Forget about Conor Lamb and Dan Lipinski. The progressive wing has already beaten the establishment in 2018.
With his primary election victory last week, Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski—a Blue Dog and cultural conservative—won the first major 2018 battle between the Democratic Party’s establishment and progressive wings.
But don’t be confused about what it means. The war is already over, and the establishment lost.
Even though only two states have actually voted so far this primary election season—Texas, a red-state redoubt, and Illinois, a blue-state stronghold—the battle for supremacy this primary season is all but complete. In state after state, the left is proving to be the animating force in Democratic primaries, producing a surge of candidates who are forcefully driving the party toward a more liberal orientation on nearly every issue.
These candidates are running on an agenda that moves the party beyond its recent comfort zone and toward single-payer health care, stricter gun control, a $15 minimum wage, more expansive LGBT rights and greater protections for immigrants.
In the surest sign of the reoriented issue landscape, they’re joined by some of the most prominent prospects in the 2020 Democratic presidential field—Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris among them—who are embracing the same agenda.
According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution’s Primaries Project, the number of self-identified, nonincumbent progressive candidates in Texas spiked compared with the previous two election years. This year, there were nearly four times as many progressive candidates as in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of moderate and establishment candidates remained flat for the past three elections in Texas.
Even in Illinois, where the Democratic Party holds most of the levers of power, the data tell a similar story: There were more progressive candidates this year, the Primaries Project reports, than moderate and establishment candidates, by a count of 25 to 21.
In Lipinski’s case, the congressman didn’t believe the strength of the opposition until it was nearly too late. He scrambled in time to defeat Marie Newman, his Bernie Sanders-backed challenger, but the slim margin of victory raises considerable doubts about his future—including whether he can hang on in 2020, when progressives will return in force to try to finish him off in a presidential year when Democratic turnout is likely to be even higher.
The veteran congressman—who was abandoned in his hour of need by some of his more liberal colleagues in the House and left for dead by the House Democrats’ campaign arm—wrote in an article this week at RealClear Politics that he was struck by one progressive member’s greeting once he returned to Washington: “Congratulations might be unexpected coming from me, but if they’d taken you out they’d be coming after everybody.”
The party’s ascendant left is coming after everybody, regardless of the outcome in Lipinski’s race. Progressive energy is pulsing through the primaries, most notably in the proliferation of Trump-backlash grass-roots groups like Indivisible, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress that are teeming with activists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. There’s no comparable counterweight within the establishment.
Longtime Democratic incumbents—most of whose voting records are far more liberal than that of Lipinski, an abortion rights opponent who voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010—have been caught in the cross hairs of these activist groups in some of the bluest states on the map, among them California, Massachusetts and New York.
In Chicago, that led to the stiffest primary competition to date for Lipinski and fellow Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, with both incumbents facing challengers seeking to outflank them on the left.
These progressives aren’t necessarily sweeping races up and down the ballot. But they are winning enough of them—and generating enough grass-roots pressure—to continue driving the party leftward.
In Texas, a greater percentage of the progressive candidates either won or advanced to a runoff than the percentage of moderate and establishment candidates who did. In Illinois, the success rate between the wings was about equal. Five moderate or establishment candidates won their primaries, compared with three progressives.
The question, though, is whether this frenzied activity is accomplishing anything aside from sharpening the party’s ideological edge. If progressives are unable to expand the Democratic Party’s grip beyond big cities and other solidly blue districts, they are stuck right back where they started at the beginning of the Trump era—an influential force trapped within in a powerless minority.
Winning control of the House this November will ultimately hinge on the Democratic Party’s ability to compete in the suburbs, in places like Orange County, California, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Until progressives prove they can nominate candidates who can win on that final frontier, their mission is incomplete.
Their progress so far is mixed. In the suburban Chicago House seat viewed as the best Democratic pickup opportunity in the state in 2018, the candidate who billed herself as “unapologetically progressive” finished fourth in a crowded primary last week, well behind three other Democrats who hesitated to adopt that label and stopped short of calling for a single-payer health system.
Yet in the historically Republican suburbs of Houston, the insurgent wing delivered an eye-opening display of its muscle. Despite the best efforts of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to torpedo activist Laura Moser—the DCCC viewed her as a less-than-viable prospective nominee in a competitive suburban Texas district—progressives rallied around her and boosted her into a May 22 Texas runoff.
The outcome of that contest won’t provide conclusive evidence about the direction of the party. For one thing, Moser’s opponent is endorsed by some traditionally liberal groups, including EMILY’s List. But it will provide some insight into how far progressive insurgents have come this year, or how far they still have to go to become the new Democratic establishment.