Despite setbacks, from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, socialist candidates eked out victories in this week’s primaries. Centrist challengers, backed by super PAC and corporate money, massively underperformed. Democratic socialists aren’t going away anytime soon.
While the media has mainly focused on the performance of the far right in Tuesday’s Republican primaries, there was also plenty of news on the Left. The lesson from this week’s Democratic primaries was that despite the ambient feeling of demoralization, the Left is still organizing and winning in the electoral arena.
Pennsylvania was the biggest story. One big triumph was Summer Lee, a thirty-four-year-old black state representative in Pittsburgh, who defeated a huge amount of money, some from Republicans and from AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), to win her primary for a seat in the House of Representatives. Endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, she will become the newest member of the Squad if she wins the general election in November (which she is expected to do).
Another triumph was the sound drubbing of the Joe Manchin–backed centrist idol Conor Lamb in a Senate primary. Lamb’s victorious opponent, John Fetterman, fifty-two, a real Gen X character — tattooed, head-shaved and informally attired, and rejecting conventional political labels — isn’t a socialist or even a self-identified progressive. But as a supporter of marijuana legalization, Medicare for All, taxing the rich, and a higher minimum wage — and a backer of Bernie Sanders for president — he’d be better than the vast majority who currently serve in that white supremacist, undemocratic excrescence known as the US Senate.
In other good Pennsylvania news, the two Philadelphia state representatives of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were reelected.
In Louisville, Kentucky, Charles Booker, thirty-seven, endorsed by Bernie Sanders, defeated Amy McGrath in the Senate primary, and will face Rand Paul in November. Booker is supported by terrific organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Sunrise Movement, as well as by two CWA locals, but his contest with Paul in the heavily Republican state is likely to be a tough one.
Louisville is clearly a place to watch. In the state judges’ primary, at least three lawyers who represented protesters arrested during the outcry over Breonna Taylor’s murder won, and one will face off against the judge who signed the very search warrant that led to Taylor’s death.
And how about Oregon? In Oregon’s Fifth Congressional District, the ballots are still being counted, but Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a supporter of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal who avoided celebrity left endorsements to better appeal to rural voters, looks likely to beat Kurt Schrader, the Big Pharma–funded former chair of the Blue Dog Coalition who organized against Build Back Better. McLeod-Skinner was endorsed by many unions, local Democratic politicians, and newspapers.
Oregon’s Sixth Congressional District also delivered a progressive victory: state representative Andrea Salinas beat House Majority PAC-backed Carrick Flynn, who was supported by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried to the tune of $10 million. Salinas, endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Our Revolution, Oregon Working Families, and many unions, is expected to win her general election. Campaigning to defeat promising women who are children of Mexican immigrants is becoming a noxious habit for Nancy Pelosi — see our coverage of Jessica Cisneros, whose primary against Pelosi-backed antiabortionist Henry Cuellar is next week — but in this case the establishment Democrats lost, even with all that crypto money.
We never want to encourage the loser leftist mentality that “even when we lose, we win.” Of course, every sports fan knows that winning is different from losing and that winning is a million times better. But some of the campaigns that the Left lost on Tuesday were good, generative losses, in that they built power and relationships in places where the Left badly needs to grow. Some were shockingly close, including Louisville DSA’s Tyler Lamon, who ran for a metro council seat on a platform of a Green New Deal for Louisville, universal pre-K, affordable housing, and police accountability, and lost by only fifty-one votes. Some North Carolina races — Nida Alam’s congressional bid in Durham, Phil Carter’s race for county commissioner in Winston-Salem — weren’t so close, but they were hard fought and helped organize people and coalitions for other fights in places where working-class left power is badly needed. Those people and the movements they built aren’t going away, and many of them will win next time.
These campaigns showed that the Left is serious about building power nationwide, and that means competing in swing states and swing districts. Some of Tuesday’s victories weren’t in the urban, progressive strongholds where the Left has been most visible over the last five years but in more traditionally conservative or rural areas. The idea that social democratic politics can defeat a mobilized far-right movement by addressing people’s material needs — which include freedom from want, but also freedom from discrimination — has been attractive on the Left. We love to say that “Bernie would’ve won,” meaning that, given the nomination, Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump in 2016 and spared us those four awful years of a far-right presidency.
This assertion isn’t just about Bernie. Well, maybe for some people it is, but generally people who say this mean that if ordinary people had better choices, more of them would reject Republicans and vote for socialists or at least progressives. That theory could be true, but so far, it hasn’t been widely tested. Every left insurgent candidate who goes on to win their general elections this November will be another data point telling us it can be done — and we will learn much about how the Right might be defeated elsewhere in the United States. Even a campaign like that of Summer Lee, who’s running in a heavily blue district, but one that’s located in a crucial swing state, also helps defeat the far right in national elections by getting left-leaning voters in the habit of going to the polls.
Much of the Left has been demobilized and discouraged since Bernie Sanders’s 2020 defeat. It’s worth noting this doesn’t include Sanders himself, who not only endorsed but actively campaigned for many of the candidates discussed above. Are you feeling old before your time, tired out, and sad about the state of the world? Hard same — but Bernie Sanders is eighty years old. If we follow his example and keep going, apparently, we sometimes win.