As the 2018 midterm primary season began, many pundits wondered if the resistance to President Donald Trump would become a tea-party-style movement, an insurgency that would threaten not just Republicans but also incumbent Democrats. So far this cycle, we’ve seen no tea party of the left at the federal level.
Down ballot, however, young progressive candidates are racking up legislative victories across the country, frequently ousting centrist incumbents in primaries. And progressives are rejecting conventional wisdom about where they can win — running and winning in a broad array of districts. When I first covered this trend in January, I wrote, “We’re about to witness a remaking of the Democratic Party.” Since then, the evidence has continued to mount.
In major federal races this primary season, progressives have often been stymied by powerful interests. In Illinois, progressive Marie Newman’s March bid to unseat far-right anti-abortion Trump Democrat Dan Lipinski narrowly failed when right-wing anti-immigrant advocacy group No Labels went big to defend him. (The group also unsuccessfully backed Trumpist Democrat John Morganelli in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District). In New Jersey’s 2nd, conservative Democrat Jeff Van Drew was backed by the party establishment on his way to crushing a progressive primary opponent. And in the Senate, centrists Jacky Rosen, Kyrsten Sinema and Phil Bredesen represent the most likely pickup opportunities for Democrats.
Federally, the center holds, but down ballot, it’s getting beaten down.
On Tuesday, progressive Working Families Party–backed candidate Susan Herrera won against Debbie Rodella in a New Mexico state House race. Rodella is an opponent of abortion rights, gun control and expanding voter registration and is a supporter of payday lenders. She is one of three centrist members of the New Mexico House to lose to progressives. In Iowa, millennial gay rights advocate Zach Wahls won a primary to represent the 37th Congressional District.
Centrist Democrats down ballot can’t rely on the big money influence of corporate donors, and they’re getting wiped out.
In the recent North Carolina primaries, Mujtaba Mohammed defeated incumbent state Sen. Joel Ford, a conservative Democrat who frequently voted with Republicans and supported legislation allowing civil servants to refuse to perform same-sex marriages. Mohammed is an attorney with a background in public defense and children’s rights law, running on a platform of progressive policies, including ending cash bail, ending the school-to-prison pipeline and implementing in-state tuition for undocumented students. In this safe blue seat, Mohammed will almost certainly win the general.
The same night, Sedrick Denson, the southwestern Ohio director for the Ohio Environmental Council, won his primary for a state House seat in Cincinnati. An artist-turned-activist, he previously served as chief of staff for a City Council member and as a union political organizer. His platform focuses on racial and environmental justice, deeply intertwined issues in Ohio’s industrial communities.
Down-ballot progressive candidates are campaigning on issues like education and health care that speak to voters. Former state representative and activist Melanie Levesque, who is running against Kevin Avard in New Hampshire’s 12th Senate District, said, “Since the  election, there has been a great awakening” but noted that there already was a strong young Democrats group. She was mobilized by school vouchers, “which weaken public education.”
In Florida’s 21st House District (which in 2016 went 48 percent Clinton, 48 percent Trump), Amol Jethwani, a queer Pakistani and Indian 21-year-old University of Florida student, is running against incumbent Chuck Clemons, whose main legislative focus has been protecting the ability of white supremacists to visit colleges. Jethwani is running on a policy that includes justice for survivors of sexual assault and Medicaid expansion, which has 63 percent support among the general public in the district.
These victories are being supported by young leaders dedicated to bringing diversity to the party down ballot.
“The next generation of candidates is tired of poll-tested, pundit-approved talking points and bloviation,” said Arielle Swernoff, the executive director of Launch Progress, an organization that is active in North Carolina, Ohio and Michigan politics. “Voters are tired of legislatures that are overwhelmingly male, pale and stale, and by working hard and standing up for progressive values, young candidates are winning.”
In Michigan, of the 23 applicants Swernoff is reviewing for possible endorsements, only three are straight white men.
Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run for Something, an organization that supports millennial progressives running for office, said, “Run for Something isn’t just building the progressive bench for the next generation. We’re also elevating the present-day leaders of our movement. Our candidates look like America, not America’s traditional ruling class.”
Ralph Freso / Getty Images
Mass movements like the recent wave of teachers’ strikes have helped organize and mobilize voters to support progressive issues and candidates across the country.
The momentum of several mass movements, from the Women’s March to the teachers’ strikes across the country, is reshaping the political landscape. In a recent Kentucky House race, for instance, a teacher ousted an ally and protege of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s.
Charles Fisher, who leads the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said, referring to the teachers’ mobilization, “The Red for Ed energy is not going away.” In Arizona there are 20 teachers running for office, such as Christine Porter Marsh in the 28th, a member of her local teachers’ union.
The committee has 114 candidates running, meaning there are at least two candidates in every legislative district, compared with 82 candidates in the 2014 cycle. “Even in the reddest districts, we’re fielding candidates,” he said. “No district is uncontested,” noting congressional candidate Hiral Tipirneni’s recent overperformance in a special election for a deeply Republican House district. Of the candidates, 56 are women, and 54 are people of color.
Democratic candidate for New York state Senate Alessandra Biaggi, center, at a rally for progressive candidates in New York City. She says, “Electing fresh young voices in politics means having the ability to consider new solutions to problems.”
And the list of groundbreaking progressive victories goes on.
In Chicago, teacher Brandon Johnson unseated incumbent centrist Richard Boykin for a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners with the backing of the Working Families Party. In Pennsylvania, two members of the Democratic Socialists of America unseated two anti-abortion, anti-immigrant and pro-gun Democrats, cousins Paul and Dom Costa. In Ohio, Nickie Antonio defeated a state representative in a primary for the state Senate in District 23, meaning that she will likely be the first openly gay member of the Ohio Senate. (No Republican filed to run for the seat.)
Maurice Mitchell, the new executive director of the Working Families Party, said, “Some of these individual wins may fly under the radar, but the net result is that progressives are remaking the Democratic Party from within and expanding what’s politically possible for all of us, election by election.”
The rise of young women and people of color in office will expand the vision of the Democratic Party and put new issues like a universal basic income on the agenda. Former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Alessandra Biaggi, who is running in New York to unseat state Sen. Jeff Klein, a power broker who has been accused of sexual misconduct, said, “Electing fresh young voices in politics means having the ability to consider new solutions to problems. Whether it’s legalizing recreational marijuana, designing a system for universal health care, ending fossil fuel subsidies or examining basic income programs, we are ready to take bold steps if the data shows that each avenue would improve the lives of people in our communities.”
The Democratic Party remains too white, male, old and centrist at the federal level, but there are rumblings underneath the surface. Across the country, centrist Democrats down ballot can’t rely on the big money influence of corporate donors, and they’re getting wiped out. It’s only a matter of time before the same forces hit the national scene.
Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher based in New York City and a co-founder of Data for Progress. He tweets at @SeanMcElwee.