A Stepping Stone for Progressives

Across the country, millions of voters headed to the polls on November 6 to cast a ballot in this year’s midterm elections. NPR notes that voter turnout was the highest for a U.S. midterm election since 1966, with 47 percent of eligible voters making their voices heard. Democrats had been expected to take back the House, but some hopefuls were placing their bets on a potential Senate flip, with key races across the country. Three such examples include Florida, Arizona, and Texas. In Florida, Democratic hopeful Bill Nelson was challenging Rick Scott, a race which requires a recount. In Arizona, Krysten Sinema won a Senate seat as a Democrat (albeit not a particularly progressive one), something that hasn’t been done in 30 years. Of course, many progressives were looking hopefully to Texas, where Rep. Beto O’Rourke was taking on Sen. Ted Cruz and his PAC political machine. While some on the left may be disappointed with the results in Texas and other key progressive races, I believe that these midterms create a very strong roadmap for 2020, especially when we look at several key races. At the same time, I believe that a close analysis of county and state level dynamics this election season serve to disprove and discredit the conventional belief that centrist, or even right-wing, Democrats are necessary to beat Republicans in red states. Progressives demonstrated their value and power in this election.

The outcome was more or less as expected. The Democrats re-took the House of Representatives, and the Republicans held on to the Senate. There are still a number of House races still uncalled, with the Guardian noting that, at the time of writing, the Democrats have picked up 32 seats, with 10 still undetermined, for a majority of 227-198. There is more to this election than just the surface numbers, however.

We will start in Texas, where Beto O’Rourke sadly failed to oust Sen. Ted Cruz. In one of the most consistently red states in the nation, a truly progressive candidate came within three percentage points of victory. Yet,  the most encouraging information comes not from the state-wide data, but at the county level. In Harris County, which voted 58-41 for Beto and is home to the city of Houston, voter turnout was nearly twice that of 2014, and came close to meeting 2016 levels, according to data from the New York Times. In Tarrant County, which houses Fort Worth and is considered the last consistently red city in the state, Beto O’Rourke received a majority of votes. O’Rourke was beating or tying Cruz in many historically red, conservative suburbs. These are encouraging signs, and show the power of a progressive message, especially in “red-states.”

Moving to Florida, we look to the Senate and gubernatorial races, where recounts have begun to determine the true victor. In the race for governor, Andrew Gillum, a progressive, had lost by only 35,000 votes, in a race with eight million ballots cast. Gillum has revoked his concession as recounts go forward, and it is entirely within the realm of possibility that his opponent, Republican Ron DeSantis, has actually lost the election. Gillum is an inspiring candidate who ran on a platform that emphasized criminal justice reform — as such, he was a major proponent of Amendment 4, which authorized the restoration of voting rights to felons in the state. In the Senate race too, Bill Nelson is only 13,000 votes behind his opponent, Rick Scott. While Florida is typically considered a swing state, it is encouraging to see the possibility of two Democratic victories in the coming weeks. Florida went to Trump in the 2016 election, and had Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis won outright, I would have been very concerned for the implications for the 2020 election, as that would demonstrate a significant failure of the democratic process to reject right-wing policies. However, given the fact that the races have gone to a recount, and that 1.4 million ex-felons have regained their right to vote in the state, due to a ballot measure that was passed as part of the election, it is much less clear that Florida will be as close in 2020. With that, many new voters who have been exposed to the horrors of the failed criminal justice system in the U.S., opportunities for a Democratic outright victory look more plausible.

In Georgia, Stacey Abrams has refused to concede in her gubernatorial race against Brian Kemp, who, as the Secretary of State, had removed hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls prior to the election.

While many good candidates lost, excluding the results of recounts, the turnout and support across the nation demonstrates that the conventional wisdom of the Democratic establishment does not hold. That conventional wisdom states that in order to beat a Republican in a red state, you have to run a Democrat with Republican policies. In Texas, Georgia, and even Mississippi, where the Democrat and Republican candidates are headed for a runoff election, progressive candidates got far closer to beating their Republican opponents than any centrist or right-wing Democrat in recent memory. The fact of the matter is that “I’m better than the other person” is not, and never will be, an inspiring message. We need candidates who bring a message of hope and are willing to fight for meaningful change, not about simply towing a party line or listening to focus groups. We need candidates who are motivated by more than money or power, and are truly passionate about the issues that they run on. These candidates ran on November 6, and they came extremely close to victory. These races counter the traditional logic of the party leadership, and should serve as a call to action for 2020. It is worth noting that incumbent Democratic candidates that lost their seats this election were overwhelmingly centrist, such as Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who had to take time to decide whether or not to vote against Brett Kavanaugh, well after all of the information about him came forward.

Moving forward, we should begin to see presidential candidacy declarations this upcoming spring, in preparation for debates in the late summer of 2019, and primaries beginning in January of 2020. Now is not the time to rest, it is the time for action. This midterm served as a testing ground for progressive policies, and it has demonstrated that they have power, and so do we.

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