Can The Progressive Wave Hold Water?

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

Votes are in from Coast to Coast and the Democratic left is feeling good.  That said, the Democratic center is hardly in retreat.

First of course, there were shockwaves when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democratic activist and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who was running her first campaign, beat 10-term incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in New York’s CD 14 Democratic Primary in June.

Since her surprise conquest, Ocasio-Cortez has been touring the country as the new face of the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party.  Her victory in a minority-majority Congressional district can’t be totally chalked up to ideology.  Ocasio-Cortez mounted a strong, organized grass-roots campaign, while Crowley paid little attention to his constituency (despite—or because of–a campaign war-chest ten times greater than his opponent’s) and gave more attention to his Democratic leadership position in the House. 

Remember the fate of Republican House Majority leader Eric Cantor? He got blindsided by a Tea Party opponent in the 2014 Virginia primary.  As the Washington Post described the match, Cantor faced “an unknown economics professor named David Brat, who had the support of conservative radio hosts. But Cantor had outspent him, outpolled him, and had every reason to believe that he was headed for an eighth term.” However, the WaPo divined, Cantor’s loss “was the opening shot in an undeclared war: Voters were fed up and believed that Washington politicians such as Cantor were unable or unwilling to do anything to change that. Time to blow it up and start over.”

Sound familiar?

The Berniecrat world has taken Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence as a message from on high—it was rather a message to establishment and anti-establishment candidates alike.

Last Tuesday, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum upset the Florida political establishment to grab the Democratic nomination for Governor.  African-American and Millennial turnout was way up, and Gillum achieved his primary victory with 34% of the vote against two other far-better financed candidates.    This was impressive, but hardly conclusive proof of a wave for the Democratic left.

Two establishment candidates, Republican incumbent Governor Rick Scott and Democratic incumbent Senator Bill Nelson won the right to face off in November’s Senate election. Both the Florida gubernatorial and senatorial run-offs look like brutal and expensive donnybrooks. But it’s the gubernatorial battle between Gillum, an African American progressive, and Trump disciple DeSantis that will be a test of the strength of both “the party of Trump” and “the progressive left.”

Ironically, the beneficiary of the Gillum nomination may be Senator Bill Nelson, who is facing that onslaught from Scott and the Governor’s bottomless war chest.  This is a key race for Democratic hopes in the Senate and Nelson is clearly endangered.  A moderate, Nelson suffers from a charisma deficiency and needs to count on a blue wave to keep his seat.  That’s where the Gillum candidacy comes in, since, win or lose, his presence at the top of the ticket should mean a massive turnout of African-American and young voters—happier news for Democrats.

In California’s 50th CD, there were also two significant votes.  First, in the Democratic primary, Ammar Campa-Najjar secured the nomination with progressive backing.   A Latino-Palestinian-American, Campa-Najjar edged out a retired Navy seal, Josh Butner, whom Democratic gurus in Washington thought would be a stronger candidate against incumbent GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter.

The Democratic establishment didn’t consider the 50th CD a priority, however, since the GOP-heavy district is a considerable reach for Democrats.  Then the second significant vote came in–from a San Diego Grand Jury that indicted Congressman Hunter and his wife on several counts relating to the misuse of campaign funds.  The jury is still out, no pun intended, on whether Hunter can overcome his legal and PR woes to hold on in a district where Republicans have a 14.5% registration advantage over Democrats.

A big question is whether the Democratic powers-that-be will throw substantial amounts of money and resources into the 50th CD, when there is much more low-hanging fruit to pick in their quest to retake the House Majority.  Campa-Najjar would hardly seem to be a good fit for the district and it is doubtful that he could hold the seat in 2020 against a non-indicted GOP stalwart, such as retiring Congressman Darrell Issa or former State Senator, and current party Chairman, Jim Brulte.  If Hunter is re-elected and subsequently convicted and/or expelled from the House, a Republican would be heavily favored in a special election.

There is definitely a lot of energy on the left—fueled by anti-establishment fervor and visceral hate for Donald Trump. But the path for Democrats to regain control of Congress and the White House most likely runs closer to the middle of the road.   The challenge for Democrats is to harness the energy of minorities and Millennials evident in the primaries and couple it with an appeal to moderates who are fed up with President Donald Trump.

That formula has worked in a number of special elections since Trump’s victory in 2016.  The big test will be in November, when all the votes are counted.

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