A Surprisingly Good Night for Democrats Was a Much Better One for Socialists

The potential for progressive change is very much alive in American states and cities. Socialists had a strong showing at the state and local levels across the country last week, winning four of six ballot measures and gaining eleven seats overall.

A woman walks past the Downtown Early Vote Center on September 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Wednesday’s election results held no shortage of surprises, as the Democratic Party shocked itself with a successful showing that defied dismal poll numbers for President Joe Biden. But one pattern has continued to hold over the past half-decade or so of US elections and was again proven true this week: regardless of the two-party to-and-fro that structures US politics, socialist candidates continue to win elections and expand their presence in the country’s elected bodies, while broadly left-wing policies continue to find favor among voters.

Twelve of the nineteen candidates and ballot measures endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) at the national level, or 63 percent, were victorious last Wednesday, with one election still too close to call. When taking into account the total number of candidates given the thumb’s up by all DSA chapters at the state and local levels, as well as DSA members who ran and won without the organization’s endorsement, forty-six candidates won their races (two of whom were nonmembers). As of Monday, there were fourteen losses and three are yet to be decided, resulting in a success rate of 77 percent and a net gain of eleven seats.

Wins in the Twin Cities

The Twin Cities may have seen the most dramatic success, where four DSA members on the Minneapolis and St Paul city councils won reelection while adding two new members: Aurin Chowdhury in Minneapolis and Hwa Jeong Kim in St Paul. The Minneapolis City council will now have a progressive majority comprising seven of thirteen seats, beating back a vastly better funded push from allies of Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey to make gains on the council.

Chowdhury won the endorsement of former councilmember Andrew Johnson, whose empty seat she was campaigning for, as well as that of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) and the national and local DSA — but took some positions at odds with the local chapter. On rent control, Chowdhury didn’t sign onto a 3 percent cap on annual rent increases or to providing no exceptions for new construction, citing the range of views in her ward on the subject and the need for a “deliberative and transparent process” to build local support for it.

She also did not support banning tear gas and demilitarizing and disarming police. After years-old tweets during the 2020 George Floyd protests surfaced showing Chowdhury calling for police abolition created controversy, she explained that they’d been authored when she and the world had been “on fire” and that she had since “evolved,” affirming that she now viewed police as “a critical part of our public safety system.”

Soren Stevenson’s bid for the seat of city council president Andrea Jenkins fell short by the thinnest of margins: thirty-eight votes. The result gives Stevenson, who won a $2.4 million settlement from the city when he lost an eye at the hands of an officer at a George Floyd protest, the legal option to ask for a publicly funded recount.

Jenkins’s original 2017 win had been hailed for its historic nature, having become the first black, openly transgender woman elected to office in the country. But once in power, Jenkins posed herself as a “pragmatic progressive,” opposing rent control and voting mostly in line with centrist councilmembers. The new-look council isset to take up the issue of rent control next year, and it remains to be seen whether the electoral scare Stevenson delivered to Jenkins will push her to support the measure.

Referendum Highs and Lows

The Philadelphia City Council has seen similar results. The reelection of at-large councilmember Kendra Brooks and the addition of socialist Nicholas O’Rourke to another at-large seat, winning seats that are specially set aside for non-Democrats, has left the council with a single Republican member, ousting the party from seats they’d held for more than seventy years. O’Rourke and Brooks, who had become the first third-party candidate to sit on the council in decades after her 2019 win, were backed by both DSA and the Working Families Party, and their victories will help push the council leftward.

Socialists saw important victories in nearby Massachusetts, too. Two incumbents, Willie Burnley Jr and J. T. Scott, won reelection to the socialist-heavy Somerville City Council, while Zac Bears won reelection to his seat on the Medford council. These wins were tempered by a several defeats, with Joel Richards falling short of his bid for a Boston City Council seat and two DSA candidates failing to win seats on the Cambridge City Council. But Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, a volunteer for Boston DSA and the city’s Sunrise Movement chapter, won back the council seat that he’d first won four years ago after losing reelection in 2021, running on a platform of rent control, ending tenant-paid broker’s fees, accountability for police shootings, and support for first-responder alternatives to law enforcement.

In Tacoma, Washington, longtime local DSA leader Jamika Scott similarly won a seat on the council after a campaign and activist career that prioritized police accountability. A cofounder of the Tacoma Action Collective, Scott was at the forefront of protests over the March 2020 police homicide of Manuel Ellis and ran for a council seat this year while suing the city for $100,000 over what she said was a wrongful arrest two years ago.

Running on a platform of alternatives to policing, attacking crime through community investment, and expanding affordable housing and tenant protections (she stopped short of supporting rent control, which she had toyed with during her 2021 mayoral campaign), Scott nabbed some heavy-hitter endorsements, including the speaker of the state House and won comfortably with 51 percent of the vote. Her opponent himself noted that she had dominated in precincts concerned with housing issues, in a city where more than half of residents put more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Over in Santa Fe, cafe owner, former Chicago public school teacher, and organizer Alma Castro cruised to victory for a city council seat, winning the largest share of votes outright, before moving through two runoffs, ultimately ending up with 52 percent of the vote out of four candidates. Castro ran on “sustainable economic development” of the rapidly growing city, including an expansion of public transit and won with a publicly funded campaign, despite her closest competitor outfundraising her nearly fourfold.

In Indianapolis, socialist Jesse Brown will join the Democratic supermajority on the city council off of a campaign that talked about the “other Indianapolis” and called for taxing the rich, after earlier shocking the city’s political establishment by ousting the council’s seven-year-long vice president in the May primary. His was one of several other victories last Wednesday that resulted in a net gain seats for socialists around the country, including Nate Baker’s in Durham, Kate Sykes’s in Portland, Maine, and Maurice Brown’s in Onondaga County, New York, all of whom ran on solutions to their local housing affordability crises. Meanwhile, Rhonda Caldwell’s victory in Hamden, Connecticut, adds one more member to its legislative council’s socialist caucus, which had already passed an ordinance earlier this year making it easier for tenants to organize.

It wasn’t all victories. Socialists fell short contesting two seats on the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, council despite some solid fundraising, only a few years after the Democratic-voting county seemed to be shifting left. The closest to a socialist was newly elected Allegheny County executive Sara Innamorato, a former DSA member who left the organization in 2019 and “strongly denounc[ed]” national and local chapters’ statements on the October 7 attack by Hamas, which she implied were antisemitic. Two-year Boulder city councilmember Nicole Speer came third in the race for mayor, while two out of three socialist campaigns for Duluth City Council fell short, leaving political newcomer Wendy Durrwachter the only candidate to join two other DSA-endorsed members on the nine-person council.

Coast to Coast

Though the battle over ballot measures saw some defeats, the Left fared well overall there too. The clear takeaway from last Wednesday’s results are that the voting public continues to favor broadly progressive policies, whether backed by socialists or not, even in some red states.

Arguably the biggest news of the day was the major pro-choice victory in now-reliably red Ohio, which saw voters codify the right to abortion in the state’s constitution with 56 percent of the vote, a campaign endorsed by the national DSA and which saw the involvement of various local chapters in the state. Ohio’s is now the seventh pro-choice ballot measure victory since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, and further suggests the Right’s radicalization on the issue is putting it more and more out of step with national sentiment — prompting former GOP senator Rick Santorum to lament out loud that “pure democracies are not the way to run a country.” The state also legalized recreational marijuana with 57 percent of the vote.

That win was tempered by Cincinnati voters’ decision to sell off their municipal-owned railway, the only one in the United States, to Norfolk Southern, the train company behind the East Palestine disaster. A grassroots effort by dissenting union members, socialists, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, and other activists wasn’t enough to overcome the powerful backing for the sale, which included the mayor, most of the city council, and several labor unions, ultimately passing with 52 percent of the vote. A separate Cincinnati ballot measure modestly raising the earned income tax to pay for affordable housing also failed.

In sunnier news, at the same time that Portland, Maine, voters voted in another socialist to their city council, they handily rejected by a 2-1 margin an amendment to the city’s 2020 rent control ordinance exempting “small” landlords — that is, those with an ownership stake in nine rentals or fewer. It was the third referendum on rent control in the past year, as landlords have attempted to undermine the measure. Other DSA-backed campaigns, including one to make the Houston city government more democratic by giving city council members the ability to submit agenda items, were also victorious, as well as another to kill an effort to use excess tax revenue to put nearly $5 million toward a police training facility in Colorado Springs. Following the measure’s defeat, mayor Yemi Mobolade announced the city would go forward with building the facility anyway, meaning the fight over the matter will continue for the foreseeable future.

As Jamika Scott sailed to victory in Tacoma on the back of her housing policy, the Tenants Bill of Rights that was also on the ballot remains too close to call a week later, though it’s currently ahead by the infinitesimal margin of 1.4 points, or 470 votes. If passed, the measure would mandate landlords to offer relocation assistance when raising rent by 5 percent or more, ban evictions during cold weather as well as discriminatory evictions of certain protected groups and limit rental fees.

That leaves the DSA National Electoral Commission with a 4-2 win record on ballot measures this past Sunday, with the Tacoma referendum still to be decided. Two more — a referendum to block Atlanta’s Cop City and one repealing Arizona’s right-to-work law — are set to be voted on next year. Though not DSA-endorsed, Santa Fe voters also overwhelmingly passed a “mansion tax” on new home sales of over $1 million, a broadly progressive victory for housing affordability policy. The similarly unaffordable Seattle likewise saw 66 percent of voters pass an affordable housing measure raising property taxes by nearly $1 billion over seven years, which will fund the construction of more than three thousand affordable homes, services for subsidized housing, and rental assistance.

On the flip side, Texas delivered a major victory for the sixty-six billionaires who own more wealth in the state than 70 percent of its residents combined, with more than two-thirds voting to bar state legislators from imposing a wealth tax, even though none has ever been proposed. The successful GOP-backed campaign means that the state’s absurdly unfair tax system, where the lowest earners pay 13 percent of their family income in taxes while the top 1 percent pay low single digits, will stay locked in for the foreseeable future.

The Way Forward

Last week’s election results reinforce a number of trends we’ve seen over the past few years. Even as the broader socialist movement has been left somewhat adrift in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 loss, it’s continued to be surprisingly and quietly successful at the state and local levels, racking up electoral and legislative wins, even when operating as single members of a city council or as a minority bloc. As with last week’s results, many of those successes revolve around the housing crisis enveloping the country, propelling long-standing campaigns for affordable housing and rent control.

While the future remains unwritten, these facts may point the way forward to gather the scattered energies of the socialist project. With the Biden presidency stalled and now risking a death spiral with its support for an increasingly unpopular war, the potential for progressive change is very much alive in American states and cities.