What happened to the left in New York on Tuesday?
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Working Families Day
Before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her socialist allies radically upended politics as we once knew it, three incumbent state lawmakers losing in one night would have been a big deal.
Bronx’s Jose Rivera, Westchester’s Tom Abinanti and Hudson Valley’s Kevin Cahill will not return to Albany next year, according to unofficial statements. Cahill’s replacement, climate organizer Sarahana Shrestha, is a committed socialist who ran with the strong support of the Democratic Socialists of America. Meanwhile, Abinanti lost to a local lawmaker backed by the Working Families Party.
Yet Tuesday’s story is one of progressive failure. The DSA and the Working Families Party fielded large slates in the Assembly primaries, and nearly all lost. At the top of the standings, PAM-endorsed Jumaane Williams and Ana María Archila lost badly in the races for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. Kathy Hochul and Antonio Delgado triumphed, far ahead of their opposition left and right.
August may hold more hope for the left when voters vote in the primary for state Senate and congressional seats — at least a socialist is a frontrunner for a state Senate seat in Queens and Manhattan – but it’s clear 2022 won’t produce the huge gains of 2018 and 2020, when it seemed routine for young, charismatic leftists to rush in power. Since then, the political environment has changed, with crime and inflation swallowing up the oxygen. Voters’ enthusiasm was higher in the Trump years; mainstream liberal voters and leftists have formed huge, powerful anti-establishment coalitions that are now harder to replicate.
“I don’t think the progressive movement is dead,” said a senior Democratic official not affiliated with the insurgents. “It was a boring election. I voted just to be a voter. I did not show up at the polls. I think progressives do well when people are excited and interested.
By recent standards, Tuesday’s turnout was extremely low. At New York, fewer than 450,000 Democrats came to the polls. More than double showed up for the competitive mayoral primary a year ago, a victory for moderate Eric Adams who, had there been less infighting on the left, might have backed a progressive rival. In previous cycles, leftist challengers have won in both low and high turnout environments. Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in a June 2018 primary that saw relatively few voters, but in September, with the governor’s race and all of the state’s legislative primaries on the ballot, turnout exploded and a large number of progressive and socialist insurgents won. The pattern seemed to repeat itself in 2020 when the first deadly months of the pandemic could not keep voters away – many were allowed to vote by mail and did so in high numbers for a Democratic Socialist list that won all primaries he competed. On the same day, Jamaal Bowman ousted Eliot Engel from office and joined the team.
One of the realities of Tuesday was that tenure trumps ideology. If conservative Democrats like Michael Benedetto in the Bronx could easily grow back rivals on the left, just like two socialist assemblies, Emily Gallagher and Phara Souffrant Forrest, which overtook their main adversaries. If a candidate already occupied a position, the law of political gravity applied: the candidate had a strong chance of winning.
Progressives and socialists are frustrated because 2018 and 2020 seemed to indicate some movement was up, not leveling off. When Ocasio-Cortez won, she enjoyed an apathetic, titled political establishment. Four years later, incumbents can no longer be surprised. Many are raising funds effectively, talking to voters and seeking help from outside forces like the real estate industry, which continues to spend heavily against socialist candidates. Winning is just harder today. “We rely on our base to come out too,” says Matthew Thomas, a socialist writer and active member of the DSA. “History is the titular strength. You’ve seen progressive challengers really struggle.
The DSA has not invested in any statewide contests, but the Working Families Party has. The left-wing third, a mix of activists and organized workers, had a poor showing at the top of the ticket, falling back from 2018 when Williams was a candidate for lieutenant governor and came close to beating Hochul, who was then Andrew Cuomo. little-known running mate. In 2021, Williams opted for a rematch against Hochul, and Archila was drafted into the race for lieutenant governor in March. williams struggling with personal challenges and never campaigned aggressively or raised much money. Archila, who eventually won Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement, built more momentum but clashed with Delgado, the new incumbent lieutenant governor and a former congressman who could raise tons of money. None of the progressives built a viable campaign — the Working Families Party didn’t do it for them — and it showed. They had no bottom line on the ballot.
Without a sufficient fundraising operation, progressive insurgents will never effectively participate in statewide elections. Hochul and Delgado spent millions on TV and digital ads, while Williams and Archila were relatively absent. Much of the run looked like a done deal as it became clear that the Working Families Party had made no serious plans to get its ticket to the airwaves. It was like Malcolm Kenyatta recent loss in his run for the Pennsylvania Senate, a notable failure to move up. Hochul now gets what she always wanted: a chance to shoot a right-wing Republican and completely ignore the left.