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In this edition: The left limps out of primary season, Joe Biden gets a bad set of polls, and a “Ten͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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September 8, 2023


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David Weigel

Left behind: Progressive groups struggle for relevance in Biden era

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


The image, used in ad after ad, stuck with Rhode Island Democrats: White House staffer Gabe Amo with Joe Biden, in the Oval Office. As early voting wrapped up, Democrats in the 1st Congressional District saw another potent image: Amo and Patrick Kennedy, their old congressman, who warned that Bernie Sanders-endorsed front-runner Aaron Regunberg would put the state’s defense economy at risk.

“We need someone who understands the way Washington works,” said Kennedy.

On Tuesday, Amo won his first-ever race by 3000 votes, ending this year’s Democratic primary season — and dealing the latest setback to his party’s left flank. Endorsements from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Working Families Party, and some of Rhode Island’s leading progressives couldn’t elect Regunberg, who also narrowly out-fundraised Amo. Former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who endorsed Amo early, declared victory over “pundits who dismiss Bidenism” as a Democratic Party force.

“I will be a vigorous defender of the president every step of the way,” Amo told Semafor in a pre-election interview. “He’s one of the finest public servants in our nation’s history.”

Progressives shaped the party’s last presidential primary and pushed many of their ideas into Biden and Klain’s White House. Now they’re limping out of 2023, and into the next cycle, with smaller ambitions, more divisions, and no one figurehead to rally around. For the first time since 2016, no Democratic incumbent in Congress has a credible primary challenger on the left.


There have been a few left-wing political triumphs this year, like the election of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. And Regunberg’s defeat came after his father-in-law put six figures into a super PAC, an optics disaster that hurt him and made it impossible for him to attack Amo effectively. But the infrastructure and ambitions left behind by the Sanders campaign are in flux, for several reasons.

One of them, demonstrated in Rhode Island, is that most Democratic voters are not in the mood to rebel; worries about the president’s age have not transmuted into angst about their party’s direction. Campaign polling ahead of the latest election found that a supermajority of primary voters were satisfied with Biden; the race unfolded as Republicans talked louder than ever about impeaching him. And one reason that Johnson prevailed in Chicago was that his opponent in the mayoral runoff, Paul Vallas, had disparaged Biden and Barack Obama.

It doesn’t help that the current issue set is less amenable to the left than it used to be. Under Trump, topics like inequality, protecting immigrant rights, and expanding health care helped progressives tap into goals that broadly united Democrats. There’s now much more internal party angst about border issues, even in deep blue cities, while on the economy, there’s conflict between Democrats who want to sell Biden’s jobs agenda as a success, and leftists who see them papering over still-unsolved problems that demand radical change.

The Biden administration also mollified progressives, especially when it was being shaped by Klain. Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act preempted major problems with the party’s left; the Sunrise Movement, the youth-driven direct action green group that protested Biden in the 2020 primary, has alternated between outrage that the president won’t declare a “climate emergency” and back-patting over the 2022 passage of a climate bill.

“Without the movement for the Green New Deal, there would be no IRA,” Sunrise founder Varshini Prakash wrote in an email to donors last month.

That gets to a second reason for the left’s electoral struggles: Bitter disagreement about how to interact with the Democratic Party, or if there’s even a point in trying.

This was a factor, though not determinative, in Regunberg’s loss, and it’s played out more dramatically in places like Boston, where a local Democratic Socialists of America chapter moved to expel a legislator because — among other things –— he’d supported the Democratic nominee for governor. (Last month, by a 704-184 vote, national DSA delegates voted down a proposal to form “an independent political party with its own ballot line.”)

There’s more cynicism on the left about the progressives elected with the support of Justice Democrats, a group founded by Sanders campaign veterans and advocates like the The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur. That cynicism grew days into Biden’s presidency, when none of the House’s progressives heeded a call by some former Sanders influencers to force a vote on Medicare-for-All as a condition for re-electing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And the left’s incremental wins, celebrated by some allies, are dismissed by others.

In a recent interview with The Dig, a Providence-based socialist podcast, Ocasio-Cortez said that she was frustrated by the “binary” between revolutionary action and electoral politics that some leftists obsessed over.

“That creates this kind of cynical vortex,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who’d endorsed Regunberg in the campaign’s final week. “You can be very radical and do your thing, but you’re gonna be very small; or it’s this electoralism, where more radical movements and radical action is dismissed, and seen as naive.”

The constant suspicion that politicians who win elections will quickly join the old guard once in office is a growing problem. Uygur said in an interview that post-Sanders organizations had lost their influence through a combination of infighting and failure to deliver on the promise of their campaigns, as priorities like a $15 minimum wage died in the Senate.

“I don’t care about AOC or any of them,” said Uygur, who was ousted from Justice Democrats in Dec. 2017, after reporting emerged on sexist comments he’d made years earlier. “The squad is waiting for the Democratic Party’s permission? No, they need to be waiting for our permission: We are the outsiders, pushing the insiders. They were supposed to be a cohesive group, getting our priorities passed in legislation. And when it was crunch time, they blinked.”

They also faced massive opposition from the center-left and the right — a third reason for the left’s often-disappointing year. While the PACs that have spent millions to defeat left-leaning Democrats didn’t engage fully in Rhode Island, their involvement in earlier races had ground down Justice Democrats, which laid off most of its staff this year and is focused on holding its gains.

“We’re still actively in candidate recruitment, reviewing districts and possible candidates across the country,” said Justice Democrats communications director Usamah Andrabi, “while also very focused on protecting our incumbents who are under more serious threat from AIPAC’s right-wing primary challenge recruitment.”

Hours after the 2020 election, Democratic Party centrists went after the left for embracing unpopular slogans like “defund the police,” and they never really let up. And left-wing Democrats who won power faced opposition that sometimes overwhelmed them. In May, a democratic socialist who’d won a 2021 city council race in New York ended her re-election campaign, abandoning the “loveless land of politics”; on Wednesday, a Des Moines city council member who’d been elected on a “defund the police” message did the same.

Strategists with the Working Families Party and Our Revolution — one group that predated the Sanders campaigns, one that grew out of it — pointed out that their key concepts, like Medicare-for-All, still enjoyed majority support from Democratic voters.

But their branding has clearly been damaged. In 2018, Sara Innamorato was one of two candidates backed by DSA who won safe Democratic legislative seats in Pittsburgh. The other winner, Summer Lee, survived millions of dollars in attacks from centrist and pro-Israel groups to win a seat in Congress last year.

In May, Innamorato won the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County executive. Her Republican opponent did what came naturally: Blasted the “socialist” Democrat as a threat to the Pittsburgh region’s prosperity. Two weeks after the primary, Innamorato told a local CBS affiliate that she wasn’t a socialist at all. “If you look me up in the voter rolls,” she said, “you’ll see ‘Democrat’ next to my name.”


Jim Kessler, the executive vice president of the centrist Democratic group, said that the debate inside the party wasn’t over, but that the left had been losing influence. More people were voting in Democratic primaries; more of those Democrats wanted a Biden-shaped party than a left-wing one.

“The extremes have completely taken over the GOP, and there are a lot of voters saying: I want to make sure that at least one party is normal,” said Kessler. “After Dobbs, it’s clear to people that if you lose the wrong race, things can get very real, very fast.”


Some prominent leftists see the movement’s current slump as just a natural phase of a rebuilding period. “We had no socialist movement, then we had this guy, Bernie Sanders, vying seriously — twice! — for the most powerful office in the land,” said Micah Uetricht, the co-author of 2020’s “Bigger Than Bernie” and editor at the socialist magazine Jacobin. “Now, things are where you’d expect them to be for a movement being reborn.’


  • In The American Prospect, Luke Goldstein studies what went wrong in Rhode Island, and what it means for “national progressive groups as they limp into the next election cycle.”
State of Play

Utah. Celeste Maloy, a former legal counsel for retiring Rep. Chris Stewart, defeated two other Republicans in Tuesday’s competitive primary to replace him. Maloy romped across most of Stewart’s 2nd Congressional District, carrying 10 of its 13 counties; former state Rep. Becky Edwards, who’d criticized the Dobbs decision and ran as a “common-sense” conservative, carried Salt Lake County and neighboring Davis County by 9000 votes, keeping the race too close to call until Wednesday, when more mail ballots were counted. Stewart’s 2nd Congressional District absorbed more of Salt Lake County, Utah’s only Democratic stronghold, as part of a GOP gerrymander that shored up the formerly competitive 4th Congressional District.

Alex Thompson via X

Biden for President, “War Zone.” Support for funding Ukraine’s defense against Russia has been falling, but the vast majority of Americans want Ukraine to win — and that’s at the center of the Democrats’ new ad. It’s full of references to the 80-year old president’s vigor, from the “40 hour trip” he took to how he entered at night and walked with President Volodymyr Zelensky as air raid sirens were blasting.

Never Back Down, “Stone Cold Dead.” Ron DeSantis’s promise to use lethal military force against drug cartels has been a reliable applause line at town halls, and a reliable way to anger liberals. This super PAC spot uses DeSantis’s description of the plan from last month’s debate, and heightens the drama with added sounds. There’s extra cheering when he says “stone cold dead,” and added audio of gunfire and screaming over footage of the border. (Compare the clip of a firefight between cartels, captured by a drone camera, with how it appeared in initial TV coverage last year.)

SFA Fund, “Fears Most.” On Aug. 17, Politico’s Playbook ran a blind quote from “a senior Democratic strategist close with the Biden campaign,” who fretted that the Democrats would be in “trouble” if Nikki Haley won the GOP nomination. Haley has cited that item nearly every day since, and it caps this super PAC recap of her debate performance, with a Fox News reporter crediting the quote to the “Biden team.”


Behold, the poll that will shape media narratives about this campaign for a week or so. While a pre-debate Fox News poll showed the president leading every Republican candidate, CNN’s poll finds Biden struggling against all of them — not because of their own appeal, but because of the undying concerns about his age. By a 14-point margin, voters agree that “any Republican nominee” would be better than Biden; by a 6-point margin they agree that any Democrat except Biden would be preferable to Trump.

Who’s opting out of the 2024 election? In this sample of “unlikely voters,” around half are adults who’ve registered to vote but don’t like their choices; the other half aren’t registered at all. Overwhelmingly, they think President Biden is old and incompetent, they get their news from TV and social media, and they don’t think their vote would matter anyway. But at the moment, Democrats benefit the most from non-voter cynicism.

Democratic interest in Kennedy’s primary challenge waned over the summer, as he got a blast of critical coverage from liberal outlets and respectful coverage from conservative outlets. (One example: Fox News host Bill Hemmer defending Kennedy from a skeptical Karl Rove, with Hemmer falsely claiming that the longtime environmental lawyer didn’t support the Green New Deal.) Kennedy, who lives in west Los Angeles, gets just 8% of the Democratic vote, running stronger with no-party-preference voters who can cross over.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

White House. Donald Trump stayed off the trail this week, and his opponents grabbed airtime to focus on their defining issues.

In Florida, Ron DeSantis called a press conference to talk up the state’s bans on vaccine and mask mandates, pointing to the closure of a school in Kentucky (where a fifth of students had contracted some illness) and a temporary mask mandate at a school in Maryland’s Montgomery County (which saw a third grade COVID outbreak) as evidence that the medical establishment was trying to bring back pandemic lockdowns.

“Now we’re in a situation where you start to see, around the country, kids being kept out of school,” said DeSantis, speaking in front of a sign that read “MANDATE FREEDOM.” He clashed with an attendee who blamed Florida’s gun laws for a racially-motivated mass shooting last month, but reiterated a campaign promise: His presidency would start a “reckoning” with COVID-era bureaucrats.

In New Hampshire, speaking at St. Anselm College, Mike Pence delivered a speech titled “Populism vs. Conservatism: Republicans’ Time for Choosing,” which got more pick-up than nearly anything he’d done since his campaign launch in January. (According to The Messenger’s Trent Spiner, the audience was thick with college students who’d been encouraged to attend.”)

“Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party,” Pence said, “the GOP as we have long known it will cease to exist. And the fate of American freedom would be in doubt.”

At her own stops in New Hampshire, built around a town hall with Moms for Liberty, Nikki Haley talked about school choice, keeping trans athletes out of womens’ sports, and her own electability. In Clermont, and in friendly TV hits from the trail, she said that the Biden campaign knew she would “stomp” him if she became the nominee; in Manchester, she highlighted a quote from the Biden campaign criticizing her for appearing with Moms for Liberty at all.

“If Joe Biden thinks I’m being a MAGA extremist for being a Mom for Liberty, then count me as one of them,” Haley said. “Because we have to be extreme when it comes to our kids.”

Ray Di Pietro/Shutterstock

​​When Tennessee state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson took the state House floor to protest and demand a gun safety bill, state Rep. Gloria Johnson joined them. They were expelled from the chamber; by one vote, she wasn’t. But she traveled to D.C. with them — the “Tennessee Three,” Democrats in a deep red state who the national party embraced as heroes.

On Tuesday, Johnson announced a campaign for U.S. Senate, challenging freshman Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic senator since 1990. “I think we’ve gotten donations from all 50 states, and all Tennessee counties,” Johnson said in an interview, as she described the first days of her underdog campaign and what she planned to run on.

Americana: At your launch speech, you said that Phil Bredesen got within 10 points of Blackburn in 2018, you needed to close that gap, and a lot had changed since then. But Republicans did just fine in Tennessee last year. What can you point to that shows that voters want a change?

Gloria Johnson: What you have to understand about Tennessee is that most people didn’t understand that we had a full ban on abortion, ready to go. They were shocked and surprised when they found out. They found out, they got much more active, and now there’s a broad coalition for women’s autonomy and abortion care across Tennessee. Eighty percent of Tennesseans believe in abortion care at some level, even if we may not all agree on where that level is.

Americana: The Republican response to that is that Democrats don’t want any limits whatsoever on abortion. Do you want limits?

Gloria Johnson: You know what? I am fine with the Roe standard, 24 weeks. What we hear from our colleagues across the aisle is that Democrats want late term abortion. There’s no late term abortion — nobody decorates their nursery and then decides, oh, we don’t want to have the baby. When there’s a termination, we’re talking about severe complications for either the fetus or to the mother. Those are just tragic decisions that have to be made to save lives.

So, there’s 80% of us that support women’s bodily autonomy, and 80% of Tennesseans believe in gun sense legislation — urban, rural, suburban. I’m a gun owner. I have a gun. I plan on keeping that gun. However, we can keep the guns out of the hands of dangerous people and keep our communities and schools safe.

Americana: Why have Tennesseans been voting Republican if they agree with that?

Gloria Johnson: That’s what gerrymandering is about. They have chosen their voters instead of allowing the voters to choose their elected officials, so they can be extreme and motivate their extreme MAGA Republican base to turn out. They’re not concerned about winning a general election — all they care about is winning a primary. It’s not just gun violence and abortion that’s affected, it’s all of our education stuff – vouchers, privatizing public education, our third grade retention law, these are all extreme things that the majority of Tennesseans do not agree on, yet they do them anyway.

This time is different. I’m just a grassroots person. I’m very in touch with what is happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is amazing in Tennessee. You truly have a coalition coming together of people that haven’t worked together before. They’re coming together on things like Medicaid expansion, health care, and public schools. And what we’re doing is creating this multiracial, multigenerational coalition that will not be divided.

Americana: In 2018, Bredesen said that he would have voted for Brett Kavanaugh. The story at the time was that this killed Democratic enthusiasm. Is that how it looked to you?

Gloria Johnson: That is a fact. I have all the respect in the world for Gov. Bredesen, but I disagreed with that. I would absolutely have voted against him, and I wouldn’t have had to think twice about that. I’m a woman. I knew exactly what was at stake.

Americana: One of Sen. Blackburn’s priorities is the Kids Online Safety Act. Do you support it?

Gloria Johnson: I’ve absolutely got some serious questions about that. I’m concerned about what the true motives are. I’m going to have to read a lot more on the bill before I make a decision on it, because I’m concerned whether it’s targeting a certain group of people. With legislation like this, you need to think of all the different effects that it could have.

Americana: Maybe the most famous moment of Blackburn’s first term was when she asked Ketanji Brown Jackson if she could “define the word, woman.” How would you answer that question? What is a woman?

Gloria Johnson: What I would say is: It’s a human being who you have spent your career trying to deny full bodily rights to. But it’s kind of funny. They sent a tracker after me this week to ask me that question — a young man. And I told him: If you don’t know now, I don’t think I can help you.

Want your friends to know what Gloria Johnson has to say? Share our conversation here.  →


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