The primaries could mark the end of the Democrats’ progressive movement


In the last week, three top figures in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing have lent their support to two Texas candidates seeking congressional seats in next week’s Democratic primaries.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned in San Antonio and Austin last week for Democratic hopefuls Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren held a San Antonio rally for them Tuesday. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders issued statements backing both progressives.

But the moves by these party leaders had a broader goal beyond trying to add two more progressives to their congressional ranks.

In recent months, Democratic progressives have had a difficult time, at the ballot box and within the overall party. Solidly Democratic constituencies are rejecting both leftist candidates and some of their ideas, like “defunding the police,” banning corporate election contributions and Medicare for all.

Cisneros, trying again to unseat fellow Democrat Henry Cuellar, and Casar may offer progressives the best possibilities for 2022 primary victories in the escalating fight to define the party for November’s midterm elections — and beyond.

Only three years ago, the progressives seemed on the ascent, buoyed by self-styled socialist Sanders’ near-miss 2016 challenge to Hillary Clinton and the elections in 2018 of Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Ilhan Omar in Minneapolis, Rashida Tlaib in Detroit and Ayanna Pressley in Boston.

But Sanders and Warren foundered in the 2020 presidential race as African Americans and older voters helped the leading centrist hopeful, Joe Biden, capture both the nomination and the general election.

Independent analysts attributed 2020 Democratic losses of a dozen House seats to the Republicans’ ability to saddle candidates in swing districts with unpopular progressive ideas like “defunding the police,” which refers to taking some funds from police departments to spend on other priorities such as employment programs, mental health services and social services to increase public safety.

“The Republican message against House Democrats was primarily on law and order and policing and, in most races, Democrats really did nothing to blunt that attack,” concluded David Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s House analyst,

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, after narrowly holding her Virginia suburban seat.

In making administration appointments and developing legislative strategies for the slim Democratic congressional majorities, Biden paid special heed to party progressives. But the legislative measures they pushed most strongly — expanding Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage, and reforming police procedures, voting laws and gun laws — failed to attract enough support to pass.

Meanwhile, infighting between moderates and progressives delayed some Biden measures, like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and stalled others, like the Build Back Better package of environmental and social measures.

In 2021 elections, voters in Democratic strongholds from New York to Seattle sent a clear message by picking more moderate alternatives in terms of both candidates and ideas. New York City Democrats chose a longtime police officer as mayor over several progressive hopefuls, Buffalo rejected a socialist who won the Democratic primary, Minneapolis defeated a progressive-backed referendum to replace the police department with a new department of public safety, and Seattle elected a law-and-order Republican as city attorney. More recently, voters in liberal San Francisco unseated three progressive school board members.

House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest ranking Black member of Congress, told The New York Times last year that “defund the police,” like the slogan “Burn, Baby, Burn” in the 1960s, “is cutting the throats of this party.” Significantly, the South Carolina congressman’s comments came as he campaigned for Cleveland council member Shontel Brown in the special Ohio congressional election where she defeated top Sanders adviser Nina Turner.

Turner is trying again in Ohio’s May 3 Democratic primary. On the same day, another progressive hopeful, consumer advocate Morgan Harper, is challenging moderate Rep. Tim Ryan for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

Both progressives likely face uphill races.

Elsewhere, Kina Collins, a Black community gun control organizer, is challenging African American Rep. Danny Davis in the June 28 Illinois Democratic primary.

In New York, progressive hopeful Rana Abdelhamid, a 28-year-old Muslim, is running against Rep. Carolyn Maloney. The race also includes attorney Suraj Patel, who narrowly lost two prior challenges to the veteran House member.

And in Georgia, redistricting has created a primary fight between gun control advocate Rep. Lucy McBath and the more moderate Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.

In Texas, both progressives could win, at least in the primaries. Casar, a former Austin council member, has released polls showing him leading state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and two other Democrats in the new 35th Congressional District that runs from Austin to San Antonio.

Cisneros, an immigration attorney, hopes to reverse her narrow 2020 52-48 primary loss to Cuellar, one of the more conservative House Democrats, in the South Texas 28th District.

An uncertain factor is last month’s FBI raid of Cuellar’s home and campaign office in Laredo. Subsequent press reports linked it to a grand jury probe of U.S. groups’ ties to Azerbaijan. Cuellar, who heads the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus and has promoted travel to the oil-rich former Soviet republic, denied any wrongdoing.

Either Democratic primary winner could face a tough general election race against a GOP newly energized in heavily Hispanic South Texas. The GOP field includes Ruth Whitten, who polled 39% against Cuellar in 2020.

In any case, the two Texas contests provide a prelude to a year of factional fighting that may show if Democratic progressives can regain the momentum they have lost the past two years.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News and a frequent contributor. Email: [email protected]

Find the full opinion section here. Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor and you just might get published.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *