Progressives got a big boost of momentum following major victories in the Midwest on Tuesday in what could have national implications heading into 2024.
Brandon Johnson’s upset mayoral win in Chicago gave liberals confidence in their approach to big cities after doubts mounted over the handling of policing and crime in New York. And in Wisconsin, judge Janet Protasiewicz used a vacancy on the state’s Supreme Court to send an abortion-rights message to voters who won Democrats control of the judicial body for the first time in years.
The results come as progressives are seeking new ways to gain traction ahead of the next election cycle. The practical barriers of a Republican-controlled House and President Biden’s pre-campaign pivot to the center have blunted their influence in Washington, but the latest results show left-wing candidates are finding new ways to make headway at the state and local levels as their focus shifts beyond D.C.
“Moderate Democrats are playing to a mythical center, but these elections prove success lies in playing to your own base,” Marianne Williamson, a progressive spiritual author who is challenging Biden for the 2024 nomination, told The Hill on Wednesday. “Treating progressives in the party like we’re unruly children who need to sit down and let the grown-ups do what they do will be an increasingly losing strategy.”
Johnson, a teachers union advocate who earned the public support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), faced a steep hill to victory. Up against Paul Vallas, a pro-law enforcement and well-funded moderate, Johnson was characterized by some Democrats as part of the wave of too-left candidates who contributed to down-ballot losses in November, when liberals tossed valuable House seats to Republicans in part over their stances on crime.
Johnson’s victory from the left in one of the country’s top cities has complicated the emerging narrative around crime ahead of the next presidential contest, where centrists including Biden have adopted a stricter posture to guard against potential attacks.
Progressives, including sources close to Sanders, have cautioned that going in that direction can alienate key constituencies. That’s especially the case, they say, when considering large voting blocs like young people or others who may be less engaged or may not be part of the Democratic Party’s traditional base.
“We won’t win elections by purposely shrinking our own base,” Williamson said. “We’ll win elections by embracing, not suppressing, the new and vibrant progressive energy rising up all around the country. Young people will not go to war in 2024 for policies stuck somewhere in a time before they were born.”
Others in left-wing circles note that Johnson’s progressive platform for Chicago follows some recent precedent, including in prior races where communities that have historically felt underrepresented by mainstream politicians turned out decisively for a similar agenda. Notably, Sens. John Fetterman, a populist in Pennsylvania, and Raphael Warnock, a center-left Democrat in Georgia, won their Senate seats by making direct appeals to voters by at times veering to the left of the party.
“What Brandon Johnson demonstrated, in a way similar to Fetterman and even Warnock in Georgia, was that progressive ideas are popular,” said Stacey Walker, an activist who was a surrogate for Sanders in the Midwest. “When they are explained, they can excite the base and drive turnout.”
Much of the rhetoric from Vallas — who was supported by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police — centered around violent crime and his plan to add more troops as a solution. Some drew parallels between the effectiveness of that style for Mayor Eric Adams in New York City, who won over residents by taking a more centrist position around crime and policing than his liberal opponents.
For part of the night, it looked like it would work in Vallas’s favor too. The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools led Johnson at several junctures and ultimately came within striking distance of him before conceding. Vallas stressed unity in his concession speech, saying, “the only pathway forward in our city is together.”
To progressives, the results were a sign that they can continue to make inroads at the edges of races where a few hundred votes could determine the outcome.
“Johnson, a relative political-newcomer, did this in one of America’s most diverse cities, and took out a well-funded opponent who ran on a moderate message, filled with the same ‘tough on crime’ dog-whistles that have become common practice in the Republican playbook, and even in some for Democrats,” Walker said.
Beyond the more localized city messaging, progressives believe both results show a renewed interest in grassroots organizing, where different tactics for outreach can be tailored to voters and against the opponent.
Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, faced a different hurdle in Wisconsin, where Democrats feared the state’s often unpredictable electorate was at risk of sliding firmly into Republican territory.
If they lost the court seat, many worried there would be even greater challenges over massive issues like abortion access. Organizers focused heavily on that aspect, drawing on Protasiewicz’s abortion-rights platform, which aligned with national Democrats after the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade last summer outraged the party at large. She seized on a promise to protect reproductive rights in her state, whereas her opponent Dan Kelly, a staunch conservative former state Supreme Court justice, ran on an anti-abortion stance.
Special interest groups each spent heavily in the race, drawing additional money and putting a spotlight on the national significance.
“If this race is an early bellwether, we can safely say that Republicans didn’t learn their lesson in 2022,” said Sarah Dohl, who serves as chief campaigns officer at the progressive group Indivisible, which was heavily involved in the race.
Dohl, too, made comparisons to the recent Georgia election, where activists reached new levels of investments in communications with voters through texting and soliciting small dollar donations. “For a state Supreme Court race in an off-year election, that’s unheard of,” she said.
The focus on women’s rights and choice — and its positive returns for Democrats — cleared up a question that was percolating within the party post-midterms. The issue proved to be a motivating factor in several key races, but as economic concerns like inflation and the high price of goods continued to rise, some cautioned against using it as a closing pitch to voters in the fall.
Protasiewicz’s election over Kelly gave progressives reassurance that they can make strong abortion-rights cases to swing electorates — especially since Wisconsin is one of the presidential map’s most crucial battlegrounds, with both sides seeing it as within their grasp.
“What I found to be remarkable about Wisconsin was how progressive groups demonstrated their strength in an off-year election, mobilizing voters, many of them young, around issues,” Walker said.
While Protasiewicz arguably was more in line with mainstream Democrats, progressives still see a notch for their side in her victory. Like in Chicago, they view the organizing prowess of liberal organizations and individual volunteers as critical to her victory.
And while abortion proved to be a leading topic on Tuesday, progressives also say there are other areas where Democrats can make headway, including with redistricting and voting rights.
“In the end, issues like abortion, gerrymandering and voter protection for marginalized communities weren’t wedge issues, but rather the motivating force for the Democratic base,” Walker said.