Five signs progressives are in danger of losing influence

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Progressives finally got some relief after moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) agreed to back Democrats’ expansive economic and climate legislation this week. And while the uproar over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade also helps their cause, as indicated by a recent rejection of further restrictions in Kansas, their road to success has been rocky.

Left-wing Democrats have suffered major losses at the ballot box, seen endorsements from their biggest stars lose their oomph and are still struggling to find a suitable successor to lead their movement in the future.

Here are five signs that progressives may be losing influence.

Defeats continue to pile up

Progressives endured two major blows this week from primaries that could have given them a much-needed boost of momentum just a few months away from the midterms. Instead, they again came up short, giving moderates more cause for their case that voters prefer a middle-ground approach, particularly in the battleground Midwest.

The biggest ousting came when Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a pro-union powerhouse in the lower chamber, lost his reelection to Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) in a redrawn district that pitted the two incumbents against each other for the first time.

Progressives took the loss particularly hard.

“This defeat is painful,” said Leah Greenberg, a leading activist who co-founded the group Indivisible. “Not simply because of the grit and conviction Andy Levin brings to Congress as a progressive champion, but because it is a deeply troubling demonstration of how dark money from conservative billionaires can manipulate our broken political system.”

Liberals also saw one of their most promising rising stars, Lucas Kunce, a young Marine veteran, lose to moderate Trudy Busch Valentine in the Missouri Senate primary. Valentine was seen as the establishment’s choice to head into the general election, and narrowly won the majority of the votes.

Endorsements fall flat

When progressive heavyweights like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) back a down-ballot race, it’s supposed to help move the needle, at least in theory. Conventional political wisdom says that endorsements alone don’t usually sway voters, but they can provide a helpful stamp of approval in close contests. Look no further than Majority Whip James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) famous hat tip to Biden during the 2020 presidential primary.

Leading up to November, however, lesser-known contenders have seen the backing of top progressive figures fail to nudge voters in their direction, raising questions about whether their name ID still carries the weight it once did.

In several races that have garnered national attention — from Ohio and Michigan to Missouri – Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez have offered support to progressives over moderate rivals, at times physically showing up to stump on their behalf. Sanders and Warren both campaigned for Levin in Michigan, while Ocasio-Cortez gave a last-minute backing to former Ohio House candidate Nina Turner, who lost to Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) earlier in the off-cycle.

The trio did endorse two candidates who have had better success: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) won his primary against centrist Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and progressive Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes is heading into a race against GOP Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in one of the most highly anticipated contents of the cycle. But their mixed track record raises an element of doubt that they can help push progressives across the finish line.

Outspent and outmaneuvered 

Progressives have complained about the outsized influence they believe special interest groups and committees have had throughout this cycle. They see one ideologically aligned political organization in particular – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – as meddling with intraparty races by spending heavily to preserve moderate seats or elect new members of their flank to Congress.

The group’s strategy has been effective in places like Ohio and Michigan’s respective 11th Congressional Districts. Sanders, who is Jewish, has publicly railed against the group. In a May interview with The New York Times, the Vermont Independent went as far as to call it “a war for the future of the Democratic Party.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Majority for Israel PAC celebrated another win this week in Stevens’s victory against Levin, who is also Jewish.

“Democratic voters in three states elected six DMFI PAC endorsees to fight for them in November, bringing our winning record to 85 percent of the races in which we’ve endorsed this cycle,” said Mark Mellman, the group’s chairman.

Redistricting woes

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) current chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), is running in New York’s 17th congressional district later this month.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), a Black progressive seen as a new leader within the party and particularly for the left, is running in the state’s 10th congressional district.

Both districts are considered blue, but the 10th district is considered more solidly Democratic.

To many progressives, the move was indicative of a problem they fear will only get worse each cycle. As the redistricting process continues, it will naturally pit centrists and liberals against each other, with the former having the upper hand and institutional support.

“The DCCC has seemingly decided to focus on kneecapping popular progressive candidates instead of taking their fight to the Republicans,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist working on midterm races, including in New York.

Another Black progressive, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), the first male member of the “Squad,” is mired in a primary challenge in the state’s 16th Congressional District against moderate Vedat Gashi, who is being supported by the former lawmaker whom Bowman ousted: former Rep. Eliot Engel.

Progressive campaign operatives and those close to Bowman view the challenge and aligned endorsement as tit for tat, rather than expressing a substantive difference over policy or ideology.

“The electoral map is no friend to progressives,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, another Democratic strategist and campaign operative who has been outspoken about Democrats’ electoral problems. “Progressives are being forced to defend seats that they weren’t expecting to defend.”

No natural successor for 2024

Despite the growing desire for an alternative to another Biden term, progressives are uncertain about who that might be. A growing tally of lawmakers who have been asked about their political aspirations have said they won’t seek the presidency, but nearly just as many have hedged about whether they think Biden should run again. He’s said he will, and his aides remain outwardly confident in his decision.

But the predicament has placed a spotlight on progressives, who are already skeptical of Biden and view him as deeply unpopular. They also desperately want Democrats to move major legislation over the next three months.

The party got a flicker of hope on Thursday night, when Sinema agreed to back the president’s biggest legislative package. Some progressives argue they need to pass that, while still push for even more of his campaign pledges, instead of speculating about who could take him on.

“I think progressives are burning good energy speculating about 2024 and replacing Biden,” said Burns. “If he chooses not to run, that’s one thing, but the loose talk about primarying him is politically tone deaf and, honestly, counterproductive to our broader progressive goals.”

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