The lefties were supposedly taking over the Democratic Party. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders—officially an independent—sparked the surge, coming shockingly close to beating Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential nomination. Two years later, the Squad rode the progressive momentum into congressional wins stretching from Minnesota (Ilhan Omar) to Michigan (Rashida Tlaib) to Massachusetts (Ayanna Pressley) to New York (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). In 2020 Sanders tried again but centrist Joe Biden beat him fairly easily; in House contests in safe Democrat–leaning districts, though, Cori Bush (Missouri), Marie Newman (Illinois), and Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones (both New York) defeated moderate rivals to keep the progressive pulse alive during a challenging cycle. 

This year…well… “You know, I’m a lefty,” a veteran Democratic strategist says. “But this is absolutely a terrible time to be running to the left.” 

The prospects for progressives in 2022 aren’t monolithic—in Texas, for instance, Jessica Cisneros, endorsed by AOC, has forced incumbent Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar into a runoff, and Greg Casar, a Democratic Socialists of America member, won the Democratic congressional nomination, albeit for a district centered on Austin. “If you run on actually helping people in a really, really hard time, you’ll have a better chance of winning. I don’t think moderates do that,” says Bill Neidhardt, a progressive strategist and a former adviser to Bill de Blasio, New York City’s left-of-center former mayor. “You’re saying that people like Conor Lamb, in Pennsylvania, are what campaigns should be doing? His Senate campaign is completely floundering.” Indeed, this week a super PAC supporting Lamb circulated a memo that sounded fairly desperate.

Nationally, the odds facing liberals this fall are in some ways counterintuitive. The pandemic heightened many of the economic issues—the need for a coherent, affordable health care system, for child care, for a higher minimum wage, for broader access to higher education, for a more equitable tax structure—that progressives have long prioritized and Biden has supported. Yet that agenda has been undermined by two of the Democrats’ most conservative senators, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. That has helped Republicans shift the debate to the right, where they can highlight race, inflation, public schools, and crime, compounding the difficulties a party holding the White House always faces in midterm election years. So even progressive candidates who should be in strong shape are waging uphill battles. 

Take, for instance, Alessandra Biaggi. With a boost from AOC, she was elected to the New York State Senate in 2018, knocking off an incumbent centrist Democrat in a district encompassing parts of the Bronx and an adjoining suburban county. Young—she’s now 35—charismatic, and outspoken, Biaggi became one of the earliest and most vociferous Democratic elected officials to criticize then governor Andrew Cuomo, both for his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic and for Cuomo’s alleged sexual harassment of female state government staffers. (Cuomo has denied the allegations). Biaggi seemed in prime position to move up the political ladder and jumped into the field competing in a newly drawn congressional district, one tailored by New York’s majority–Democrat state legislature to be favorable to electing more Democrats. The old 3rd district, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, favored Democrats by three points; the new one gives the party an estimated five-point advantage.

The problem, for Biaggi’s campaign, is that the district’s boundaries cover about two-thirds of Long Island, where even Democratic voters are more conservative than those in her home turf north of the city. The field of seven Democratic primary candidates includes Robert Zimmerman, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and Long Island businessman; Jon Kaiman, a deputy executive of Suffolk County; and Joshua Lafazan, a Nassau County legislator; all of them trying to occupy the moderate lane. Recent increases in crime rates have handed Biaggi’s opponents an opening—her support for a 2019 criminal justice reform package that loosened New York’s bail requirements, and her tweeting “defund the police” in 2020. So she is being criticized, including by the departing incumbent congressman, Tom Suozzi, as anti-police and too liberal for the district.

She saw it coming, of course. “Bail reform has been presented as this easy answer to the rise in gun violence, and that is not the case,” Biaggi tells me. “If we find there’s something in the law that needs to be fixed, we should do it. If it makes people safer, great! But we can’t even get to that conversation because people are just screaming about bail reform. And it’s really easy and really lazy to say that I hate cops—when my grandfather was literally a police officer, the most decorated in NYPD history at one point. But the difference is that I grew up in a family that had police officers who were honest about the way that policing actually happened. And that is why my commitment to being honest about what’s going on here is not going to waver. Speaking about police accountability does not make somebody anti-police.

Biaggi is wisely trying to steer the campaign conversation toward more favorable issues—including the need for affordable housing and the fact that much of the district borders Long Island Sound and is highly vulnerable to climate change. But the specific local demographics and hurdles she’s up against fit into a difficult bigger picture. Last November, Long Island Republicans swept local races, despite a large registration disadvantage, and this fall the new district could swing red. 

“If you look at the data, even Democratic primary voters, nationally, are a lot more centrist than you might think,” the veteran Democratic strategist says. “A huge portion are non-college, and they just aren’t in the same place as the elites. In a year where Democrats are aware of what happened in last fall’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey, they’re going to be strategic in their voting and pick moderates—because they want to win, and because they tend to agree with them on a lot of issues.” The hype about the left taking over the Democratic Party was always overblown. But it may be at least another two years before the Squad expands its roster.

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