Progressives see a chance to make 2024 a year of expansion in the Senate, with a handful of Sun Belt candidates angling to bring more of their wing to higher office as Democrats face a rough landscape and uphill battle to retain control of the chamber.
The election year has the potential to modify what the Senate looks like for the party. If progressives in Arizona and California are elected, each would help turn the moderate caucus more in their direction, while demonstrating that liberals from competitive districts are capable of winning statewide.
But the caucus itself may shrink in the process. Several states, including Montana, Ohio and West Virginia, are on Democrats’ watchlists as in danger of going Republican, possibly blunting whatever traction the left makes with hypothetical pickups.
“Look, it’s a very tough map. It is going to be difficult for Democrats to hold the majority,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, a left-wing mobilizing organization aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“But even if Democrats don’t do well,” he said, “I think progressives will. The progressive voting bloc in the Senate is poised to become stronger.”
This month, two House liberals — Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.) — announced Senate campaigns, fueling optimism among progressives who want to see Congress reimagined into something that represents the country’s vast economic and racial diversity.
Gallego and Porter are both young lawmakers and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), where most of the left’s firepower is housed on Capitol Hill. Their personal brands are largely built on a shared desire to move away from the more traditional, centrist model of politics that Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) represent.
Porter, a wonky anti-monopoly representative from Orange County, launched her bid even though Feinstein hasn’t said she’ll step down, setting an early narrative into motion that a younger progressive woman can occupy that seat.
Gallego, meanwhile, was widely celebrated when he made his plans for a Senate run public this week, energizing Democrats who are eager to oust Sinema, who made just a slight reference to her upcoming political goals via tweet.
“Ruben knows that most Arizonans aren’t on Twitter following politics because they are too busy working overtime or a second job,” said Joe Sanberg, a liberal donor close to Gallego. “This campaign is about the needs of working Arizonans.”
Max Berger, a Democratic campaign operative who’s worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said he believes the millennial Latino congressman has a real shot at taking Sinema down if she runs. But it probably won’t be easy.
“I think Gallego can win even if Sinema doesn’t drop out,” Berger said. “Obviously, our chances improve dramatically if she takes a job directly with her real constituents and becomes a lobbyist.”
“But I think she’s sufficiently alienated Democrats across the board, and no Republican voters want her brand of watered-down conservatism,” he added.
Progressives believe that adding two Democrats from their flank to the Senate could help reimagine what’s possible in the notoriously formal, procedure-heavy upper chamber. Unlike in the House — where liberals have grown in the past several election cycles, dating back to the emergence of the “squad” in 2018 — the left has stayed more muted in the Senate.
That started to change recently. In November, progressives saw one of their top stars from the midterm cycle — now-Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) — win an upstart campaign against his well-funded GOP opponent by running on a platform that included things like legalizing marijuana and a $15 minimum wage.
“It shows me that economic populists, candidates who put bread-and-butter issues at the center of their campaigns, can win. I think that’s incredibly encouraging,” Geevarghese said. “We need more Bernies and Warrens — and Fettermans.”
A Gallego or Porter win — or a handful of other progressives thought to be considering California Senate bids like Reps. Barbara Lee (D) and Ro Khanna (D) — would help expand that bench beyond Fetterman and the more prominent progressive senators Sanders and Warren.
“The few genuine economic populists in the Senate, notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, need many more allies among their colleagues,” agreed Norman Solomon, who co-founded the grassroots community RootsAction.org.
“The base of the Democratic Party, including activists who work hard during campaign seasons, is very progressive on the issues,” Solomon said, pointing out what many leftists see as key vulnerabilities among their establishment colleagues.
“Corporate Democrats like Feinstein can raise big money from special interests, but they’re out of step with the Democratic base,” he added. “Democratic primaries often pit the base of the party against big donors.”
Still, Democrats — not just progressives — will have to defend a lot of their turf this cycle, which has some in the party already on edge. Sinema, for example, who last year switched from Democrat to Independent, could theoretically take votes away from the Democratic nominee and help deliver the seat to the GOP.
“Arizona is anything but a slam dunk for a Democrat,” said Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “Democrats cannot count on a crackpot GOP nominee in Arizona, and even if it is, that person could win.”
Moderates like Bennett see more progressivism as increasing the chances that the Senate could ultimately turn redder.
“When the Dem caucus gets smaller (Senate or House) it moves to the left,” he said. “When it gets larger, it moves to the center. Do Democrats want small and left or large and center?”
There’s plenty of uncertainty to go around in other swing states.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a Rust Belt progressive, is expected to face a tough reelection campaign after Democrats saw their longshot hopes of sending former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) to the Senate fail against Trump-aligned Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio). In addition, the party will have to work to hold Sen. Jon Tester’s (D) seat in Montana, who only barely won his last bid during more favorable conditions to Democrats.
Republicans have had success during the presidential cycles in both states, creating an uncertain climate before President Biden has even announced his intention to run for a second term. Former President Trump won both Ohio and Montana against Biden in 2020.
And then there’s Sen Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who, like his friend Sinema, is high on progressives’ target list. But with no liberal challenger in sight or with a reasonable shot of winning the red state, Democrats worry that Manchin may lose to a Republican — a possibility that comes up each cycle with fresh intensity.
Some of the speculation depends on Biden’s reelection announcement. He is likely to give a signal to voters about running again in the coming weeks, The Hill has recently reported, but it’s also an ongoing question about his popularity. If the president’s approval rating sinks lower in the thick of the campaign season, Democrats are likely going to have a harder time defending a challenging Senate battlefield sharing a ticket with him.
For now, progressives are hopeful they can break through. If something bad for the party happens — namely, if they lose the Senate — they’ll still have more influence over the Biden White House if he runs and wins reelection. They’ll also build a more liberal chamber for future cycles, a longer-term goal that organizers and activists have accomplished with some success in the lower chamber.
“Ultimately what I think we’re poised to see is a growing progressive bloc in the Senate, which has been pretty small,” Geevarghese said. “Democrats didn’t win the House, but the CPC got stronger. We’ll have more influence.”