The progressive left movement vaulted into the national spotlight by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of Democratic establishment-backed candidates across the Midwest on Tuesday.
Hoping to build on the momentum set in motion by the New Yorker’s stunning defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley, insurgent candidates in Michigan, Missouri and Kansas notched their share of victories, but there were no major surprises — nearly all the expected winners won – or dents made in skepticism among party powerbrokers.
In Michigan, where Sen. Bernie Sanders won his signature victory in the 2016 presidential primary, former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer routed the insurgent Abdul El-Sayed.
El-Sayed had the blessings of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned for him on consecutive weekends ahead of the primary. But it is Whitmer who, by a considerable margin, will take on Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette in November.
Her opponent, the 33-year-old son of Egyptian immigrants ran on a statewide “Medicare for all” plan, public internet, tuition-free college and his refusal to accept corporate PAC money. Whitmer opposes an immediate push for single-payer health care, calling it “unrealistic” in the current political environment, and hasn’t sworn off corporate PAC donations.
In the aftermath, Whitmer communications director Zack Pohl shared his frustration with a pre-election narrative that, he argued, understated his candidate’s progressive record and offered simplistic assumptions about where the Democratic energy resides.
“Women voters are coming out to the polls in droves all over the country to vote for strong, progressive women candidates, and Michigan was the latest example of that,” Pohl said in an email. “It wasn’t just Gretchen either. You had strong, progressive women like Haley Stevens, Rashida Tlaib, Gretchen Driskell and Elissa Slotkin defeat male challengers in their primaries as well.”
Kansas was kinder to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s preferred candidates, but they still only emerged with a split decision.
Labor lawyer Brent Welder led for much of the night but ultimately fell to Sharice Davids, a lawyer, former MMA fighter and, if she unseats GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder, the first Native American woman elected to Congress. She would also become the state’s first gay representative.
Another Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez favorite, James Thompson, won comfortably, setting up rematch with GOP Rep. Ron Estes in the state’s 4th Congressional District.
Ocasio-Cortez has singled out Thompson’s 2017 special election campaign – when he came within less than seven points of beating Estes in a district that went for Mike Pompeo by more than 30 just months earlier – as a model for candidates trying to break through in red regions Democrats were effectively ceding to Republicans.
“He, as a progressive, alone turned that seat from an impossible race to a flippable district,” she said. “I’m hoping that even if a candidate doesn’t win in this cycle, they will have created gains for 2020, for 2022.”
It’s a message she had occasion to repeat on Wednesday – and did, in a tweet: “Wins in the short-term are important milemarkers and necessary to building power,” she wrote. “But you can’t be afraid of loss. Fear keeps people from accomplishing great things.”
But there would be no repeat, in any state, of Ocasio-Cortez’s particular feat: unseating an incumbent Democrat.
Missouri’s Cori Bush, who campaigned with Ocasio-Cortez a few weeks ago, tried and failed in her bid to oust Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., whose father, former Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr., was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The most heartening result for leftists came in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, where former state lawmaker Rashida Tlaib outlasted a crowded field – including a family member of the former Rep. John Conyers Jr. – in a general election primary.
Running unopposed in November, Tlaib, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, will likely become the first Muslim woman in Congress when she arrives early next year on Capitol Hill. She will be one of two DSA members, alongside Ocasio-Cortez, assuming the latter prevails in the fall.