The progressive wing of the Democratic Party finally showed its electoral strength on Tuesday night, notching a few no-doubt-about-it electoral wins in a handful of key primaries, after months of mostly moral victories.
In New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a first-time congressional candidate and former Bernie Sanders organizer, provided the kind of big, signature victory that has eluded liberals this year, easily defeating Rep. Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary in Queens. Crowley was considered a front-runner to someday replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, but he was also ill-suited to a diverse district that includes a swath of working-class Queens and the Bronx. Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina, staked out far more progressive policy positions than Crowley, and argued powerful Democrats in safe seats like his needed to be doing more to pull the party to the left. Primary voters agreed, and Ocasio-Cortez won by a whopping 15 percentage points, making Crowley the first Democratic incumbent to lose a primary this year and the highest-ranking lawmaker from either party to fall in a primary since House GOP Leader Eric Cantor lost to Dave Brat in Virginia four years ago.
Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t the only progressive underdog to win in the Empire State. Dana Balter, a public policy professor at Syracuse University, defeated Juanita Perez Williams, a Navy veteran with the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign, in central New York. Williams becomes only the second DCCC-backed non-incumbent to lose this year, following former Blue Dog congressman Brad Ashford’s upset loss to progressive Kara Eastman in Nebraska last month. Balter, who has been active in anti-Trump grass-roots groups, will now face GOP Rep. John Katko in a district that went narrowly for Hillary Clinton two years ago.
Progressives were also celebrating in Maryland, where former NAACP president Ben Jealous won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday. Jealous ran an aggressively progressive campaign—including calls for Medicare For All and a $15 minimum wage—and had the backing of the likes of Sanders and Kamala Harris. Jealous prevailed relatively easily over his main rival, Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker, who had the support of most of the state’s moderate Democratic establishment, and who positioned himself as a pragmatist who could reach across the aisle and win over moderates.
That intraparty divide made the Maryland contest the latest high-profile proxy fight between the two wings of the Democratic Party, one where the battle lines were even more clear than they were in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams had the backing of Sanders and Hillary Clinton ahead of her victory in the state’s Democratic primary for governor. Jealous, like Abrams in Georgia, said his liberal positions would help turn out new voters to help defeat Gov. Larry Hogan, an incumbent with high approval ratings.
Colorado’s Democratic primary for governor flew a little further under the radar, but Rep. Jared Polis emerged from a crowded field on Tuesday, thanks to his own fortune and a progressive policy platform that included calls for all-day preschool and a single-payer health care system for the state. Colorado voters previously rejected both of those policies when they took the form of ballot initiatives in past elections, and Polis weathered several attacks from his left during the primary—on both the environment and guns. If he wins in November, he would become the first openly gay man elected governor, and would represent a clear shift to the left from the state’s current term-limited Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, who is seen as a business-minded moderate.
The Democratic establishment still got most of the candidates it wanted on Tuesday. A pair of DCCC-backed military vets won contested primaries over more progressive candidates: On Staten Island, Max Rose coasted to victory in a six-way race. And in central Colorado, Jason Crow defeated Levi Tillemann, a former Obama administration official who tried to weaponize the establishment’s opposition to his candidacy by leaking a recording of Rep. Steny Hoyer urging Tillemann to get out of the race for the good of the party. The progressive anger didn’t last long though—not unlike the way it petered out earlier this year after the DCCC tried to torpedo progressive Laura Moser in Texas—and some were wondering when the left would actually get a signature win.
For Republicans, the night was less eventful, with Trump-backed favorites prevailing over Trump-like challengers. In New York, Rep. Dan Donovan—a mild-mannered former D.A.—rode a Trump tweet to victory over his predecessor Michael Grimm, a brash former Marine who had left Congress after being convicted of tax fraud. In South Carolina, Henry McMaster won big, one day after Trump made a special campaign stop for him. And in Utah, Mitt Romney—the one-time Never Trumper—prevailed after accepting Trump’s endorsement.
Naturally, Trump took credit on Twitter for all of the big victories of the night—surprisingly, this included not only his fellow Republicans, but also Ocasio-Cortez in the president’s home borough of Queens.