After Republican candidates got clobbered this month in Virginia and elsewhere, a new narrative quickly took hold. It was all about the president, as usual. “It’s hard to have Trumpism if you don’t have Trump,” The New York Times concluded. “Trumpism without Trump didn’t work,” CNN concurred.
Clearly, President Donald Trump’s historic unpopularity less than a year into his presidency hurts his party’s electoral prospects. It’s also encouraging that Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie failed to win over Virginia voters with Trump-style rhetoric and naked appeals to racism.
Yet while the notion that anti-Trump fervor doomed the Republicans may be tempting, particularly to Democrats who would rather avoid debates about the party’s direction, that’s an incomplete explanation of what happened this month in elections across the country. This wasn’t just a Democratic wave fueled by opposition to Trump. It was specifically a progressive wave fueled by bold, progressive candidates down the ballot, working with grass-roots activists and organizations, who inspired voters with campaigns based on economic fairness and social justice.
Take a closer look at Virginia, where most of the attention has gone to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s win and transgender woman candidate Danica Roem’s incredible triumph over longtime delegate (and the state’s self-appointed “chief homophobe”) Bob Marshall.
In an election with the highest turnout for a gubernatorial race in two decades, Democrats flipped at least 15 seats in the House of Delegates. Twelve of those races were won by women, including the first two Latina women elected in the state, Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman. Ayala, a single mother and former welfare recipient, ran on Medicaid expansion, contraceptive access and higher teacher pay and beat a Republican who ran unopposed just two years ago. Guzman, who emigrated from Peru, likewise campaigned on expanding Medicaid and increasing the minimum wage.
For all the talk of a backlash to Trump, there is a compelling argument that the outcome in Virginia’s gubernatorial race was driven largely by the diverse slate of down-ballot candidates and a surge of grass-roots energy, beginning with the Women’s March, that activist groups channeled into contesting local elections.
“Given the election results, and the number of new candidates elected,” writes Joan Walsh at the Nation, “it’s possible Virginia saw something new: a reverse coattails effect, where the surge of candidates running for the state House, most of them women, helped propel Northam and his ticket to victory.” As for Trump, the campaign manager for a first-time candidate who unseated a Republican in northern Virginia told The New York Times Magazine, “I can’t even worry about him.”
Another significant progressive victory occurred in Philadelphia, where Larry Krasner won the race for district attorney. As a civil rights attorney known for representing Black Lives Matter and Occupy and suing the Philadelphia police department 75 times, even Krasner acknowledged that he was an unlikely choice to become the city’s top prosecutor.
“I’ve spent a career becoming completely unelectable,” he quipped at a debate this fall. Considering the police union’s endorsement of his Republican opponent, there were whispers before the election that, even in heavily Democratic Philadelphia, Krasner could lose. He won by a nearly 50-point margin.
On the other side of the country, progressives earned yet another big win last week in the Albuquerque mayoral race with the election of state auditor Tim Keller. Running a publicly financed campaign, Keller built a platform that included support for paid sick leave, community policing and early childhood education. He won 62 percent of the vote on his way to reclaiming an office that Republicans have controlled for the past eight years.
In races from Jackson, Mississippi, to Birmingham, Alabama, to Aurora, Colorado,—where 23-year-old Crystal Murillo defeated a Republican incumbent to become the youngest member of the city council—Democratic candidates in state and local races have won in 2017 not by running to the center or even running against Trump, but by embracing progressive policies and, critically, working to build coalitions that transcend class and racial lines.
Indeed, the elections show why the debate among Democrats between “identity politics” and economic populism presents such a false choice: Progressives win when they embrace both. And while the official party organs are more than happy to take credit, it is evident that both new and established activist groups on the left including the Working Families Party, Our Revolution and People’s Action played an indispensable role in the party’s victories. For instance, nearly 200 of the “progressive heroes” that WFP identified and worked to elect in local races this year, including Ayala, Guzman, Krasner and Keller, went on to win.
Just a few weeks ago, there was widespread panic that Democrats in Virginia were blowing it, so the party’s jubilation today is justified. But their success doesn’t mean Democrats should accept the conventional wisdom that Trumpism without Trump can’t win. It proves that when they campaign on bold, progressive ideas, collaborate with the grass roots and compete everywhere—up and down the ballot—they can guarantee that it won’t.