Democratic Party should learn from New York primaries

The Sept. 14 New York Democratic primaries were a mixed bag for the state’s blossoming Progressive Left. On the one hand, Governor Andrew Cuomo easily defeated left-wing challenger Cynthia Nixon, winning almost two-thirds of the vote, while beloved left-wing activist Zephyr Teachout lost the primary for Attorney General to Letitia James, the New York City public advocate who earned endorsements from the state convention and Governor Cuomo (The New York Times, “New York Primary Election Results,” 09.14.2018).

Yet the Progressive Left also achieved a major victory with the defeat of six of the eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of moderate Democrats who handed control of the State Senate to the Republican Party (Vox, “New York voters reject some Democrats who broke off to give state Senate control to the Republicans,” 11.14.2018). While it may seem unclear, the elections were still a tremendous victory for the progressive movement in New York State.

In the past year, the Democratic Party has had reason to rejoice. Donald Trump has proven unpopular. A recent poll showed his approval rating has dropped to 37.8 percent (Vox, “Trump’s approval rating just sank in 8 polls,” 09.13.2018). The Democrats are ahead by eight percent in a generic congressional ballot and are poised to take back the House of Representatives (RealClearPolitics, “2018 Generic Congressional Vote”). They may even have an opportunity to retake the Senate (The Washington Post, “The Fix’s top 10 Senate races show Democrats with a narrow opening to win the Senate,” 07.20.2018).

This year promises to be a repeat of 2010, when the Republican Party came back from a devastating election defeat to win back the House of Representatives. Much like the 2010 elections, the

party is becoming increasingly partisan, with centrist incumbents losing their primary campaigns to the far left.

In New York State, no one has exemplified this trend more than Democratic primary candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On June 26, 2018, Ocasio-Cortez pulled off the most stunning upset of the year, unseating Joseph Crowley, the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, while running on an unapologetically progressive platform.

The self-identified Democratic Socialist ran on a platform that emphasized universal Medicare, free college tuition and criminal justice reform (The New Yorker, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Historic Win and the Future of the Democratic Party,” 07.23.2018). Her election was a clear and decisive victory of the Socialist Left and a sign that the Democratic Party was moving in a different direction. It inspired other progressives across the country in running their own campaigns and provided hope for supporters of progressive advocate Cynthia Nixon, who made a long-shot bid for the governor’s mansion (The New York Times, “What Does Ocasio-Cortez’s Win Mean for Cynthia Nixon,” 07.27.2018).

While Ocasio-Cortez’s victory proved most surprising, it probably was not the most important. That honor would go to the demise of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). The IDC was founded in 2011 by Democratic State Senator Jeffrey Klein. The senator and several Democratic colleagues were unhappy with policy leadership and decided to caucus with the Republican party in order to boost their own power and influence in Albany. This cost the Democrats control of the statehouse, stifling progressive legislation and giving the Republicans control of policy and the legislature’s agenda (The New York Times, “How 3 Little Letters (I.D.C.) Are Riling Up New York Progressives,” 09.11.2018). Last Thursday, six out of eight New York Democrats were defeated in their primary.

However, New York’s far left also had its fair share of disappointments this election day. Last week, I wrote an article expressing my view that Cynthia Nixon is not qualified to be governor. Apparently, most New Yorkers agreed with me, as the popular activist was trounced by incumbent Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

This was not the only defeat the Progressive Left faced. New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams lost a surprisingly close election to incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, and Progressive advocate Zephyr Teachout lost the Attorney General primary to New York City Public Advocate and Cuomo ally Letitia James (The New York Times, “New York Primary Election Results,” 09.14.2018). These were all tremendous defeats for progressive advocates in New York State and clear victories for the New York Democratic establishment. However, they were not the wins that the establishment may wish they were, and members of the Progressive Left still have good reasons to hope.

Examine the Lieutenant Governor race. The candidates were City Councilman Jumaane Williams and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. Williams, Nixon’s progressive running mate, was the longshot with a lot less name recognition. Yet he came close to winning, earning 46.7 percent of the vote (The New York TImes, “New York Primary Election Results,” 09.14.2018).

This came even despite a questionable record on LGBTQ+ rights, as Williams both publicly expressed personal opposition of same-sex marriage and abstained on a bill that would allow transgender people the right to change their gender on birth certificates (The Daily News, “NOW slams lieutenant governor candidate Jumaane Williams on abortion, same-sex marriage,” 06.11.2018). He earned a much higher percentage of the vote than his running mate, although he only won four counties: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Tompkins and Columbia.

Zephyr Teachout, though not a winner, placed a strong second, with 31 percent of the vote and strong support from upstate New York. Andrew Cuomo enjoyed a victory in part due to a leftward drift, offering free public tuition, coming out in favor of marijuana legalization and publicly challenging the president’s ideology. This has been a year of surprisingly strong performances for unsuccessful progressive challengers, and even centrists saw success partly due to their adoption of Progressive Left policies.

This doesn’t mean that Cynthia Nixon’s ideology is the future of the Democratic Party, and it’s increasingly clear that she personally is not. Democratic voters rejected her and her ideas, or at least her lack of qualifications. The takeaway should not be that progressives are guaranteed or owed victories in the future.

Rather, progressive Democrats need to see that they have an opening to continue winning, as long as they field decent candidates and run good campaigns. Centrist Democrats need to be aware that, although the advantage of the incumbency still remains, they’ll need to do some appeasing if they want to keep their jobs. Most important, the Democratic Party needs to put its best foot forward. For now, Democrats are essentially guaranteed victory in New York State, but this security will not last forever. The party will need to be vigilant and field competent, qualified candidates if it is to continue moving New York forward.

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