Democratic Socialists Gave a Solid Performance in Yesterday’s Elections

The Democratic Socialists of America ran more than a dozen candidates across three states in electoral primaries yesterday. Ten have proceeded to the general — a strong showing for an electoral project that many fear has been placed on the defensive.

New York's DSA for the Many slate saw its incumbents continue on, while insurgents mostly struggled in primaries. (Michael Drake)

Yesterday, five states held primary elections — and socialists won their races in three of them. In Colorado, Illinois, and New York, a total of ten socialists won their primary races, joining Zachary Parker, who won his primary for the Council of the District of Columbia last week. Socialists sustained losses, too, with several candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in New York and one in Denver so far unsuccessful in securing the nomination — though vote totals are still rolling in.

Electoral organizing is one of the predominant tactics of modern American socialist organizing, making last night’s primaries a good temperature check on the movement’s strength. Despite concerns about flagging enthusiasm for left politics in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s unsuccessful 2020 primary campaign, yesterday’s victories suggest that the socialist electoral game remains moderately strong, with incumbents outperforming insurgents.

New York State: Incumbents Remain, Insurgents (Mostly) Struggle

In New York City, all of the incumbents on the DSA for the Many slate held on to their seats with commanding victories — in an election year that saw 50 percent less turnout in the city than in 2018.

Phara Souffrant Forrest faced the toughest primary challenge, in a campaign where opponents unsuccessfully accused her of being absent in the district since she is a new mother. Forrest beat her next closest challenger by more than 30 percent. Emily Gallagher, Marcela Mitaynes, and Zohran Mamdani will join Forrest for their second terms in Albany after winning their respective primaries handily.

The election was tougher for the insurgents on the For the Many slate. DSA members Illapa Sairitupac and Samy Olivares both came up short in their elections for the state assembly, while Operation POWER member and DSA endorsee Keron Alleyne lost his bid by about three thousand votes.

But not all insurgents were defeated in New York. Mid-Hudson Valley DSA’s Sarahana Shrestha edged out establishment Democrat and thirteen-term incumbent Kevin A. Cahill, an upset that represented the chapter’s second electoral victory in a calendar year. Last year, MHV-DSA helped propel Phil Erner to victory over a fourteen-term incumbent on the Ulster County Legislature. For the Many incumbents in New York City played a unique role in Shrestha’s campaign, caravaning north to give speeches and knock doors for the climate organizer.

To the south, Vanessa B. Agudelo and Lower Hudson Valley DSA will likely lose in a close race for the Ninety-fifth Assembly District, with all but eleven districts having reported. In a back and forth contest that will ultimately be decided by less than a thousand votes, it’s possible that Agudelo will run again in the general election on the Working Families Party ballot line.

Socialists in New York City have gone through several competitive electoral cycles, and the city remains the state’s undisputed socialist stronghold. But Ithaca DSA is establishing itself as a legitimate political force as well. The chapter sends Tiffany Chen Kumar to join fellow socialists George “Jorge” DeFendini and Phoebe Brown on the Ithaca Common Council as a part of the “Solidarity Slate.” Brown, who is endorsed by DSA but not a member, and DeFendini both won office in 2021.

Chen Kumar told me she shares DSA’s broader political vision and plans to focus specifically on tenant protections, infrastructure reform, and climate policy — including free and expanded public transportation. When asked about socialism’s recent success in Ithaca, the twenty-year-old rising junior at Cornell University said that the Solidarity Slate is “sending a strong message to the common council, which doesn’t currently represent the people living in Ithaca.” She continued, “I’ve realized through door knocking that people want change, but you couldn’t tell by the current council. You would not believe the number of hours we put in canvassing. This result speaks to the power of the working class in Ithaca.”

Illinois: More Victories Added to the Pile

Chicago DSA continues its electoral success with its first win on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Anthony Joel Quezada has unseated District Eight incumbent Luis Arroyo Jr in a rout. This marks seventeen wins to one loss for Chicago DSA this year, as the chapter won all but one seat it contested on Chicago’s local school councils.

Quezada, who beat his closest competitor by more than 13 percent, grew up in Logan Square and was politicized by the rapid gentrification of his neighborhood. After witnessing the hollow promises of corrupt politicians in his community, he became a democratic socialist and organizer. In an interview last week with Jacobin, Quezada said, “Democratic socialists need to strike hope into people, and we need to inspire people to take control over the situation that we’re living in.”

Rachel Ventura also won her primary for the Illinois State Senate’s Forty-third District with the support of West Suburban Illinois and national DSA. Ventura was backed by Will County Board candidate Andrew Englebrecht, who also has West Suburban Illinois DSA’s endorsement and advanced in the top two of his primary last night.

Denver: Too Early to Tell

We’re still awaiting a clear picture of how Denver DSA fared in last night’s election. One chapter-endorsed candidate made it through the primary uncontested, while the other is in a dead heat with her opponent.

Javier Mabrey ran uncontested in Colorado’s state house District One Democratic Party primary. Mabrey, a tenants’ rights organizer and attorney who comes from a working-class background, will face off against Republican Guillermo Diaz in the general election. Both candidates went unchallenged in their party’s respective primaries; to give a clue as to how the general might play out, Mabrey amassed 5,469 votes and Diaz 2,564 votes.

Elisabeth Epps, a Denver defense attorney and executive director of the Colorado Freedom Fund, is neck and neck with Katie March in a race for Colorado State House District Six. As of this afternoon, March has the advantage, with just under fifty votes more than Epps. But votes are still trickling in, and a victory for Epps should not be ruled out.

Both candidates, along with Denver DSA, have endorsed No Eviction Without Representation (NEWR), a housing ballot initiative to be voted on in November. NEWR would give all renters in Denver free legal support to navigate the eviction process.

Washington, DC: The Left Is Gaining

In Washington, DC, State Board of Education representative and Metro DC DSA member Zachary Parker is likely to join Janeese Lewis George as the second democratic socialist on the council in November after winning handily in the primary last week.

Metro DC DSA knocked over forty thousand doors for Parker, which helped secure a victory of nearly 20 points over the next highest vote getter. Metro DC DSA member Ben Davis, who volunteered on Parker’s campaign, told me, “With little time left on election day, we were at 39,950 doors knocked, so I grabbed a clipboard to hit a list of 51 more. According to a local paper, [ours was] the most doors anyone has knocked in a council race.”

Davis also said that matching public funds were key to winning Parker’s race. DC residents could donate up to $50 to a ward race, and it was matched five-to-one in public funds. Campaigns were only allowed to participate if they didn’t take PAC or corporate money or accept donations above $50 per person — qualifications that Parker’s campaign met. Davis said, “The five-to-one match rate allowed us to raise a considerable amount of money, and placed the emphasis on individual, small-dollar donors. In the past, it was much more difficult competing with the candidates who received huge corporate contributions.”

After defeating the field in Ward 5 — including former council member Vincent Orange and liberal favorite Faith Gibson Hubbard — Metro DC DSA will set its sights on defending Maryland state delegate Gabriel Acevero’s seat and picking up District Eighteen in the Maryland State Senate with Max Socol.

Keeping Up the Momentum

It will take time for the dust to settle on this primary cycle. Wins, losses, and yet-to-be-decided races are going to be subject to months of debate and analysis, and, in some cases, more vigorous campaigning is yet to come.

But we should take a moment to pause and reflect. Five years ago, it would have been inconceivable to imagine socialists winning primaries across three different states in one night. And at a time when state and local offices are arguably more important than ever, given recent developments in national politics, even seemingly minor wins for the Left should not be overlooked.

Ultimately, a successful democratic socialist movement needs an organized working-class base numbering in the millions to make meaningful and lasting change happen. Elections are a necessary part of growing and deepening that base. With potentially more than ten socialists winning primaries in these three states alone — and perhaps more to come, as DSA is running three more candidates in the August New York State Senate primaries — democratic socialists have an opportunity to make further inroads with the working class.

Last night’s victories could pay dividends for decades to come if our electeds can hold on to their seats and even graduate to higher office. As for last night’s losses, recall the words of socialist poet Pablo Neruda: “Those in power can kill one, two, or three roses, but they will never be able to stop the coming of spring.”