Left For Dead, Insurgent Candidates Scored Big Victories in Down-Ballot Elections

In New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., progressive challengers to Democratic incumbents scored a series of victories on Tuesday night.

Voters cast ballots at a polling location in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Voters in seven states are casting ballots in House Primaries today amid a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 103,000 people in the U.S. and triggered the harshest downturn for American workers in history. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Voters cast ballots at a polling location in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 2020. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

From New Mexico to Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., progressive challengers to Democratic incumbents scored a series of victories on Tuesday night, continuing to grind out an insurgency that in just a few years has dramatically reshaped the politics of the Democratic Party. 

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s surge and then rapid collapse in the Democratic presidential primary, speculation about the demise of the progressive wing of the party, and a dismissal of the entire idea of organizing as a means toward power has been rampant, but leftist candidates at the local level continue to notch the kind of victories that force incumbents to pay attention. 

In Pennsylvania, a progressive force has been coalescing since the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, with radical activists allying with what’s become known as “the resistance” in a way that has gone smoother than elsewhere in the country. That alliance has meant that many of the same forces have organized both victories at the ballot box and street demonstrations, in both major cities and small towns. 

Organizers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, launched Lancaster Stands Up in the days after Trump’s victory and have gone on to block the privatization of local prison services, elect allies to council and school board seats, win a Democratic congressional nomination and, in recent days, put together the largest street protests in the city’s modern memory. The model has gone statewide, with an umbrella organization, Pennsylvania Stand Up, of nine chapters, including Eerie Stands Up, Lehigh Valley Stands Up, and others. Another of its chapters, Reclaim Philadelphia, is an effort by local activists, with help from the Working Families Party, to take back control of the city from establishment Democrats with ties to real estate developers and major corporate players. 

That effort got a major boost Tuesday night, when insurgent Nikil Saval, a co-founder of Reclaim Philadelphia, knocked off longtime incumbent state Sen. Larry Farnese, who had held the seat since 2008. For the previous 30 years, it had been held by a legendary South Philly politician, Vincent Fumo, who took over the seat when the incumbent went to prison for corruption. Fumo, likewise, left the seat for prison. For the left to claim Fumo’s seat is a major symbolic victory in a closely watched contest. 

Rick Krajewski, another Reclaim organizer running in a competitive West/Southwest Philly House district against a more moderate opponent, has a solid chance of winning. (WFP did not endorse either Krajewski or Saval.) Krajewski won a late endorsement from Sanders, and he told The Intercept on Wednesday he had expected to be trailing slightly among in-person votes, and to make it up with mail-in ballots, as his was the only campaign to organize a robust mail operation. But instead, with 5,500 ballots counted, Krajewski is leading by 4 percentage points among in-person votes, with roughly 7,000 mail-in ballots still to be counted. 

Progressives also rallied around Nydea Graves, who ran for a Coatesville City Council seat and ousted an incumbent in a special election. Coatesville, in Chester County, is roughly the midpoint between Lancaster City and Philadelphia, and Graves is a leader of the local Chester County Stands Up chapter. 

The left is also threatening to expand on gains it made in hotly contested city council races last year. Councilwoman Kendra Brooks won in 2019 with the backing of Reclaim Philadelphia and the Working Families Party, making inroads into the type of working-class, predominantly black neighborhoods where the left has struggled to gain traction in the past — a failure that is used to undercut the left’s claim to legitimately represent a broad, multicultural working-class movement. Brooks’s ally, Pastor Nicolas O’Rourke, lost a city council race the same year but went on to become Pennsylvania organizing director for the WFP. Brooks and O’Rourke teamed up to help 25-year-old Bernard Williams win the nomination for the area’s state House seat. A win would give the insurgent left deeper inroads in the area, solidifying Brooks’s victory; as of Wednesday afternoon, Williams trailed by a single percentage point among in-person votes, but mail-in ballots could push him to the top.

Kendra Brooks, right, gives a speech at her results watch party for the Working Families in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Kendra Brooks won a Philadelphia City Council seat in a historic win for the Working Families Party and Philly progressives.   (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Kendra Brooks, right, gives a speech at her results watch party for the Working Families in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Photo: Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP

The left also appears to have taken out one-time progressive champion state Sen. Daylin Leach, the subject of a slew of sexual misconduct and harassment allegations. As of Wednesday afternoon, WFP-backed Amanda Cappelletti had a comfortable lead. 

Progressive Jessica Benham is also leading in a state House race against Ed Moeller, a conservative, anti-choice member of the Democratic establishment who had the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police in this Pittsburgh-area contest. 

And Emily Kinkead is leading incumbent state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, brother of the former mayor of Pittsburgh. Kinkead is allied with democratic socialist state Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who were first elected in 2018, and will grow their power once she arrives in Harrisburg. Innamorato was unopposed in her primary this cycle, while the party establishment came hard for Lee in her race, but she crushed her opponent, leading by more than 50 percentage points, with votes still to be counted. 

Voters in Washington, D.C., also pushed the city council to the left, with an insurgent victory in Ward 4 by former D.C. assistant attorney general Janeese Lewis George, a democratic socialist, against incumbent Brandon Todd. Ward 4 covers some gentrifying neighborhoods as well as historically middle-class black neighborhoods; George performed best in the gentrifying areas, as many left insurgents do, but she also won convincingly across the ward, which has for years been represented by business-friendly candidates. That includes Adrian Fenty, who went on to become mayor and left a handpicked successor, Muriel Bowser, in his place. When Bowser ascended to mayor, she tapped Todd for the seat. George was helped by a large coalition — stretching from WFP to Democratic Socialists of America — that included an independent progressive city councilwoman, Elissa Silverman, who was first elected at-large in 2014 and fended off a well-financed challenge from the city’s developers in 2018 to hold her seat. The developers’ failure to take out Silverman, followed by their defeat at the hands of her ally, George, signals a shift in the city’s local politics. 

In Iowa, leftist candidate J.D. Scholten is once again the Democratic nominee in the 4th Congressional District, following an uncontested primary in the race to replace Rep. Steve King. The incumbent Republican and white supremacist lost his seat by more than 9 percentage points during yesterday’s Republican primary. King, who has a long history of saying and doing racist things, narrowly defeated Scholten in 2018 with a margin of 3 percentage points. King, who has been in Congress since 2003, was censured by his colleagues in the House and stripped of committee assignments over comments defending white supremacy. His overt racism has put what used to be a solidly Republican seat at risk, and he was defeated by state Sen. Randy Feesntra, who has the backing of President Donald Trump. Scholten, whose platform includes Medicare for All, breaking up big agriculture and supporting small farmers to build a sustainable rural economy, and workers’ bargaining rights, will face off against Feenstra in November.

In New Mexico, an all-women slate of progressives challenged five recalcitrant incumbents under the banner of a coalition dubbed “No Corporate Democrats.” Four of the five women ousted long-serving members of the state Senate who had stood in the way of the progressive agenda for years in this deep blue state. Another allied progressive, who wasn’t officially part of the coalition, unseated an anti-choice Democrat. The defeated incumbents include state Senate leadership figures. 

Eric Griego, New Mexico state director for the Working Families Party, which had backed the progressives, said their victories are the “last gasp” of the moderate, corporate wing of the party on a state and local level. He noted that these victories build on the gains progressives made in the 2018 wave elections, when one of the longest-serving members of the state House of Representatives, conservative Democrat Debbie Rodella, was defeated by Susan Herrera.   

“With them gone, we think this is going to open up a lot of really, really monumental legislation that the state has needed for generations,” Griego said. The progressives’ priorities include fully funding early childhood programs, releasing the state’s dependence on oil and gas, and repealing an arcane law that criminalizes abortion, he added. “The other really big one is potentially expanding the social safety net whether it’s healthcare or childhood education.” 

Campaigners wave signs for local and statewide Democratic candidates outside a polling place on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Primaries for Democratic and Republican primary contests were held in New Mexico for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Poll workers wore surgical masks to prevent the spread of the virus and voters were given a squirt of hand sanitizer as they entered the building, a warehouse next to the county's rodeo grounds. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Campaigners wave signs for local and statewide Democratic candidates outside a polling place on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Photo: Cedar Attanasio/AP

An unprecedented number of absentee ballots has led to delays, so the votes are still being counted, but the Working Families Party declared victory in all five races Wednesday afternoon.

Siah Correa Hemphill, an educator and school psychologist, won overwhelmingly in District 28, unseating state Sen. Gabe Ramos. In District 38, Carrie Hamblen, a pioneer in New Mexico’s fight for LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, is locked in a tight race against Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen. Ballots are still being counted in the extremely close race, with Hamblen leading by about 139 votes as of Wednesday afternoon. 

In District 35, Neomi Martinez-Parra has a nearly 10 percentage point lead over state Sen. John Arthur Smith, who has been in office since 1989 and serves as the head of the Senate Finance Committee. Pam Cordova, a retired educator, also appears to be on track to victory, leading state Sen. Clemente Sanchez by over 1,000 votes, as of Wednesday morning. Cordova was backed by local labor groups and unions, EMILY’s List, and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich. 

Noreen Kelly, a Navajo elder and environmental activist who ran with No Corporate Democrats, is the only candidate on the slate who lost. She jumped in late in the race, formally launching in March, and struggled to get her campaign off the ground. 

Leo Jaramillo, chair of the Rio Arriba County Commission, wasn’t officially on the No Corporate Democrat slate, but his victory is being celebrated by the Working Families Party and other allied progressive groups. Jaramillo defeated five-term incumbent state Sen. Richard Martinez, an anti-choice lawmaker who was also one of four Democrats to vote against New Mexico’s “red-flag” gun law, in District 5. The embattled state senator had faced calls to step down after being convicted and jailed for drunk driving last year. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked Martinez to resign from his seat, saying he was “obligated to reflect on his actions and how best to reconcile them with his position as a public servant in the state Legislature, in particular his status as chairman of an influential committee,” but no personal reckoning had taken place. 

Oil and gas companies, which wield enormous influence over the state’s budget and politicians, pumped at least $1 million into New Mexico’s state Senate races, including Chevron Oil spending $700,000 in support of the incumbents. But some of the challengers, like Jaramillo and Correa Hemphill, had garnered broader coalitions of support across the progressive wing of the party and with top Democrats like Lujan Grisham and Heinrich. To help boost the candidates, the WFP joined other groups in making tens of thousands of calls, sending out mail, and investing in radio and texting. 

The No Corporate Democrats coalition was modeled after New York’s No IDC coalition, which in 2018 unseated conservative Democrats who were allied with Republicans, known as the Independent Democratic Conference. Progressives in New Mexico were tasked with the challenge of branding incumbents that work with Republicans, Griego said. Despite pushing candidates in a few risky, tough races, the coalition, which included reproductive rights groups, environmental groups, and the nonprofit organization OLÉ, pulled it off.

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