Progressive Democrats heading into Tuesday’s primary were hoping for a repeat of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 shock victory in Michigan — only this time, the vehicle for those hopes was Abdul El-Sayed. It didn’t happen, as he was beaten by Gretchen Whitmer, a former Democratic leader in the Michigan state Senate. But progressive activists still came away from Tuesday with a slew of wins, including one deeply satisfying victory: Criminal justice reformer Wesley Bell ousted St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch, notorious for his callous indifference to the prosecution of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who shot and killed Mike Brown.
In the first wave of major primaries since an upset by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez energized the grassroots wing of the party, Democrats turned out on Tuesday night in surging numbers. In Michigan, well over 100,000 more people voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary than in the Republican contest, and in Missouri, Democratic turnout was up 85 percent since 2010.
The enthusiasm among Democrats meant that Republicans needed everything they had in an Ohio special election in a district that Donald Trump carried by more than 10 points. Republicans struggled to pull ahead by even 1 percentage point, despite a rally by Trump, a visit by Mike Pence, $3.5 million from Paul Ryan’s Super PAC, and two Republican National Committee field offices. With provisional ballots still to be counted, the race is too close to call.
For all of the money spent, the winner, whether it’s Republican Troy Balderson or Democrat Danny O’Connor, will serve just 19 legislative days between now and the November election.
Rashida Tlaib, a progressive community organizer and former state legislator endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, led in the race to replace John Conyers in Congress. She would be the first Muslim woman and Palestinian-American elected to Congress. With 94 percent of the votes counted, she led comfortably by more than 6,500.
In Kansas, the democratic socialist duo campaigned for Brent Welder in Kansas City and James Thompson in Wichita. A poll released on the eve of the election showed Welder holding a double-digit lead, with Sharice Davids in second, Tom Niermann in third, and the other candidates far behind. With a third of the votes in, the poll was bearing out, with Welder at 39 percent, Davids at 33 percent, and Niermann at 15 percent. A computer glitch set the rest of the vote-counting back into the early hours of Wednesday, and Davids, down by fewer than 2,000 votes, was still well within striking distance of Welder. By the morning, that number had reversed, with Davids on top at 37 percent to Welder’s 34.
Thompson, meanwhile, beat his more conservative opponent, Laura Lombard, by roughly 2-to-1.
In St. Louis County, Bell’s race for prosecutor was part of a national movement to bring about criminal justice reform by winning district attorney races. With the support of the Working Families Party, the Real Justice PAC (which is affiliated with The Intercept columnist Shaun King), and a slew of local and national groups, Bell knocked off McCulloch, who had been in office more than 20 years.
Elsewhere in St. Louis, Ocasio-Cortez campaigned hard for Cori Bush, a pastor, single mom, and nurse who challenged Lacy Clay Jr. The 1st Congressional District was previously represented by Clay’s father, and all together, the family has represented the district for more than 50 years. The race was a test of whether Clay had let his turnout operation atrophy over the years, or whether he was still able to turn out votes in a primary. The race was closely watched by skittish House Democrats who worry about their own coming primary challenges. Incumbents were pleased to see Bush dispatched by Clay 57 to 36 percent.
The progressive organizing still paid dividends. It’s likely that the organizing Bush and Ocasio-Cortez did contributed heavily to Bell’s win, and helped defeat an anti-union measure. The GOP gambled that moving a ballot referendum on right-to-work laws from November to August would lower turnout and give them the victory. The referendum would prohibit agreements that require employees in a unionized workplace to contribute to the costs of union operations. It was an attempt to sock it to already-reeling unions, who just took a huge loss in Janus v. AFSCME, a Supreme Court decision that serves as a kind of right-to-work for public-sector unions. Moving up the vote was one of the final acts of disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens. But Proposition A proved wildly unsuccessful. It was called around 10 p.m. CDT, losing by 65 percent to 35 percent with two-thirds of the precincts counted.
Unions worked hard to defeat the measure, reversing a trend that saw five other states adopt right-to-work laws this decade. But those states all advanced right-to-work by statute, not the ballot. Missouri is the first state in history to defeat a right-to-work measure by public referendum.
The gains made Tuesday night follow what was a monumental step forward during the last major round of primaries in June. Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win over 10-term New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley made global headlines, but it overshadowed a string of wins that marked the height of the 2018 insurgency. From Kentucky to Colorado, grassroots candidates defeated entrenched politicians.
In Oklahoma, on the same day as Ocasio-Cortez’s win, supporters of public education employed the tactic used successfully in West Virginia earlier this year, grabbing GOP ballots to vote in primary elections against Republican lawmakers who voted against a tax package to finance a teacher pay raise. Two incumbent Republicans who voted against the teacher priority were outright defeated, and seven others will have to face an August 28 runoff.
In Kentucky, House Republican Leader Jonathan Shell lost his primary to R. Travis Brenda, a math teacher who opposed establishment GOP plans to cut teacher pensions. Brenda campaigned as socially conservative, touting his pro-life and pro-Second Amendment views, but also showed commitment to working-class issues like defending public education. He earned the endorsement of the United Auto Workers, and pulled off a narrow victory — with Brenda at 4,235 votes to Shell’s 4,112.
Former NAACP President Ben Jealous emerged victorious in his Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign in Maryland — winning 39.8 percent of the vote, trouncing the runner-up Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who got 29.3 percent. Backed by the progressive organizations Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, the former Sanders surrogate’s win represented a significant victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
In Colorado, progressives did well in state Democratic primaries. Social worker Emily Sirota defeated former Planned Parenthood political director Ashley Wheeland by six points; she ran on tuition-free college and single-payer health care, and received an endorsement from Sanders. In Senate District 32, Robert Rodriguez, whose day job is working at a community-based corrections program, defeated tech entrepreneur Zach Neumann in his Democratic primary. Rodriguez stressed criminal justice reform, universal health care, and the adoption of full-day universal pre-K and kindergarten.
In a sense, the primary victories were the easy part. The true test for populists and progressives like Thompson, Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Katie Porter in California, and other candidates in tough races will come when their message is up for scrutiny in up-for-grabs seats in a general election.
In Tuesday’s primary in Kansas’s 3rd District, with all the precincts reporting, Davids had beaten Welder by some 2,000 votes. Welder had amassed the most cash on hand heading into the final weeks of the race, when Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez came to Kansas City to stump with him. The Welder campaign raised $110,000 in the seven days after that visit, and inspired 254 new volunteers.
Davids, raised by a single mom, has a compelling life story — a lesbian and a Native American MMA fighter, she went from community college to the Ivy League. She picked up a late endorsement from the Kansas City Star and New Mexico congressional candidate Deb Haaland, whom she would join as the first Native American woman in Congress. Niermann, meanwhile, ran on the argument that Democrats should nominate a centrist to be able to compete in the general election. Niermann is a teacher at a private school, from which many parents contributed to his campaign, but despite his significant fundraising prowess, he was lagging in third, without the significant volunteer support enjoyed by both Welder and Davids.
Welder, Thompson, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez were hoping to prove that unapologetic progressivism can win even in Kansas. The district is just one of five in which Sanders won the primary and Hillary Clinton won the general election, but where a Republican holds the House seat.
Welder’s platform was to the left of Davids’s, but Davids herself told The Intercept that if presented with a vote on single-payer health care, she would support it. The difference, then, came down to intensity: Championing an issue and organizing around it is of a different sort than being willing to support it if it lands on your desk.
Campaign finance plays perhaps an even more important role. Big money has itself become an increasingly salient issue, as many Democratic candidates find little daylight between their platforms. Candidates backed by major donors are considered by a rising share of the Democratic electorate to have less independence to pursue a progressive agenda. (The political imperative of demonstrating a small-donor base even led New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign to get the roommate of a staffer to make 69 separate small contributions.)
Welder was financed overwhelmingly by small dollars, while Davids benefited from a $400,000 independent boost from the Super PAC linked to EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice women Democrats. Davids defended the EMILY’s List support, telling ThinkProgress, “I’m exactly the kind of candidate that would need a support system because of all the structural barriers that exist for people to run for office.”
Meanwhile, a late ad from the conservative Ending Spending political action committee condemned Welder as “too progressive for Kansas.” But that condemnation came at the end of the ad, following happy-sounding music and and a description of Welder as “a community organizer, friend of Barack Obama, and ally of Bernie Sanders” who would “raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, wipe out tax breaks for big corporations, make college completely free, and he supports single-payer ‘Medicare for All.’” Incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder also put out Facebook ads highlighting Welder’s progressive policies, suggesting that conservatives are not yet believers in the notion that unapologetic progressivism can win in the district.
Davids and Niermann put out a joint statement criticizing Ending Spending for “undemocratic meddling” in the primary. It does appear that the ad gave a megaphone to Welder’s views, perhaps because they see him as a pied-piper candidate in the general.
“Sharice is a fighter through and through, and with her primary victory, she’s prepared to take on Congressman Kevin Yoder and show 3rd District voters that she’s the best choice to represent them in Congress,” said EMILY’s List in a statement. “Unlike Yoder, Sharice will work to protect access to affordable health care and make decisions based on what’s best for people in the district — not as a pawn of Donald Trump. She’s also on track to make history as one of the first Native American women in Congress, the first openly gay member of the Kansas congressional delegation, and the first Democratic woman to represent this district. EMILY’s List is proud to congratulate Sharice on her hard-earned victory and we look forward to helping her flip this seat in November.”
Thompson faced a rematch against Lombard in the Democratic primary in Wichita. He beat her in the primary for a 2017 special election, though because of the truncated nature of the race, only a convention was used to select the candidate last year. Lombard had moved back to the district after eight years in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a consultant for firms that export manufactured equipment to the Middle East. She ran as a moderate to Thompson’s more progressive approach.
Thompson is a veteran and a civil rights attorney who spent time homeless as a teenager, and stunned the political establishment last year by losing his general election contest to Ron Estes by a mere six points — one of the first indications that Democratic enthusiasm could generate a blue wave in 2018. Thompson refused to run the typical Democratic Party playbook for heavily Republican districts, and instead ran as a proud, unapologetic progressive, wrapping himself in the movement that had boosted Sanders’s presidential bid.
The three-way race between Whitmer, El-Sayed, and Shri Thanedar served as a test of progressive mettle in the Midwest.
The progressive favorite in the race, former Detroit public health director El-Sayed, climbed from single digits in the polls to finish second with 32 percent of the vote, disappointing his enthusiastic backers. Whitmer, who ran what would have been considered a solidly progressive campaign just two years ago, finished on top, with 51.5 percent of the vote. Thanedar, a political fraud who concocted his ideology ahead of the campaign, spent $11 million of his own money to siphon off 17 percent of votes — accomplishing little beyond eating into what is presumed to be El-Sayed’s vote share. (El-Sayed and Thanedar both ran on state single payer, and voters repeatedly were observed to have confused the two brown candidates for each other).
Whitmer will face the Trump-endorsed Bill Schuette in the general election, and the Democratic Party has a chance to flip the governor’s mansion and state legislature. Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez campaigned hard for the long-shot El-Sayed, laying down political capital in a way that is unusual for establishment politicians, of which the two democratic socialists are not. Despite the disappointing loss, however, El-Sayed’s ability to capture a respectable vote share sets him up for a future political career that wouldn’t exist with a single-digit finish. It also laid the groundwork for a get-out-the-vote operation that will be useful for Democrats in the coming election, as well as in 2020, when the Midwest could determine control of the White House.
Whitmer campaigned as an establishment pragmatist, somebody with a record to run on and the most credible chance to win the general election in the fall. She called El-Sayed’s state single-payer proposal unrealistic for Michigan, and her signature policy proposal was summarized by a simple slogan, “Fix the Damn Roads,” which she featured in campaign videos and literature.
While Whitmer was focused on Michigan’s notoriously poor streets, El-Sayed released one of the most detailed policy suites of any gubernatorial candidate in the country, including fleshed out plans to establish the aforementioned single-payer system, a tuition-free college plan for most middle-class families, and an aggressive criminal justice reform proposal.
El-Sayed relied largely on grassroots support to build his campaign. He rejected corporate PAC money and built a large volunteer network. Early on in the campaign, he brought on veterans from Sanders’s presidential campaign to build the infrastructure for what’s called “distributed organizing,” which allowed volunteers across the state and in other parts of the country to organize themselves to call and text voters and knock on doors.
Whitmer, on the other hand, relied heavily on the support of both the state’s influential labor unions and some corporate interests. She is the daughter of former Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Richard Whitmer, and the company’s lobbyists threw a fundraiser for her earlier in the year that netted her $144,000. Two front organizations pumped $550,000 of dark money into the race on her behalf. Observers speculated that the funds originated from Blue Cross Blue Shield, which the company wouldn’t confirm or deny.
The third candidate in the race, Thanedar, largely self-funded his foray into Michigan politics.
Earlier this year, several prominent Michigan consultants told The Intercept that Thanedar had approached them about running for governor and had mused about running as a Republican with conservative policy positions instead. We later uncovered C-SPAN footage of Thanedar clapping along with Marco Rubio at a presidential rally in Iowa in 2016.
As late as May of this year, Thanedar was leading the polls, likely the result of a massive televised ad blitz he funded throughout the state. But The Intercept’s reporting on his background, as well as reporting from HuffPost about Thanedar abandoning lab animals at a company he formerly owned, helped sour many voters on his bid. The Grosse Pointe Democratic Club took the unprecedented step of issuing an “anti-endorsement” of Thanedar, urging voters to steer clear of his campaign. When he attempted to speak at the Progressive Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, he was booed off the stage.
Update: August 8, 2018, 9:18 a.m.
This story was updated to include final results in the Welder-Davids race.