Progressives Aren’t Hurting the Democratic Party—In Fact, They’re The Only Thing Saving It

New York is not just a case study in the winnability of leftist ideas. It is also ground zero for the left to try to leverage its power to extract concessions before supporting moderate Democrats.

At 11:30 p.m. on the night of November 8, 2022, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul took the stage at her packed election-night watch party to declare victory. The excited crowd chanted her name. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” blared over the PA system. Confetti spewed on stage. The word “WINNER” appeared in giant bold letters behind her. All seemed well. And, truth be told, the moment was briefly relieving: Lee Zeldin, a hardline MAGA Republican, posed an astonishingly credible threat to Democrats’ control of Albany, with Kathy Hochul’s double-digit lead having collapsed in the months prior to the general election. One poll even showed Zeldin with a one-point lead over Hochul.

Meanwhile, GOP candidates seemed poised for an extraordinarily successful night in the Empire State. Just over an hour later, “seasoned Wall Street financier” and “Baruch volleyball starGeorge Santos flipped a Long Island district that had been controlled by Democrats for a decade. Ex-detective Anthony D’Esposito seized a district held by Democrats since 1997. Most embarrassingly, former State Assemblyman Mike Lawler defenestrated power Democrat and DCCC chair Sean Patrick Maloney. Other critical races, like the battle for the newly drawn and highly contested 19th district, seemed down to the wire. New York seemed to be the only state where the mythical “red wave” was actually materializing. It wasn’t looking good.

Over the next week, a seemingly-endless torrent of humiliating statistics about the Democratic Party’s showing flooded in. Observers quickly noticed that Hochul herself had carved out a historically weak victory, only managing to muster a 6.4-point victory over Zeldin—by comparison, Andrew Cuomo had crushed his Republican challenger by over 23 points in 2018. Democratic voter turnout in New York City between the 2018 and 2022 elections crumbled by an unbelievable 30.7 percent. Every single county in New York shifted dramatically right, with Democratic strongholds like Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx voting Republican at rates upwards of twice the GOP’s 2020 vote-share. Most strikingly, Hochul’s margin of victory was only slightly larger than that of John Fetterman, who pulled off a 4.9-point victory in a swing state.

As votes were being counted across the country’s time zones, commentators like The Intercept’s Ryan Grim noted that, if the NY Democrats hadn’t performed so abysmally poorly, the party would have had a far wider path to the House majority. Phrases used to describe the New York State Democratic Party included “asleep at the wheel” and “mind bogglingly incompetent.” Soon-to-be former representative Mondaire Jones simply commented on the results: “Yikes.”

Who was responsible for this flop of generational proportions? Party chair Jay Jacobs, for his part, blamed the state’s left. According to Jacobs, progressives had shifted the party too far to the left, leaving the sensible, moderate silent majority with no choice but to vote Republican. “New York did underperform, but so did California,” Jacobs told City & State magazine. “What do those two states have in common? Well, governmentally, we’re among the two most progressive states in the country.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it has been the center’s go-to line to shut down progressives for years. Michael Bloomberg trotted it out in 2020 during his presidential run (remember that?), claiming that Bernie Sanders—despite faring well in hypothetical matchups against Trump—was too “divisive” to win and a presence who would “jeopardize” down-ballot candidates. It also happens to be, in a less clinical form, the bread-and-butter crypto-conservatism of ex-Democrats like Elon Musk and Tulsi Gabbard.

So, while absurd, Jacobs’s claim merits a thorough response. The left isn’t just not the NY Democratic Party’s Achilles’ heel—it’s quite possibly the only thing saving the party from itself, both in rhetoric and strategy. Progressive messages on everything from public safety to inflation to tenants’ rights are legitimately popular and winnable, and more so than those put forth by the centrists who blame them for their failures. There’s no better testament to this than the circles New York’s left ran around its state’s political establishment in 2022.

There were many races across NY where moderate Democrats ran on right-wing messages and lost, but none quite as telling as the loss of DCCC chair and power Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney.

After a judge slightly redrew his district, Maloney believed his congressional seat was uncomfortably vulnerable. So, for 2022’s race, he bullied squad member Mondaire Jones out of running for reelection to his incumbent seat and ran in Jones’ district. In the district Maloney had scuttled, Democrat Pat Ryan—running on decidedly progressive messages on inflation and public safety—defeated his Republican challenger. Meanwhile, in the district he’d jumped into, Maloney ended up losing. It doesn’t get more ironic than that.

Maloney’s slow march toward defeat began during his primary. He ran to the right, buying into Republican-manufactured crime hysteria while antagonizing the local progressive base. To beat Alessandra Biaggi, his progressive challenger, he ran ferocious attack ads denouncing her as a “a radical anti-police extremist” who “voted to release criminals without bail.” These ads were bankrolled by the Police Benevolent Organization, a New York City police union which donated nearly half a million dollars to the Maloney campaign (and endorsed Trump in 2020). Maloney’s other choice benefactors included the “National Association of Realtors PAC” and Team Blue PAC, a committee led by then House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries that has spearheaded efforts to bury incumbent Democrats’ progressive challengers under an avalanche of cash.

Maloney continued to punch left in the general election, hoping that doubling down on his anti-progressive rhetoric would somehow loop around and attack his Republican challenger. “Sean took on those who wanted to defund the police,” vouched a police officer in a TV ad. “He’s tough on crime.” Maloney himself said, “It’s nuts to say defund the police.” And he lost. The chair of the DCCC, a committee whose whole purpose is to maintain Democrats’ House majority, lost.

In Maloney’s former, “vulnerable” seat, Democrat Pat Ryan ran as an unapologetic populist, embracing abortion rights and slamming corporate power in a considerably challenging, purple district. He embraced the progressive Working Families Party, campaigning with them and crediting the party for his eventual win. His priorities, per his campaign website, included “going after price-gougers who are harming customers” and “making sure billionaires and big corporations pay their fair share.” “Big utility companies have a monopoly on our power, so they think they can do whatever they want,” he said in one ad, standing atop a power line repair crane. “I approve this message because big corporations have too much power. It’s time our families had more.” Rather than centering his public safety message on Republican-manufactured crime hysteria, Ryan campaigned on gun control, mental health, and addiction recovery services. “People care about safety,” Ryan said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I have a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old. I have to drop them at day care and worry that they’re going to get gunned down by the same assault rifle I carried in combat for 27 months.”

In a district expected to lean Republican that cycle, Pat Ryan beat his GOP opponent 51-49. I could write a whole article about the beautiful and painful schadenfreude-steeped irony of this race, but the most important lesson is this: you don’t beat Republicans by punching left. The difference between Pat Ryan and Sean Patrick Maloney is that Maloney, like many losing Democrats across the state, parroted Republican crime-hysteria rhetoric; Ryan stuck to his principles, centered his own narrative, and was rewarded for it. You win elections by taking stances on issues that don’t concede ground to the right—stances that almost always, at the very least, coincide with the left’s. That’s not to say every district in America is ready for an AOC, but centering Republican narratives about crime and socialism only helps, well, Republicans. 

Pat Ryan and Sean Patrick Maloney’s races are a drastic example of an otherwise statewide trend: progressive narratives on key issues beating out Republican-inspired moderate ones. Progressives across New York racked up wins in competitive August primaries, fending off moderate challengers who campaigned on law-and-order theatrics.

2022 was the year New York State’s special interests and political establishment decided to try their hand at primarying Gustavo Rivera, a Working Families Party, AFL-CIO, and AOC-backed state senator representing New York’s 33rd Senate District. Rivera’s pro-tenant, pro-labor, and pro-police reform positions, as well as his alignment with State Senate leftists, had earned him a number of prominent enemies. Major real estate and charter school super PACs spent lavishly on attack ads, robocalls, and text messages decrying “Gustavo Rivera’s extreme agenda.” Former Giuliani-supporting NYC mayor Eric Adams himself, whose whole shtick is scaring New Yorkers with melodramatic rhetoric on surging crime, endorsed Rivera’s opponent, Miguelina Camilo.

Despite the aforementioned groups’ best efforts to bury Rivera under an avalanche of dark money, and to depict him as a radical extremist and far-leftist, he won his record-turnout August primary 52-47. It turns out, once again, that spreading right-wing narratives doesn’t tend to inspire—let alone help—those running as Democrats. (Rivera won his November general election with 99.2 percent of the vote.)

There are plenty of other examples to this point. Despite being trounced in fundraising—she was outspent four-to-one—the DSA-backed Kristen Gonzalez easily won her primary against her Adams-endorsed, special-interest-backed opponent buoyed by outside funds. Adams also endorsed Reverend Conrad Tillard, who ran on an anti-bail reform, pro-Rikers platform (the NYC prison condemned by the Vera Institute of Justice as a “torture chamber”) against DSA-backed state senator Jabari Brisport. Tillard, too, lost badly—by over 50 percentage points.

To his credit, Adams-endorsed candidates did win some races. The problem for him, however, is that winning said races against socialists is the political equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. In a Long Island State Senate primary, where you can’t throw a stone without hitting a pickup truck decked out in Trump 2024 flags, Adams endorsed moderate Democrat Anna Kaplan against her Nassau County DSA-backed competitor. (God bless the Nassau County DSA for just existing—I certainly don’t have that patience.) You can probably guess who won in the general election. In Staten Island, the most right-wing NYC borough, Adams endorsed moderate State Senate candidate Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, who easily won a low-turnout race against a crowded field of competitors to her left.

It’s quite possible that Eric Adams himself, New York’s arch-establishment-Democrat, cost Democrats the House in November. New York is, as previously established, the only state where the much-hyped red wave really did come to be. Republicans put forth their most successful gubernatorial candidate since 2002, flipped four House seats (the second-most of any state in the country, next to only California), and flipped six of the state’s few competitive State Assembly seats (their biggest win since 2010). Why? Because Adams spawned the crime hysteria that lost so many races to begin with, filling the state’s media market with unfounded screeching about New York City’s return to the destitution of the ’80s.

“In my professional career, I have never witnessed crime at this level,” said Adams in a May 2022 interview—despite there being 438 murders in the city that year, compared to 2,262 in 1990 (when he was a New York City Transit cop). New York is the fifth-safest large city in the U.S., behind only Honolulu, Virginia Beach, Henderson, Nevada, and El Paso; crime is nowhere near where it was in the ’80s and ’90s, either in the city or the state. But you wouldn’t know it if you took Eric Adams at his word.

This crime-hyping served to his political advantage, propelling him to New York’s mayoralty, but harmed Democrats across the state. As Politico put it, “It failed to animate voters in places like Pennsylvania and California, but crime proved a winning strategy in New York—where the city media market’s massive reach means Gotham’s crime is the state’s crime.” And, to quote Democratic consultant Mike Morey: “All the suburbs in New York are watching the 5 and 6 o’clock news on all the networks, they’re reading the tabloids, and they’re seeing these really high-profile incidents of someone getting pushed in front of a subway, a shooting, a stabbing, and there is somehow a fear that this could happen in their front yard.”

Queue the NY voters scared to even set foot in New York City for fear of being slaughtered in the street by a zombie horde of unhoused people. Talk to anyone in New York whose parents live in the suburbs, and you’ll hear stories of QAnon-level crime paranoia fueled by doomsday-style ads and TV coverage.1 And, as a New York Times piece detailed, those crucial swing voters—many of whom would otherwise be reluctant to back Republicans—voted red in November.

Republicans, for their part, were extraordinarily grateful to Adams for his part in helping them wipe the state’s floors in November. Lee Zeldin professed his giddiness to work with Eric Adams to “save the city” days before the general election, while State Senate GOP Leader Robert Ortt proclaimed him an ally. They had excellent reason to be: in the words of a Democratic strategist working on NY campaigns, “[Eric Adams] was an essential validator in the city to make their [Republicans’] attacks seem more legit and less partisan.” Some party operatives joked that “Zeldin could just run clips of Adams talking about crime as his closing ads.” It would be funny if it weren’t so true.

So, given the fact that the top minds over at the NY Dems’ establishment wing pretty much created this whole mess to begin with, there’s a cruel irony to Jay Jacobs’ blame-game given that it’s possible—if not likely—that Kathy Hochul herself, as well as many more down-ballot democrats, wouldn’t have even won if not for the efforts of progressive organizations.

While Hochul tanked in the polls, the Working Families Party—which typically takes every available opportunity to bash moderate Democrats—spent $500,000 of its own funds on an eleventh-hour push to ensure Democrats remained in control of Albany, organizing 60 canvasses and phone banks, sending 2 million text messages to voters, making 250,000 calls, and sending over 300 volunteers to NYC polling sites.

The WFP also spent months mobilizing local progressive politicians as part of a larger get-out-the-vote structure, while Hochul’s team dragged its feet on organizing its own turnout efforts. NYC Comptroller Brad Lander, an influential city-wide politician who had canvassed and attended rallies on behalf of Hochul, received his first contact from her campaign just 10 days before the election. “There certainly was also activity [from the Hochul campaign], but nothing like the WFP,” he said in an interview with Politico.

City Council Member Tiffany Cabán, who represents a typically high-turnout district in Queens and joined the WFP turnout campaign, also described experiencing the same radio silence. “High voter turnout districts don’t come out of nowhere,” Cabán said to Politico. “Here I was sitting in a place like Western Queens, with high voter turnout, going into early voting and not being touched once by the Hochul campaign.”

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn chapter of the Democratic Party—Brooklyn is an intensely Democratic county, and one which would typically be the site of a major turnout operation during a statewide race—drew significant scorn for failing to drop a single dollar on turning anyone out.

Even Newsday (a Long Island tabloid hardly considered a bastion of progressive thought) duly credited the Working Families Party’s efforts as being critical to Hochul’s win. Observers left and right agree that the WFP’s work in steering voters toward their ballot line on behalf of Kathy Hochul and Antonio Delgado was among the only factors that—in the words of WFP national director Maurice Mitchell—“made a horrible night for Democrats less horrible.”

Unions like the AFL-CIO also organized the “turnout muscle” that helped put Hochul over the finish line. AFL-CIO members from Buffalo to Long Island knocked on over 120,000 union household doors repping Hochul, while SEIU 1199—an influential health care workers’ union—made 70,000 phone calls and distributed 500,000 leaflets on the final weekend of the gubernatorial race. New York State United Teachers, which donated $1 million to benefit the Hochul campaign, mailed 57,000 handwritten postcards to its members. While many of these efforts were organized months ahead of November’s elections, these unions doubled down on their campaigns after Hochul’s late-September fall from a 17-point lead to single digits.

With Hochul only winning by 377,834 votes, it’s not impossible to imagine a world where, in the absence of the left’s efforts to save her tanking campaign, Lee Zeldin is currently New York’s governor. If there’s one lesson New York has to offer America, it’s this: the left knows how to win. It’s strategic, disciplined, and legitimately popular (unlike Hochul and Co., who coast off being slightly better than what Republicans have to offer at the moment).

The left knows how to run a traditional voter contact operation, organize a turnout drive, be visible in communities, and build momentum around its candidates. These things aren’t just establishment Democrats’ turf: not only is the left capable of running them, and running them effectively, but—in New York—they’re more capable than the center. The left is practically winning their races for them.

But it’s not all about turnout infrastructure and political machinery. The left’s success is also owed to the fact that if voters wanted Republicans, they’d vote for, well, Republicans. The Democratic candidates in New York who centered their own narratives—whether they be around abortion, public safety, democracy, or inflation—reaped the benefits at the polls. Meanwhile, those who invoked Republican narratives around defund, crime, and policing in vain hopes that it would somehow benefit them lost big—both in primaries and in generals. Tacking right hurts. Big-money politics is alienating. The data showed this in New York from the beginning, and only the left heeded it.

New York, aside from being an important case study in the winnability of leftist ideas, is also ground zero for the question of how the left should think about leveraging its power. It’s an open question as to whether, and to what extent, the left really needs the Democrats—Kathy Hochul, for her part, doesn’t particularly seem to care that she owes her current gig as New York’s governor to the unions, progressives, and socialists who did the lion’s share of work on her behalf.

In December, Kathy Hochul made the bizarre choice to nominate Hector LaSalle, a judge with a questionable history of troubling rulings on labor rights, abortion access, and criminal justice, to lead New York’s highest court. LaSalle’s nomination drew backlash from a huge array of unions, abortion rights, immigrant advocacy, and progressive organizing groups, who demanded that the Senate Judiciary Committee sink his nomination. They did. Nevertheless, Hochul pushed forward, at one point threatening to actually sue the State Senate if it didn’t put LaSalle to a floor vote. LaSalle eventually got his floor vote, which, predictably, he lost.

God only knows why Hochul did any of that—even moderate Democrats and LaSalle’s own supporters are baffled—but it’s pretty clear that Hochul isn’t particularly predisposed to working with, let alone listening to, the progressive left.

At the moment, she’s trying to push through an austerity budget that promises to “not raise income taxes”—there’s one small problem, though, if you commute, study, rent, or have kids who go to a public school. Her budget is basically a giant middle finger to every progressive priority, gutting New York’s wildly successful bail reform, handing more money to charter schools at the expense of underfunded public schools, hiking CUNY and SUNY tuition by up to 30 percent, and refusing to include the rent-increase cap and good-cause eviction law demanded by the state legislature. Fear not, though: Hochul’s budget includes billions in tax credits and corporate subsidies, slammed by even moderate advocates as “ineffective and wasteful.”

Additionally, Hochul’s budget includes a version of the Build Public Renewables Act, a bill that would empower the New York Power Authority to build publicly-owned wind and solar energy. Her version, however, is worse in every way. Axed from the original bill are mandates that the state must actually build enough renewable energy to meet benchmarks, a timeline for shutting down NY’s dirtiest power plants (many of which are in marginalized communities of color), and the law’s extensive labor union protections. Was it payback for the unions’ sinking of the LaSalle nomination? A 4D chess negotiating tactic? Or a half-baked attempt to emulate Andrew Cuomo’s authoritarian power politics? Who knows! But Kathy Hochul doesn’t seem to care about the unions’ support for her—much less feel like she owes anyone, aside from big-money donors, anything.

It’s worth pointing out that none of the above political battles have been going too well for Hochul lately. Hector LaSalle’s candidacy was basically dead on arrival, and the state legislature remains at an impasse over her budget. New York’s left is learning to leverage its power in the legislature to deliver real wins, or, at the very least, stop the more evil points on her agenda. But this tit-for-tat strategy has limits. You can only get so far by backing austerians like Hochul with zero strings attached in hopes that you’ll get access to their ears later on.

At the very least, the left’s support shouldn’t be free.

Consider the 2014 battle for the Working Families Party’s gubernatorial endorsement, when the party seriously—and publicly—considered endorsing insurgent left-wing candidate Zephyr Teachout over Andrew Cuomo. Polls had indicated that an unnamed WFP candidate would snatch up to a quarter of the vote, and Cuomo—then seeking a second term (and polishing his brand for a possible presidential run)—knew that he needed the WFP more than they needed him.

WFP leaders made a point of being coy in responding to said polls, and made no effort to hide the significant anti-Cuomo sentiment in the party’s ranks. Just days before the party was set to announce its endorsement, Cuomo blinked, making a number of crucial concessions to the left in exchange for their support. The matter was pretty incredible in the moment: the 200-some activists on the WFP’s state committee had just wrung a commitment to public financing of elections, access to financial aid for undocumented students, and a minimum wage increase out of an effectively center-right governor.

The Democrats failed to take the State Senate that year, making the whole affair practically moot. Cuomo couldn’t have done any of the things he’d promised, even if he wanted to (which itself was debatable). But that was 2014. Since, the left has massively increased its clout in New York; their machine is bigger than ever. They could thus afford to take a page from the 2014 playbook, and try to extract meaningful concessions out of the Hochuls of this world before proffering their support. 

One might protest that backing Hochul with no strings attached gives the left—and particularly unions, whose entire political strategy revolves around this principle—a “seat at the table.” Yet, it’s quite possible that, in light of the LaSalle nomination and Hochul’s anti-union austerity budget, unions’ voices have never mattered less to a governor of New York. In the words of iron workers’ union president Jimmy Mahoney, that “seat at the table” has more closely resembled being “on the menu.” If there was ever a time when seat-at-the-tableism worked, it’s long gone.

It’s also a possibility that establishment Democrats’ hostility runs so deep that they’d risk outright loss over a pragmatic deal with progressives. In that case, the DSA, WFP, and New York’s unions should put real power behind an insurgent candidate, either during the Democratic primary or on the WFP’s general election ballot line. While past insurgent candidates haven’t fared too well—in part because of said groups’ refusals to put their full weight behind one—there’s ample evidence to suggest that doing so would be a real, strategic option. Aside from definitively dispelling the notion that progressives are bluffing, an insurgent candidate with the left’s turnout infrastructure behind them would energize its base, demonstrate its status as a political force in New York, and, most importantly of all, move the debate and push critical points on its agenda toward the mainstream.

Such was the case in 2018, when former Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon took on Cuomo for the Democratic nomination, identifying herself as a “democratic socialist” while running on a strong progressive platform. Nixon didn’t do awfully well at the polls—in no small part because the left was divided as to whether it should support her or pursue the mythical seat at the table by backing Cuomo—but managed to bring progressive ideas like ending cash bail, tackling climate change through massive public investment, and public-sector workers’ right to strike to the literal debate stage of New York’s Democratic party. That, too, came to pass in 2014, when Zephyr Teachout helped mainstream the demand for a $15 minimum wage during her insurgent candidacy against Cuomo, which he finally acceded to two years later. 

Finally, an insurgent candidate—provided they receive proper support from the left’s political infrastructure—would likely fare quite well against an establishment Democrat. Nearly three in four New Yorkers favor taxing the rich to pay for budgetary shortfalls over austerity, while voters are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with Hochul’s failure to deliver on promises to lower the cost of living in NY and improve public universities. As the Hochul administration makes it easier for landlords to raise rent and harder for CUNY and SUNY students to pay tuition, one would imagine that she’s opening up political opportunities for the left to walk right into. 

It’s also worth noting, that, despite Cynthia Nixon’s 2018 campaign for governor typically being seen as an unmitigated failure, she won over 500,000 votes—more votes than Cuomo garnered in his previous primary. While there’s no single explanation for why turnout was so high in 2018, when you have a candidate like Cynthia Nixon—someone who challenges the status quo and envisions a different way of doing politics—it universally seems to energize people who otherwise wouldn’t show up to vote.

Nixon also won a third of the vote without the kind of turnout operation the left is now capable of in New York—imagine what the infrastructure that exists now, let alone will exist in four years, would have been able to do for a left-wing challenger. While it’s unlikely—at least for the foreseeable future—that such a candidate would outright win, a close primary or general election with a sizable vote to the left would considerably damage the establishment’s brand and credibility, and only contribute to progressives’ growing power.

There’s enormous potential in New York, but it all depends upon whether the left is willing to play hardball. It has established itself as a popular, strategic force to be reckoned with, but the real test is whether it’ll be able to leverage that power to deliver for New Yorkers. The left has its machine—it just needs to use it.

PHOTO: Jabari Brisport protests outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office on the eviction moratorium on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in New York.

  1. Crime is, as always, a problem, and concerns about it can be legitimate—particularly in the marginalized, working-class communities it hits hardest. No one is denying that there is crime in New York, but the Eric Adamses of this world are massively exaggerating the issue in hopes of turning people against defunding or reforming the police. If they were actually interested in promoting public safety, they’d invest in things that actually keep people safe—schools, quality affordable housing, and well-paying jobs—rather than dumping more and more money into policing. 

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