Even as pundits begin to muse about the presidential prospects of more moderate Democrats like Sherrod Brown of Ohio or Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, progressives are declaring victory in the midterms—and doubling down on their agenda.
“These candidates are truly our future,” said Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, before introducing the new members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Monday. The CPC, a membership organization within Congress that advocates for progressive issues, currently has 78 members and will grow next session as more than 20 candidates are expected to join, including well-known newcomers such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
While Democrats made significant gains in the House of Representatives in last week’s midterm elections, many progressive candidates, including some of the left’s biggest stars, came up short. Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz by nearly three points in Texas. The gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum is still waiting on the results of a recount in Florida, but he is currently trailing Republican Ron DeSantis. And in Maryland, the former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous lost to Republican Governor Larry Hogan.
A few of the most well-known House candidates—Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar—won their elections, but they were running in very blue districts (or, in Pressley’s case, unopposed), and their wins were expected. But a slew of other CPC-endorsed House candidates lost their races. *They included the populist Randy “Ironstache” Bryce, who positioned himself as a working-class hero in Speaker Paul Ryan’s district in Wisconsin; Kara Eastman in Nebraska; and Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas.
Because of this, and because of the big Democratic wins in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania last week, some strategists and commentators have suggested that Democrats would be better off if they nominate more moderate political leaders—nice midwestern folks with experience wrangling independents and Republicans, people who can counter Donald Trump’s brash behavior with pragmatism. In other words, they say, maybe the midterm elections demonstrated that the best Democratic contender in 2020 would be a political centrist.
But when she was asked about it at Monday’s press conference, Pramila Jayapal, the vice chair of the CPC, just laughed. “If centrist is defined as ideas that serve the center of the country, then I might agree with that,” she said, citing recent polls showing that the vast majority of Americans support “Medicare for all,” a policy priority that for a long time was championed only by members of the far left.
Whether or not Democratic candidates were endorsed by the CPC or ran on an explicitly progressive platform, progressives believe their agenda was the real winner last week.
Of the 57 incoming Democratic House members, 37 support “Medicare for all,” expanding Social Security, or another Medicare-policy option, according to an analysis by the Progressive Change Institute. That’s 65 percent of the incoming freshman class. Plus, a series of progressive ballot measures were passed in traditionally red states: Missouri and Arkansas approved a measure to raise the minimum wage; Louisiana passed criminal-justice reform; and Medicaid expansion was approved in Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska.
Some fringe views, in other words, have now become the political center for many Democrats—and the progressive wing of the party is owning their victories. Jayapal even went so far as to call the progressive agenda “a new kind of centrism.”
“These are not radical ideas; these are ideas that fuel the wins we got in the House,” Jayapal said. “And frankly, I think, if they didn’t fuel a win in Texas and Florida and Georgia, they certainly got us closer than any ideas have ever gotten us before.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that California Democratic candidate Katie Porter had lost her race, when in fact the race has not been called. We regret the error.