

“If you’re an institutionalist Democrat, it’s good for you to have progressives run exciting, competitive primaries and come out victorious, and then take that base, those small-dollar donors, those volunteers with their volunteer hours on doors and phones into the general,” Mitchell said.

“You’re going to see the activity of the amazing community and coalition that Summer built in the general election in Pennsylvania, where the Democrats are trying to secure a Senate seat,” he said. “I think that would be helpful.”

Fetterman’s success was more expected — he was far ahead in polling for months — but in some ways equally rattling for the conventional orthodoxy of who can win a primary election. He does not fit the typical progressive vs. centrist framework, and prefers the word populist.

But the lieutenant governor’s commanding lead over Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), a young military veteran and establishment favorite, caused some Democrats on both sides of the party to pause over who owns the electability debate in a critical Midwestern state. Biden was quick to issue a statement saying Fetterman could win in November and that Democrats were united around him.

Moderate Democrats argue Fetterman’s appeal is not that of a traditional progressive. 

“Fetterman really ran as a mainstream Democrat,” said Jim Kessler of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “He’s really his own animal.” 

Progressives see mostly upsides. They believe the early signs of success give legitimate bragging rights to Democrats who have previously been written off as too radical, impractical or ideological to bring voters to their side and actually win. 

“Voters want elected officials who will support their values and listen to them,” Geevarghese said. “When politicians’ records don’t align with voters’ demands, no amount of money can reverse that. Progressives had a winning night.” 

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), a leading group helping to elect several liberal candidates this cycle, fired a warning shot over the corporate spending against progressives, demanding that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders denounce the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups that spent large sums against progressive candidates in the waning days. That message was echoed loudly by Sanders in the Senate, who also called on the Democratic National Committee to ban such spending.

“The Democratic Party is going to lose in 2022 and beyond if the corporate interests inside the Party keep throttling dynamic young leaders and propping up candidates who oppose a popular agenda,” said PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor in a statement. 

While liberals cheered their wins, moderates worried about the fall general elections. Centrists contend that their aligned candidates often do well in areas that can easily flip to Republican control. In the days leading up to the election in Oregon, they tried to make the case stick that the 5th Congressional District was swingy in nature. That logic is already being extended to a potential McLeod-Skinner win, where the results are expected to come by Friday. 

“Now that seat is in doubt,” Third Way’s Kessler said. “This is about winning the finals, it’s not about winning the semi-finals.”

Kessler called Tuesday’s showing a “split decision for progressives,” noting that candidates on the left could have won primaries in North Carolina and Kentucky but came up short. “I thought they’d do better yesterday, to be honest,” he said. 

Progressives have withstood some dispiriting losses in recent years. Biden, a self-styled moderate, dealt progressive stalwart Sanders his second Democratic presidential primary defeat in 2020. Another moderate success story followed shortly after, when New York City elected Eric Adams, a former police officer, to serve as mayor as a flurry of Democrats sought distance from the “defund the police” movement embraced by some on the left. 

That rhetoric, however, didn’t factor into the highest profile races on Tuesday. Neither Fetterman nor McLeod-Skinner called to reduce police funding, keeping in line with the messaging from Biden’s White House, a sign of nuance within the movement that candidates contend is not monolithic. 

“These victories are real victories,” said Mitchell. “This gives us momentum.”

Tags Biden Jamie McLeod-Skinner John Fetterman John Fetterman Kurt Schrader Kurt Schrader primaries progressives summer lee

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