In 2018, a friend of mine put in a lot of hours volunteering for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s first campaign. Afterward, when he told the story of the days leading up to the election, one detail stuck with me. Ocasio-Cortez was running against Joe Crowley, the no. 4 House Democrat, and conventional wisdom said that she didn’t have much of a chance. After all, you don’t get to be that powerful, and serve for 20 years, without having an unshakeable base in your home district. Right?
But my friend said that while many volunteers, deep in their heart of hearts, might not have believed the AOC campaign was about anything more than making a statement and coming close, they noticed something strange on the weekend before the election. Based on the people they were talking to and canvassing, the actual voters intending to vote in the primary, they all reported the same odd experience: It felt like they were going to win, and that it wouldn’t even be that close.
To a person, none of them trusted it. Sure, she had performed well in the televised debates, and was starting to get some national attention, and was a hell of a campaigner and fit the demographics of the district. But how could it be true? They kept their heads to the ground and kept working.
Of course, Ocasio-Cortez did win, by double digits, and winning the Democratic primary in NY-14 is as good as winning the general. Overnight, she became a leader and an icon.
There are two great lessons to take from that race. The first is personal—Ocasio-Cortez is a brilliant politician who ran a terrific campaign, you can’t separate her surprise victory from her unique abilities. The second, though, can be applied more broadly, and it was simple: Joe Crowley was only powerful until someone hit him in the mouth. His power was an illusion. He had no base. Nobody loved Joe Crowley, and Joe Crowley didn’t do much in his 20 years to inspire loyalty among his constituents. He treated his seat like a sinecure, an appointment, but we still live in a democracy where people vote. When someone challenged him, and forced him to engage with the voters he represented, he just couldn’t do it.
Nobody knew it, but Joe Crowley was weak. That weakness was disguised until someone made him fight, and then, like a snap of the finger, it was plain as day.
On Tuesday night, we saw that dynamic play out again in NY-16, a district that encompasses part of the Bronx and part of Westchester County. There, the demographics are split, with an even number of white and black voters and a sizeable chunk of Hispanic voters. Eliot Engel has been the representative there since 2013, but in the House generally since 1989. This year, he became the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Like Joe Crowley, he’s “powerful” within the D.C. hierarchy.
But like Crowley, he met a progressive challenger in Jamaal Bowman who forced him to actually campaign. The result? He was a disaster. He stunk. The lowlight came at a Black Lives Matter event where he was caught on microphone saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” This is someone who rejected the Iran nuclear deal, who voted for the war in Iraq, and who generally represents everything that disgusts progressive voters. But mainstream Democrats did everything they could to bolster him. They brought all the big guns: Chuck Schumer, who is not just the Senate leader but also his senior state senator, endorsed him. Nancy Pelosi endorsed him. Hillary Clinton endorsed him.
By now, you know how this played out: Bowman waxed him. He waxed him in the Bronx, and he waxed him by equal margins in Westchester. We don’t know the final margin yet, but it looks clear that Bowman will beat Engel by more than Ocasio-Cortez beat Crowley.
Engel was weak. Bowman pressed. Engel folded.
It’s an old military adage: When you sense weakness, press on. And right now, it’s the only tactical lesson progressive candidates need.
The failure of the Bernie Sanders campaign was heartbreaking, especially when he seemed on the verge of burying all his competitors after the first three primaries. Something changed between Nevada and Super Tuesday, and the change crushed him. He too had pressed at the sign of weakness, and had in fact been doing it since 2015, but on the national level the Democratic establishment proved it still had its teeth. When Obama managed to whip everyone in line, the voters followed suit, and before you could blink the race was essentially over.
Despite the pain of those few days, there is also something freeing about the Sanders loss. The dream of a national coalition was deferred, for now, but what it meant was that rather than having to unite under one banner, progressives across the country could mount challenges everywhere, and figure out by trial and error where it worked and where it didn’t. It has been established by practice that the progressive vs. moderate battle is going to play out within the party; there will be no breakaway group, and organizations like DSA will function best, electorally, in auxiliary roles, supporting progressive candidates with manpower and money. To take over the party, you need footholds. Small victories will precede the wave.
Failure, in any of these races, is almost irrelevant; it’s all a test to see at which points the establishment is ready to crumble, and at which points it’s still too strong. And it’s about testing campaign strategy and candidates in every part of the country.
In New York, especially around the city, progressives are ascendant. Along with Bowman, two nearby districts were won by Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, both progressives, both of whom will become the first openly gay black members of the House (they were each running in open seats where the incumbent was retiring). Establishment Democrats weren’t dumb enough to put up a challenger against Ocasio-Cortez, but Wall Street was, and AOC proved that she had done what Crowley couldn’t—earn the loyalty of her constituents—with a lopsided victory.
All of these winners believe in the Green New Deal, and Medicare For All. All of them are headed to Washington D.C., and they aren’t afraid to say things like, “poverty is by political design.” That was Bowman, who also had this to say in his victory speech:
We celebrate this movement. A movement designed to push back against a system that is literally killing us. It’s killing black and brown bodies disproportionately, but it’s killing all of us. It’s killing us mentally, psychologically, and spiritually. It’s forcing us to live in a country and in a world where so many people are hopeless and have lost faith, not just in the political system but in each other. But our movement is designed to restore that faith, to restore that hope, to bring back the belief in what is possible—to root our values in everything we do, values of equality, humanity, and justice.”
It’s not just in New York, either. In Virginia, a black physician named Cameron Webb won his primary and stands a great chance to turn a Republican district. And perhaps most prominently, in Kentucky, Charles Booker holds a slim lead over Amy McGrath in the Democratic primary that will determine who challenges Mitch McConnell in November. While Booker is an unapologetic progressive and Medicare for All proponent, McGrath—despite being flooded with outside money and endorsed by Democratic leaders like Schumer—has run an odd, uninspiring campaign in which she seems to either take no position on key issues, or takes a shockingly rightward position. After a few viral ads seemed to launch her, she’s managed to embarrass herself by saying she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh and by sidestepping any real criticism of Trump. Booker now has a real chance to beat her, and McGrath is exactly the kind of rudderless Democrat progressives should want to beat.
Of course, the victories aren’t universal. This isn’t going to happen everywhere at once, and there are certain parts of the country where establishment Democrats will hold their position and beat back progressive challengers. That’s okay. The Sanders campaign proved once and for all that if progressives want victory, it’s going to be a piecemeal victory that is achieved one step at a time. All they can do is push, and push, and push, and try to break the moderates at their weak spots. Victories will come, and while time stands against all of us on issues like climate and racial justice and healthcare, time is still on the side of progressives when it comes to momentum and the general trajectory of American politics. Reality, in 2020, has a way of validating a progressive framework, and once a piece of ground is taken, it won’t be given back. If they keep pushing on every front, one day the dam will break and the future will be theirs.