Although they fell short of their ultimate goal on Tuesday, the Progressives can still claim a significant turnaround after losing races across the country in 2021.
“There were some high profile losses last year. Starting the 2022 mid-terms with a progressive favorite and a win out of Texas is hugely important as we have more exciting races for the rest of the year,” said Aaron Chappell, political director of the Bernie Sanders– founded the group Our Revolution, which called and texted its members on behalf of left-wing candidates in Texas. “So many Democrats have retired. There are so many open seats where true progressives could win.
The chance for progressives to set the tone for this year’s primaries has led many of the left’s biggest figures – such as Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) — to put their full weight behind the Texas Liberal candidates. Progressive organizations like Justice Democrats, Indivisible and the Working Families Party have also invested in the primaries.
That gave the Liberals a brighter start than in 2021, when they lost a series of congressional special elections as well as high-profile mayoral contests. Still, Tuesday’s marquee race – the main challenge for Rep. Henry Cuellar in South Texas – ended in ellipses for the left. Jessica Cisneros, supported by the progressives, failed to win in her race against Cuellar, opponent of the right to abortion and enemy of the unions.
Instead, the two Democrats will face off in a runoff in May. It will be the third time they will face each other, after Cisneros unsuccessfully tried to oust Cuellar in 2020.
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Many of Cuellar’s former allies had left him for dead this time around. In January, the FBI raided his home and campaign office. Unlike its previous run, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer did not campaign for him this year. But Cuellar lived to fight another day after running TV ads in a newly drawn neighborhood that accused Cisneros of being too left-leaning.
It’s a potentially worrying sign for progressives, who have been locked in a battle with moderates over the impact of activists‘ calls for policies such as “defund the police”. Centrist Democrats have accused liberals of making them more vulnerable to GOP attack with unpopular slogans and politically untenable positions, while left-leaning lawmakers have argued that activists have brought much-needed attention to police brutality.
This debate was captured in Cuellar’s ads attacking Cisneros as being “supported by funding for the police movement”, while declaring that he is for “full funding for law enforcement and border security”. .
Cisneros’ campaign said it does not support defunding the police.
With more than 99% of the expected votes, Cuellar has a narrow lead of almost 2 percentage points.
“No one I know in Democratic politics in Texas expected Cuellar to survive,” said a Democratic state operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Cisneros should have realized that border patrol and police jobs are critical to the economic well-being of this neighborhood outside of greater San Antonio. It’s always a question of economy.
Joe Caiazzo, a Democratic political consultant who worked as a senior official in Sanders’ two presidential campaigns, said the mixed results demonstrated that progressives had sometimes been too obsessed with issues that didn’t matter to voters.
“It shows they can win, but it also means it’s only possible if the message is laser-focused,” he said. “The winning formula for progressive Democrats focuses on economic opportunity, increased access and lower costs of health care. These are the two main pillars. Everything else, you talk to past people.
At the same time, the National Progressives knew Cisneros’ race would be the toughest of the three primaries they were targeting in Texas. It is a culturally conservative region, and political strategists expect it to be a rotating seat in the general election. The strategy of groups like the Justice Democrats is to grow their numbers in Congress by leading progressives in mostly safe Democratic districts, as opposed to highly competitive districts. – making it a somewhat unique race for them.
In a deep blue district that encompasses Austin and San Antonio, Democratic Socialists of America member Greg Casar handily beat state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who was backed by the Moderate Action Fund of the New Democrat coalition. Casar helped cut police funding as a city council member and promoted his endorsements of Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders in a television commercial.
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In an interview with POLITICO, Casar said his success was the result of more than a decade of political organizing in the region. Many on the left hope Texas will one day vote like Georgia, a state that was red for years until it became a battleground after heavy investments from local and state Democrats.
“This race really shows how the progressive movement is growing,” Casar said. “This election is just one important marker along the way that shows that incremental change is possible not just on the coasts, but actually here, in the heartland of Texas.”
Referring to Casar, Chappell said “to have someone who is basically a squad member added to the progressive caucus in Congress is amazing.”
Jasmine Crockett, another Progressive-backed candidate running in Dallas, advanced to a runoff with a lead of more than 30 percentage points with 96% of the expected vote. She will face Jane Hamilton, President Joe Biden’s Texas state manager in the 2020 Democratic primary.
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The liberals took advantage of the fact that some moderate spendthrift groups stayed away from the races in Texas. In their view, the moderates did not get involved before Tuesday’s election because their favored candidates were so weak.
Centrist Democrats, however, argued that their absence meant the early results were not a true test of the muscle of the left. Moderates could still reverse course and choose to get involved in the playoffs, especially in the Dallas-based contest. But Crockett has a pair of well-funded cryptocurrency super PACs that could shield it from a spending onslaught.
In the Cisneros vs. Cuellar rematch, Texas Working Families Party organizing director Mercedes Fulbright said “we expect to see a lot of momentum on the court and funding from progressive allies for the second round of May” and “we think Cisneros has a real chance of ousting Cuellar this time.
If the end result after the May 24 runoff is a trio of progressive wins, they’ll point that out as proof that voters have embraced their argument that they’ve been Biden’s biggest allies — and it’s the moderates who are blocking. his proposals.
At a rally in San Antonio last month, Ocasio-Cortez compared Cuellar to Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), who last year angered many liberals when he announced he would not support Biden Building back better plan. Liberal candidates in the upcoming congressional primaries, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, have used Manchin as a foil.
But with Cisneros unable to dethrone Cuellar, at least for now, progressives have yet to prove that Democratic voters believe their party’s moderates are to blame for stalling Biden’s agenda. Cuellar was part of a group of centrists who threatened to freeze the budget if a bipartisan infrastructure bill did not pass the House immediately — a move diametrically opposed to the left’s plan to pair this legislation with a proposal for massive social spending in hopes of leverage on Manchin.
Casar is virtually guaranteed to win in November, as is Crockett if she succeeds in her second round. But in the general election, Cisneros or Cuellar will have to fight to keep a seat in a part of the country where Republicans have made gains. Biden would have lifted the new quarter by 7 percentage points in 2020.
Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, said he was concerned about Cisneros’ ability to retain the seat if she beats Cuellar in the second round.
“If she wins, we obviously support her and strongly support any Democrats running for Congress. But we’re concerned,” he said. tend to lose in general elections.”
Similarly, progressives fear that the party base will show up in Cuellar in November:
“What is the agenda that Cuellar represents for the Democratic Party? What is the view? Because to us it seems very uninspiring,” Chappell said.