A civil rights attorney who delights in suing the police is the new district attorney in Philadelphia. A democratic socialist shocked an incumbent Republican in Virginia. A black woman who prosecuted a white cop for shooting a black teenager was re-elected as prosecutor. Three months after Charlottesville, a black lieutenant governor was elected in Virginia. A transgender woman who focused on traffic problems knocked out a longtime culture warrior who focused on bathrooms. A criminal justice reformer flipped the Washington state Senate to Democrats. A wet bag of mulch beat a race-baiting lobbyist in Virginia by a stunning nine points. Maine voters expanded Medicaid. Long-held Republican seats in Georgia flipped in a special election. New Jersey, finished with Gov. Chris Christie, elected a Democrat in a landslide.
Facing what looked to pundits like an insurmountable 32-seat gap, Democrats are on the brink of taking back the Virginia House of Delegates, a result that now comes down to recounts.
In special elections since last November, Democrats have dramatically outperformed at the polls, though Republicans have dismissed each flipped seat as a one-off, and not as evidence of a pattern. Tuesday will be much harder to write off.
Look, for instance, to a pair of special elections in the very red state of Georgia. Two statehouse seats were up for grabs, both being vacated by Republicans. Democrats won them both. One of those Democrats, Deborah Gonzalez, raised $55,000 for her campaign; her opponent failed to best her even after raising around $200,000.
Also in Georgia, Liliana Bakhtiari, a Working Families Party and Our Revolution-backed queer Muslim woman lost to an incumbent Atlanta City Council member.
A year ago, Bernie Sanders ran an insurgent campaign that helped popularize democratic socialism and resurgent populism among American progressives. On Tuesday, populist candidates won in places you may not expect — from Manassas, Virginia to Knoxville, Tennessee.
In Virginia, Democratic Socialists of America-backed Lee Carter defeated the GOP whip Jackson Miller in the House of Delegates. Richmond-Times Dispatch reporter Patrick Wilson noted that the state Democratic Party offered little support to Carter. He won anyway. Numerous wings of the broader party united behind Carter, including factions, such as Planned Parenthood, who had backed Hillary Clinton last year:
Across the country, DSA candidates took offices, winning both as Democrats and independents. Socialist Seema Singh Perez won a seat on the Knoxville City Council. In Pittsburgh, a pair of DSA-backed candidates won, including Mik Pappas, an independent candidate who defeated a 24-year incumbent Democrat to become the 31st Magisterial District judge. Pappas ran strong on criminal justice reform, focusing on restorative justice rather than punitive measures.
In Somerville, Massachusetts, DSA members JT Scott and Ben Ewen-Campen unseated long-time incumbents to join the Board of Aldermen. DSA member Charles Decker will represent Ward 9 in New Haven, Connecticut.
And in Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner — also backed by DSA — will soon take office promising to radically overhaul the city’s criminal justice system.
There were a few low points for populists. In Ohio, a drug price control referendum went down by a huge margin after the industry spent $60 million opposing it. In the Atlanta mayoral election, populist Vincent Fort was edged out by conservative Mary Norwood and business-friendly Democrat Keisha Lance Bottoms, the incumbent mayor’s hand-picked successor, who will make the runoff. While Fort did not succeed in the race, his campaign successfully pressured the Atlanta City Council to raise the wages of city workers to $15 an hour and decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
In Minneapolis’s mayoral and city council election, progressive criminal justice reformer Ray Dehn and Socialist Alternative candidate Ginger Jentzen performed well in first-preference votes, but because the city uses a ranked-choice voting system, final results will not be available until later this week — leaving the possibility that the Democratic establishment maintains its hold.
In Seattle, socialist Jon Grant, despite building a strong public-financed campaign organized by recruiting the homeless, was defeated in his bid for city council; meanwhile, the most business-friendly candidate was elected mayor. In Brooklyn, Green Party socialist Jabari Brisport ran a spirited race but failed to defeat the Democratic incumbent; Brisport, however, won more votes than any third-party candidate running in the city.
A slate of progressive challengers in Columbus, Ohio, who took on incumbent Democrats for city council and school board lost their races as well.
The five challengers – Will Petrik, Jasmine Ayres, Erin Upchurch, Amy Harkins and Abby Vaile – ran under the banner of “Yes We Can” and were backed by the Working Families Party and Our Revolution. They drew their inspiration from the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, and charged the city’s establishment Democrats with being too caught up in the narrative that Columbus is a thriving city, refusing to confront pressing issues like police misconduct, income inequality, drug addiction, and one of the nation’s highest infant mortality rates.
The Columbus branch of the International Socialist Organization declined to endorse Yes We Can because they “maintained a strategic orientation toward the Democratic Party” rather than running third-party.
The incumbent candidates – Priscilla Tyson, Shannon Hardin, Mitchell Brown, Michael D. Cole, Ramona Reyes and Dominic Paretti – who all received endorsements from the Franklin County Democratic Party months before the primary, ended up massively outspending their Yes We Can opponents. For the city council race, incumbent Democrats outspent Yes We Can challengers by nearly 10 to 1. Dominic Paretti outspent his Yes We Can school board challenger Erin Upchurch 5 to 1.
The wide gulfs in fundraising have reignited local conversations about campaign finance reform and the need to potentially cap campaign contributions. “You should not be able to donate $50,000 to a campaign,” Ayres said last week in the Columbus Dispatch. “If someone donates $50,000 to you, they want something.”
For a time it seemed possible that the city’s teachers union – the Columbus Education Association – might endorse the Yes We Can school board challengers. In September the union voted “no confidence” in the seven-person school board, deeply unsatisfied with its new contract and the board members’ behavior during the negotiation process. In the end, however, the union decided to endorse no one.
On the event page for an Election Night party hosted by Yes We Can, the candidates wrote:
Yes We Can has brought the political revolution to Columbus in a big way. In a very short time, we have grown from a few frustrated organizers sitting in a living room, to a powerful, people-powered movement giving the voters of Columbus options for the first time in a long time.
In many ways, we’ve already won. We have made this election about issues that matter to everyday people: Police violence, affordable housing, ending tax giveaways to millionaires.
We know the fight ahead of us is long and hard, regardless of the results. Let’s celebrate each other, and how far we have come. We will watch the results, hear from the candidates and talk about where we go from here. We’re in this for the long haul. #YesWeCan.
Correction: Nov. 8, 2017, 11:19 a.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Liliana Bakhtiari won the Atlanta City Council District 5 seat. She lost to incumbent Natalyn Mosby Archibong.
Update: Nov. 9, 2017, 11:01 a.m.
This piece was updated with greater detail about the progressive candidates who lost local elections in Columbus, Ohio.