Primary results in California are adding to woes for progressives, who are seeing limits on the political support for their reformist vision of the country.
In San Francisco, voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D), whose criminal justice and police reforms spooked residents who saw policies like cash bail stripped away under his tenure. At the same time, Rick Caruso, a Republican-turned-Democrat, had a surprisingly strong showing in the Los Angeles mayoral race while funneling tens of millions into a centrist, tough-on-crime platform and will face Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who has built a progressive reputation, in a runoff election.
The bleeding didn’t stop there. Just days prior, Texas officials announced anti-abortion rights Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), considered the most conservative Democrat in the House, had defeated activist and attorney Jessica Cisneros by fewer than 300 votes in the Democratic runoff for Texas’s 28th Congressional District, delivering perhaps the primary cycle’s biggest blow to progressives. And the week prior, Justice Democrats-backed Rana Abdelhamid suspended her House bid in New York.
The left wing saw glimmers of hope last month when longtime Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) lost to liberal challenger Jamie Mcleod-Skinner in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District. Schrader, one of only two lawmakers President Biden endorsed, was seen as an obstructionist within his own party, and voters declined to reelect him to an eighth term.
They also celebrated wins in Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) won a coveted Senate primary over moderate Rep. Conor Lamb (D), and activist Summer Lee edged out a win for a House seat that covers Pittsburgh.
But the latest defeats give a two steps forward, three steps back feeling for dispirited progressives desperate to keep their movement’s energy intact.
“The far left was talking a big game at the start of this cycle, but reality has intruded,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a top centrist think tank.
“Democratic voters keep saying, over and over, that they do not want what the far left is selling. Deep-blue San Francisco has sent that message twice this year in recall elections. Voters in Minneapolis said the same, as did Democrats in New York City.”
In San Francisco, crime dominated the discussion. Considered one of the left’s biggest vulnerabilities, the issue proved to be a losing one at the ballot box, and validation for moderates who had for months warned of the electoral problems with the “defund the police” mentality.
For the activists and few progressive officeholders who embraced Boudin’s platform, an overwhelming number of voters didn’t. They rejected a belief that a softer approach on crime was needed in their city and proved that positions messaged toward safety were paramount.
Boudin, who came into office just three years ago with much adoration from liberals, was recalled by 61 percent, according to The Associated Press.
“Ultimately,” said Kevin Liao, a political operative with the Democratic consultancy Bryson Gillette, it’s about “making sure to address the feeling of safety that people are going through in their everyday lives.”
Just a few hundred miles away in Los Angeles, the race to elect the city’s next mayor had become more challenging for progressives than some anticipated. They saw Bass, a former leader in Congress close to both activists and party leadership, lose support to Caruso, whose billionaire status allowed him to self-fund his campaign.
Much like in San Francisco, crime and unmitigated homelessness drove voters’ fears and preferences in the primary, though Bass has come out strongly against the progressive “defund the police” slogan. Bass and Caruso will face off against each other in the fall elections.
In the latter weeks of the campaign, Bass tried to tie Caruso to his past support for GOP base issues like guns and abortion.
“That will only permeate more in the general election,” said Liao, who expects to see sharper contrast drawn between both campaigns. “Do the big national Democratic figures and groups come out in support of Bass? Do you get [Sens.] Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth Warren endorsements and visits?”
“That nationalization of the race will only grow as we get closer to November,” he said.
No race was perhaps as nationalized as the Texas runoff, where Cisneros mounted a rematch against Cuellar for control of the state’s conservative-leaning district.
Democrats watched in anticipation as votes trickled in from pro-Cuellar and pro-Cisneros counties in what amounted to a too-close-to-call election night. Days later, state officials finally certified the results narrowly in Cuellar’s favor after the congressman had already declared victory twice.
Cisneros is now calling for a recount.
“Progressives have an uphill battle in this political environment,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and campaign veteran.
While Cisneros came up just short of a House seat and potential place in the “Squad,” some Democrats argue that progressives who are already in office are also coming up short, with voters searching for a common target.
Confusion over who contributed to Biden’s social spending package tanking and fears of more losses coming in the midterm elections are adding to those concerns.
“There are a lot of progressives in positions of influence and power at a time where the country is unhappy with its leadership,” Payne said.
The news on Tuesday wasn’t all bad for progressives.
Gabriel Vasquez, a progressive former councilman, won a lesser-watched race for a New Mexico House seat to face off against Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell.
But without linear traction, liberals are struggling to make the case that their platform is viable. And moderates see an opening in the cracks.
“If they can’t sell their vision to primary voters in the Bay Area or the Bronx, it’s pretty tough for them to argue that their approach will work in a general election in suburban Richmond,” said Bennett of Third Way.
Still, progressives are not the only ones facing criticism. Biden is increasingly taking heat from all sides as his approval ratings continue to sink, as domestic problems rip through the country and as his search for a new strategy and message hits up against the midterm clock.
The optics of regular infighting don’t help.
“The county’s been in a constant state of tumult,” Payne said. “People are unhappy with everybody and everything right now. And they’re going to reach at the closest thing they can grasp at. That’s usually the incumbent.”