A year ago today, Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump. Ever since then, the Left’s refrain has been: “Bernie would have won.” In the face of pundit after pundit after pundit warning Democrats to embrace Wall Street, move to the center, and abandon policies like Medicare for All and tuition-free college, the Left has insisted that the only way to fight Trumpism is to to embrace an unapologetic message that appeals to all working people.
That was the theory. And the evidence from last night’s nationwide Democratic sweep suggests it’s also the case in practice, as mayoralties, city council seats, judgeships, and even state legislature seats around the country were won by not just unapologetically progressive Democrats, but open socialists as well.
Take Virginia. Democratic Socialists of America member, veteran, and Democratic candidate Lee Carter unseated Republican House majority whip Del. Jackson Miller in the 50th District. Carter had been largely abandoned by the state’s Democratic party after choosing to run on a platform calling for single-payer health care and curtailing big-money campaign finance, and openly opposing the Democrat-supported Dominion Energy plan for a natural gas pipeline and a high-voltage transmission line through residential neighborhoods. His opponents distributed mailers comparing him to Stalin. And ultimately, none of it mattered — Carter beat out a top-ranking Republican with an 84 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union by 54 percent to 46 percent.
Democrats ultimately flipped seats in fourteen of the state’s districts, easily outdoing even the rosiest of predictions and achieving the best Democratic turnaround in the state since 1975. One of the more notable victories was that of Danica Roem, a transgender journalist who unseated Republican Del. Bob Marshall, the man who had written the state’s discriminatory “bathroom bill,” refused to debate Roem, and insisted on referring to her using male pronouns. While Roem ran a centrist campaign focused on local issues, her victory is a stunning rebuke to those insisting Democrats are “mired too often in political correctness” and “bathroom issues.”
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, all seven of the alderman candidates for the city of Somerville endorsed by Our Revolution, the political organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, won seats. Two were DSA members: Ben Ewen-Campen and JT Scott, who comfortably knocked off incumbents to win.
Indeed, for those asking the question, “Can a democratic socialist actually win a spot on city council?”, the answer appears overwhelmingly to be “Yes.” In Knoxville, socialist Seema Singh Perez became the city’s first Indian-American council member, running a campaign focused on reducing domestic violence, ensuring jobs with liveable wages, and instituting fairer economic development. The city council also now has four women for the first time.
Other city council seat victories for socialists include self-described democratic socialist Tristan Rader in Lakewood, Ohio; and DSA members Denise Joy in Billings, Montana, who won by more than eight hundred votes; Charles Decker in New Haven, Connecticut; Justin Farmer in Hamden, Connecticut; and Joel Sipress who won with 67 percent of the vote in Duluth’s 2nd District. Former DSA Buffalo vice chair Brian Nowak also won a seat in Cheektowaga, as did dues-paying DSA member Ross Grooters, who ran a campaign championing clean water and living wages.
Meanwhile Democrat Anita Prizio, a DSA member and small-business owner who ran on increased transparency, greater fracking oversight, and setting up a county jail investigative task force, narrowly beat the Republican incumbent to take a council seat in Allegheny County, north of Pittsburgh. Mik Pappas, a civil rights attorney and DSA member, became an Allegheny County district judge after a campaign stressing access to affordable housing and legal services, increased scrutiny of landlord-tenant disputes, leniency toward “economic crimes like drug offenses,” and skepticism toward money bail. And Klara Gloe, Red River Valley DSA organizer, comfortably won a thirteen-person field to win a seat on the Moorhead School board.
According to Christian Bowe, a DSA National Political Committee member from central New Jersey, 56 percent of the DSA members who ran in this election cycle won, the organization’s best ever result. In the previous cycle, he says, only 20 percent of DSA members won their races.
Then there’s Ginger Jentzen, the DSA-endorsed Socialist Alternative candidate for the city council in Minneapolis’s Third Ward and champion of rent control, a $15 minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and higher taxes on high earners and big property developers. Because of Minneapolis’s ranked-choice voting system, there was no clear winner last night. However, Jentzen did win 34 percent of first-choice votes, six points more than her closest rival, backing up her claim that on Tuesday, “Minneapolis voted socialist.”
Even some of the losses were significant. Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn city council candidate backed by DSA and Our Revolution, won 29 percent of the vote, despite running solely on third-party ballot lines in a borough where Democratic Party loyalties are notoriously hard to shake.
And it wasn’t just socialists who won big. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, a self-described “completely unelectable” defense attorney with a history of suing the city’s police department and representing Black Lives Matter and Occupy activists pro bono, became the city’s top prosecutor. With a campaign spearheaded by former Bernie Sanders volunteers and pledges to end to cash bail, the death penalty, and mass incarceration, he won by a three-to-one ratio, thanks largely to the votes of the city’s communities of color. “This is what a movement looks like,” he told a crowd of supporters.
In St. Paul, Keith Ellison-endorsed former city councilmember Melvin Carter became the city’s first African American mayor on a platform promising police reform and free pre-K education, winning double the share of the vote of his closest rival. And Vi Lyles became Charlotte’s first female African American mayor on the back of a platform that called for a $15 minimum wage, improving the relationship between the city’s police and its residents, and promoting the hiring of poorer residents in projects funded by the public purse.
And in another progressive victory, Tuesday also saw 60 percent of Maine voters approve a Medicaid expansion in the state, extending coverage to more than seventy thousand people. It was the first time a state has expanded the program through the ballot box, leap-frogging both conservative governor Paul LePage’s veto and Republican attempts to roll back Obamacare. While LePage is continuing to try to block the expansion, the result nonetheless reflects a changing mood among the electorate on the issue of health care.
Taken in total, the results represent a significant shift in the political moment. Though they undoubtedly stemmed to some extent from a typical pendulum swing to the out-party linked to popular disgruntlement with Trump’s presidency, the scale of the Democratic victory — which saw Democrats win mayoralties, governorships, and even some state legislatures — handily outdid expectations.
More importantly, the success of unapologetically socialist candidates and the prominent role of left-wing platforms in victorious campaigns suggest that a left message is, at worst, no recipe for electoral apocalypse — and at best, a positive vote-winner. Combined with marked change in the gender and racial makeup of many state and local governments — instanced by Ravi Bhalla, who became New Jersey’s first turbaned Sikh mayor despite a campaign of racist flyers against him — the results challenge time-worn precepts of conventional Beltway thinking.
Despite all evidence, some will continue to insist that Democrats need to “move back to the center” and follow the nineties-era recipes of Third Way thought. If the past year’s developments weren’t enough to dispel that notion, last night’s results should. Whether the Democratic Party leadership draws the right lessons is anyone’s guess.