I remember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 victory well. I sat at a table in my old Chicago apartment, beer in hand, toggling back and forth between Twitter and the New York Times’ NY-14 election results page. Then the first returns rolled in and showed a wide AOC lead that never faltered as the night went on. For progressives generally, the reaction was euphoric: “she did it, she beat the Democratic machine, if she can do it anyone can, hurrah hurrah, etc.” That night, anything felt possible for the Left.
In the 2020 election cycle that followed, the number of candidates trying to be AOC 2.0 skyrocketed. All were looking to punch above their weight against longtime incumbents, win with grassroots energy and limited funds, and go from random nobodies to members of the U.S. Congress. We had dozens and dozens of Left candidates, some of them open socialists, running everywhere.
The results have been less impressive than we might have hoped.
Shahid Buttar, Nancy Pelosi’s challenger, is entering round two of California’s jungle primary with 13 percent to her 74 percent, a margin that could easily mean a victory for Pelosi in November. Anthony Clark, backed by DSA, lost with 13 percent of the vote in his second try at the March IL-07 primary—ditto for Heidi Sloan, who unfortunately brought in 30 percent for her first shot at TX-25 on Super Tuesday.
One semi-official group of candidates emerged from this cycle as a perfect representation of the AOC-inspired “everyone run for Congress anywhere, you never know what will happen” mentality. Calling themselves The Rose Caucus, this informal slate of candidates ran as socialists in 21 congressional seats total. So far, none of these candidates has won. Some of their percentage vote shares: 23 percent, 22 percent, 13 percent, 8 percent, 4 percent, etc. The trend of defeats looks to continue.
Another progressive electoral organization, Justice Democrats, tried a highly pragmatic and selective approach to their endorsements this cycle. They gave the nod to nine challengers, all of whom they clearly vetted early-on for their fundraising capacity and established presence in-district. It proved to be a decent strategy, nabbing a narrow win for IL-03’s Marie Newman (her second time running for that seat) and a nail biter loss for Jessica Cisneros in TX-28, the kind of close defeat that can be turned into a win in 2022. And in OH-03, Morgan Harper brought home just 31 percent of the vote.
There are still plenty of contests to go; votes are being cast for Mckayla Wilkes in MD-05 right this very moment. Justice Democrats and DSA-backed candidates might still be able to eke out a House seat or two more this cycle even under a pandemic that prevents grassroots canvassing and rallies. But we can all see this style of victory will be scarce and momentous, not the reliable, consistent victories that we might have envisioned back in 2018. While many of these unsuccessful runs galvanize organizers and give local Left groups the ability to build and grow, the fact remains that going from regular citizen to Congressperson in one leap is a tremendous feat, and it doesn’t constitute a reliable model for building long-term Left electoral power.
AOC is the most famous member of the Squad because her victory was the most romantic and impressive—a working class Latina went from bartender straight to the U.S. Congress, “knocking down the House” and refusing to wait for change one day longer. It’s a shame that a similar focus isn’t on the victories of fellow Squadmates Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. The latter would describe herself as a democratic socialist, and both are arguably to AOC’s left. Both ran for and won their congressional seats, not as longshot upstarts with no political background, but as established and well-known community members occupying seats in their respective State Houses. Their wins represent a much more boring but reliable path for future Left congressional candidates to follow.
Within the confines of electoral politics, this is what a sustainable, serious, long-term strategy for building the Left in the U.S. will look like—not trying to focus only on Congress with political newcomers every cycle, hoping for miracle after miracle—but contesting local and State seats seriously so we have a real bench to push towards higher office in the decades to come. We’ll do it like the runup to the Reagan Revolution, starting with school boards and city councils before moving up to the State level and beyond. Municipal and state seats are cheaper to contest than Congress, the win-numbers are smaller, and the incumbents aren’t as heavily-guarded by Party establishment figures and powerful lobbies (although there is still plenty of that). The career of Bernie Sanders is actually instructive here: after running for the Senate and failing, Bernie ran for mayor of Burlington—and won. Local office was the springboard to state office, which in turn led to a national presidential campaign.
Of course this doesn’t mean leftists should never consider congressional bids. Especially when a seat opens suddenly and no other leftist candidate can mount a bid, like Samelys López’s current campaign for NY-15, or when a case can be made that the incumbent is truly out of touch with their constituents in one obvious respect or another. And the occasional, high-energy longshot candidate can be a good thing. If a socialist Congressional candidate with no prior electoral background wins in every few dozen races we run, that still remains an astounding feat that can have an outsized impact on the country—look no further than how much AOC has changed the conversation even as a freshman Representative. But if we’re in this fight for the long haul, we need to get fired up about the State House too. Having a deep bench of municipal and State officials can turn our activist campaigns into a real movement, and have a tremendous impact on local policy while we’re at it. The decision to run for Congress and ask for scarce Left resources should not be taken lightly, especially if there are city and State level seats ripe for the taking in your area.
There is cause for Left optimism on the local and state level. New York DSA State Senate candidate Jabari Brisport has outraised his competition nearly twice over and, if he wins, will be joining existing socialist NY State Senator Julia Salazar. In Minnesota, socialist State Senate insurgent Omar Fatah has somehow received the official backing of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party over the sitting incumbent, and in Pennsylvania, socialist State Senate candidate Nikil Saval is endorsed by Bernie Sanders, DSA, The Sunrise Movement, and (most importantly) a slew of local unions and elected officials. DSA already has State Reps. in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, Virginia, Montana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine and Hawai’i. And who can forget that 12 percent of Chicago’s city council seats are now filled by open socialists who took office just a year ago?
Bernie Sanders is thinking like I am about the far down ballot. While he still might make another round of congressional endorsements, last week he instead chose to back a fresh slate of eight additional State level candidates with upcoming primaries, telling his email list that bringing about transformative change in the U.S. will require “electing more progressive candidates and advancing progressive policies at the state and local level.”
These smaller wins are where the Left can build power in a sustainable long term way, and we need way more of them. From a bench of municipal and State seats, we will find the Ilhans and the Rashidas of the future. They’ll become politicians with an existing voter base and record, well-known and liked by their constituents. They’ll be able to run for Congress by melding a locally established reputation with grassroots energy. They’ll win the enthusiasm that we know outspoken progressive and open socialist congressional candidates can get. Such leftist congressional candidates will have an easier time establishing themselves as “serious” than our current upstarts, consolidating support from local progressive-minded organizations and unions, particularly when they get the chance to run for open seats. And even if they never run for Congress, these lower-level Left officials can provide endorsements and lend public legitimacy to grassroots, movement candidates that otherwise they would never receive. Building towards these future campaigns is the work of a generation, not just a few years.
This argument may seem clear and obvious. But I fear we’ll see another election cycle in 2022 much like this year’s: Progressive and socialist challengers will emerge from obscurity all over the place to plead for scarce resources, endorsements and volunteers in longshot bids for Congress that ultimately net roughly 20 to 30 percent of the vote. All the while likely right-wing and more-easily-beatable State Representatives will face weak challenges.
AOC taught us that anything is possible for us, but sadly, that doesn’t mean anything is probable. We are building a movement that can hold its own and grow for decades. If you are thinking about running for office next cycle, follow Ilhan’s footsteps, and run locally before aiming for Congress.
IMAGE: Colorado Springs City Hall, by David Shankbone.