Progressives tout string of wins across US as template for Democrats | Democrats

Progressives in the midwest had three reasons to celebrate on Tuesday. In Wisconsin, the liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz delivered a resounding victory in the state supreme court race, flipping control of the court for the first time in 15 years. In Chicago, the progressive mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson prevailed over Paul Vallas, a more conservative Democrat who ran on a tough-on-crime message. And in St Louis, progressives won a majority of seats on the board of aldermen, the lawmaking body for the city.

As they took their victory lap, progressives made clear that they viewed the wins as merely the beginning of a broader trend in America’s elections.

“It’s a multicultural, multi-generational movement that has literally captured the imagination of not just the city of Chicago but the rest of the world,” Johnson said in his victory speech. “Let’s take this bold progressive movement around these United States of America.”

Several lessons can be learned from Tuesday’s results, progressive leaders say. They hope their victories send a message to Democratic party leaders about the enduring resonance of abortion access, the popularity of progressives’ message and the importance of long-term grassroots organizing. The wins also come at a vital moment for progressives, who have criticized Joe Biden’s recent move toward the political center on issues such as energy and crime.

“We’re building a project all across this country, and that project is ascendant,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families party. “It’s both a culmination of years of organizing, and it’s a validation of the popular appeal of that project.”

Abortion as ‘a winning issue for Democrats’

Reproductive rights appeared to weigh heavily on the minds of Wisconsin voters as they went to the polls on Tuesday. Wisconsin has an abortion ban dating back to 1849 on the books, and anti-abortion advocates have argued that the policy should be enforced following the US supreme court’s reversal of Roe v Wade last summer.

The question of enforcing the 1849 ban is expected to soon come before the state supreme court, and the policy seems likely to be thrown out following Protasiewicz’s win.

“We think that there’s a very great chance now that we’ll be able to get this ban off the books and restore access to folks in Wisconsin,” said Ryan Stitzlein, senior national political director of the reproductive rights group Naral. “This is life-changing for folks.”

Protasiewicz made the end of Roe a central focus of her campaign, emphasizing her personal support for legal abortion access and attacking her opponent, conservative Dan Kelly, over his past work for the anti-abortion group Wisconsin Right to Life.

Janet Protasiewicz reacts while speaking at her election night watch party in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Tuesday.Pin
Janet Protasiewicz reacts while speaking at her election night watch party in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Tuesday. Photograph: Mike De Sisti/AP

“I don’t think you can overstate the importance of abortion in this race. Judge Janet led with her support for reproductive freedom,” Stitzlein said.

Protasiewicz defeated Kelly by 11 points. The result was extraordinary for the battleground state of Wisconsin, which Biden won by less than one point in 2020. Four years earlier, Donald Trump carried the state with 47.2% of the vote compared with Hillary Clinton’s 46.5%.

To Stitzlein, Protasiewicz’s decisive win should dispel any lingering questions over whether abortion access continues to resonate with voters nearly a year after Roe was overturned. Before the 2022 elections, some Democratic strategists suggested abortion would not sufficiently move the needle with midterm voters, but progressive activists firmly rejected that reasoning.

“I actually feel strongly that the longer these bans are in place, the more energy and more anger that’s going to be out there because there’s going to be more people that are affected by it,” Stitzlein said. “This is a winning issue for Democrats, for folks that support abortion access because support for abortion access is not partisan, as was demonstrated on Tuesday.”

‘Not an overnight coalition’

For progressive organizers in Chicago and St Louis, the victories on Tuesday were years in the making.

When Johnson turned his attention to the mayoral race in Chicago, he drew crucial support from his longtime progressive allies. He received hefty assistance from the Chicago Teachers Union, where he has worked for the past 10 years as the organization pushed for progressive reform. And when Johnson ran for the Cook county board of commissioners in 2018, he received an endorsement from the United Working Families, an affiliate of the Working Families party.

“Brandon is not an overnight sensation; the coalition that he built is not an overnight coalition,” Mitchell said. “This was a coalition that had been measured and patient and consistent over years, slowly aggregating the power to be able to seize the victory on Tuesday.”

A similar story unfolded in St Louis on Tuesday. The progressive mayor, Tishaura Jones, and the board of aldermen president, Megan Green, endorsed a slate of candidates who were able to flip three seats on the board. Green, who became board president last year, served as a convention delegate for Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Megan Green, president of the St Louis board of aldermen, center, and Mayor Tishaura Jones, right – pictured with Comptoller Darleen Green – endorsed the victorious slate of candidates.Pin
Megan Green, president of the St Louis board of aldermen, center, and Mayor Tishaura Jones, right – pictured with Comptoller Darleen Green – endorsed the victorious slate of candidates. Photograph: Bill Greenblatt/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

“It’s something that’s seven, eight years in the making,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution. “We’re seeing the fruit of organizing over multiple election cycles.”

Our Revolution made 100,000 phone calls and sent 130,000 texts to supporters in St Louis as part of its organizing efforts there, and the group contacted each of its 90,000 Chicago members an average of three times in connection to the mayoral race. The victory in Chicago was particularly meaningful for progressive groups like Our Revolution given that Johnson was outspent nearly two to one on television advertising.

“The fact that we were able to out-organize big money with people power, I think, is significant because that usually does not happen,” Geevarghese said. “I think it really speaks to the growing sophistication of the progressive movement as a political force.”

‘Another existential election’ on the horizon

As Democrats look ahead to 2024, when they will attempt to maintain control of the White House and the Senate while flipping control of the House, progressives say there are some important takeaways to learn from Tuesday’s results.

“There’s something poetic about the victories in Chicago and Wisconsin taking place because there is a through line there,” he said, “both around what people want – which is responsive government, which is an expansion of their freedoms – and also what the opposition was saying.”

Mitchell saw “fearmongering” being deployed as a weapon in both Wisconsin and Chicago, particularly around the issue of crime. Vallas, Johnson’s opponent in the mayoral race, received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police and pledged to “make Chicago the safest city in America”, as he attacked Johnson over his past support for the defund the police movement. In the end, Johnson won the race thanks in part to the support of voters living on the city’s South and West sides, which report some of the highest levels of violent crime.

Geevarghese argued that Johnson’s win should prompt some reflection for prominent Democrats, including Biden, who seem fearful of attacks over being “soft on crime”. Progressives expressed dismay last month after Biden signed a Republican bill overturning recent changes to the criminal code of Washington DC.

“We were able to talk about a broader vision of community safety, which is having good schools, which is having investment in mental health, which is making sure there’s good jobs,” Geevarghese said of Johnson’s win.

Even before the 2024 elections, progressives will have additional opportunities to demonstrate the effectiveness of their message. Philadelphia will hold its mayoral race in November, and every state legislative seat in Virginia will also be up for grabs this fall. Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, has called for a 15-week abortion ban.

“I think 2024 is an opportunity for us to learn from this coalition that we built and hopefully replicate it in other places, in other states,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to be faced with another existential election on the federal level in not too much time.”

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