POLITICS
08/29/2018 08:00 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2018

Progressives Will Lead Democrats In Some Of 2018’s Biggest Contests

With Andrew Gillum’s primary victory in Florida’s gubernatorial race, progressives have a chance to prove they know how to win in the midterms.

Now all progressives have to do is win in November.

For years, as Democratic turnout sagged in midterm elections, progressive candidates argued they were the solution: They could excite young and minority voters who often stayed home and defeat the Republicans who relied on an older, whiter electorate to dominate in midterm elections. 

The Democratic establishment, and Democratic voters, largely rejected that argument during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Instead, they nominated moderate candidates designed to win over swing voters who were certain to vote. In four straight gubernatorial elections, from 2002 to 2014, Florida Democrats picked white moderates from the Tampa area as their standard-bearers in the nation’s fourth-largest state. The strategy peaked in 2014, when they nominated Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor. All four candidates lost. 

This year, with the party at historic lows at the state level ― Democrats control just 13 governorships ― and President Donald Trump in the White House, voters in Florida have made a much different choice. They nominated 39-year-old Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee who has promised to focus as much on turning voters out as on winning them over.

It’s a repeat of a choice Democratic primary electorates have also made in Georgia, where they picked state Rep. Stacey Abrams, who has built a career out of registering new voters; in Maryland, where Ben Jealous is banking on a blue wave; and in Arizona, where David Garcia ― another primary winner on Tuesday ― is counting on the excitement of the possibility of the first Latino governor in 40 years to fire up Latino voters.

All four candidates ― Gillum, Jealous and Abrams are black, and Garcia is Latino ― are counting on a coalition of minority voters and white liberals as their path to victory, with a dash of help from suburban moderates turned off by Trump. Their nominations represent a tactical sea change for the party compared with four years ago, when centrists were nominated in all four states. And they give progressives their best chances in years to prove that their theory of how to win the midterms is the right one. 

“Andrew Gillum’s massive upset victory tonight is an explosive development in the 2018 election that definitively proves that the New American Majority of people of color and progressive white voters are ready to deliver transformative results for candidates,” Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of the progressive group Democracy for America, said in a statement Tuesday night. “Tonight, Floridians made it clear that the time for fundamental progressive change in the Sunshine State is here.”

In an interview last summer, not long after he launched his campaign, Gillum was already committed to a progressive strategy. “I’m not going to shrink from what, frankly, drew me to the Democratic Party,” he said. “Our message has been to be non-offensive. It hasn’t worked.”

Tonight, Floridians made it clear that the time for fundamental progressive change in the Sunshine State is here. Charles Chamberlain, Democracy for America

And he stuck to it. Gillum adopted almost every position on the progressive wish list. He supports abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He supports Medicare for all and a ban on assault weapons. He spoke personally about the need for greater police accountability and criminal justice reform, issues that disproportionately affect people of color.

Meanwhile, the candidate he narrowly beat, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, had spent two years in Congress voting against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States and for provisions that progressives saw as weakening the Affordable Care Act.

All four candidates face serious challenges. The FBI is investigating corruption in Gillum’s city hall. Abrams and Garcia are both facing television ad assaults from the cash-rich Republican Governors Association. Jealous is battling GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, who boasts a 70 percent approval rating.

But Jealous’ strategy in Maryland doesn’t require dragging Hogan into the mud. “Defeating Hogan is about turning out Democrats,” he said in June, noting his party’s two-to-one voter registration edge. “If this was about persuading moderate Republicans to vote for a Democrat, I’d be the wrong choice.”

The other progressive candidates Democrats have nominated likely wouldn’t go as far as Jealous. Abrams has bipartisan credentials from her time leading Democrats in the state legislature and has worked to woo the business community after Republicans nominated arch-conservative Brian Kemp in the GOP primary. Garcia has previously run for office with the backing of business, and he believes his background as a veteran gives him credibility with conservatives and moderates. 

And Democratic voters haven’t completely tossed moderates aside: The cycle began with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s triumph, and saw victories for Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama and Rep. Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, an avowed centrist, just won the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. 

Still, there remains the question of what inspired Gillum, Jealous, Abrams and Garcia ― all relatively young politicians- to run for governor, which often meant battling a skeptical state party establishment and waging uphill battles in the general election. 

When I asked Gillum last year, he had an answer ready: “We’re all tired of losing.”

Daniel Marans contributed reporting.

CONVERSATIONS