Progressives’ strong midterm showing has inspired new confidence on the left about what may be possible in the future.
They see the victories in the House and Senate as evidence that their approach to Democratic politics can win fights against Republicans, sending a signal to moderates that their flank is electorally viable and even preferable in some parts of the country.
While liberals often felt deflated during the 2022 primary season, many are now expressing vindication, touting the results as proof that they can be a safe general election bet.
“Leading up to the midterms there was a whole conversation [about] what a liability progressives were for Democrats. The narrative was that moderates were the saviors of the party,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, a liberal Democratic strategist. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Democrats across the ideological spectrum saw unexpectedly positive results, staving off what many feared would be a red wave of Trumpism and a MAGA orthodoxy.
As results trickled in, they saw some important seats saved, including front-liners competing to break what looked like virtual ties throughout the night. While centrists cheered the bellwether contests and safety of favorites such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, progressives, too, were tallying up their own triumphs.
When young activist Summer Lee, a Democratic socialist, became the first Black woman elected to the House from Pennsylvania despite a rush of outside spending to fund her GOP opponent near Pittsburgh, progressives saw a rebuke of corporate funding playing out in their favor.
And when Greg Casar, a former city council member from Austin, Texas, beat out Republican competitor Dan McQueen in their House race, liberals said the quality of their recruits played a pivotal role.
Both districts favored Democrats, but some feared a surge of expected enthusiasm and spending from the right could have complicated paths to victory.
“What we saw on Tuesday night was the beginning of a generational shift where young people are now starting to become a large portion of the voting population,” said Douglas Wilson, a Democratic strategist located in North Carolina. “With that came an endorsement of a lot of progressive policies.”
Progressives also scored new talent in Maxwell Frost, the first Gen-Z member to head to the House after winning his central Florida seat near Orlando — a rare Democratic victory in the state — as well as with Delia Ramirez in Illinois’ 4th Congressional District.
As a result, the Squad is poised to expand considerably, keeping up a trend that’s persisted since 2018, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and fellow leftists Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) first won against moderate incumbents.
Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib, then focused on Democratic Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) and Cori Bush (Mo.) before helping this cycle’s candidates get over the finish line. The progressive organization now counts a dozen lawmakers among its ranks.
“Young progressives turn out to repudiate not just the cartoonish characters that ran as Republicans, but also to demand change to the status quo,” Starr Hopkins said. “Voters made clear that candidates like Summer Lee, Maxwell Frost, Greg Caser are the future of the Democratic Party.”
Despite what many see as their considerable potential, progressives are often on the defensive. Many rose to power as insurgents, muscling their way through primaries against traditional, corporate-backed centrists.
Some Democrats view them as unhelpful at best, or insufficiently loyal to the Democratic Party at worst. Those in the latter camp frequently claim they are working against party unity.
But that argument, progressives believe, was banged up a bit this cycle, as their successes translated beyond the House to one of Democrats’ most crucial seats in the Senate.
Senator-elect John Fetterman’s victory over Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania was perhaps the clearest indication of progressive traction at the national level during the Biden era.
Fetterman beat Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate and Biden ally, in the Democratic primary and Oz in the general election, using similar contours to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) campaign approach, with some alterations. While he physically distanced himself from Sanders as a matter of strategy, he ran on economic populism and offered a strong critique of corporate interests, an attack that resonated against the well-heeled Oz.
He also embraced unions, a favorite position of Sanders and Biden alike, and traveled to many rural parts of the state.
Among the Senate Democrats up this cycle, Fetterman was widely considered coziest to the left wing, a line that progressives are already promoting following his win.
His success not only secured one of Democrats’ top races for the still-to-be-determined control of the upper chamber, but also super-charged the argument that progressives can win statewide in the Midwest when they run on a popular platform.
“Democrats must recognize the possibilities,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement. “Investing in our generation starts with Democrats running candidates on our issues like climate action that meets the scale and scope of the crisis, and canceling student loan debt, and our electeds must deliver that same progressive policy, so we can feel it in our communities and candidates can run on it.”
“This may be new for Democratic leadership, but we’ve been making this point for years because progressive policies are popular and mobilizing,” she said.
Centrists, for their part, are still hoping to keep many of their soldiers in power. They did so most effectively earlier this cycle, when outside groups — and occasionally the president himself — helped moderates defeat progressives during the primaries from Ohio to Texas. That strategy allowed for fewer progressives to ultimately compete against Republicans this month.
“There is zero — none, nada, zilch — evidence that the far left can flip seats or can succeed in genuinely competitive races,” said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of Third Way, a Democratic think tank in Washington.
“Fetterman may have started as a Bernie guy years ago, but that is NOT how he ran in the general election,” Bennett said. “Fetterman tacked hard to the center, running on funding the police, voting with law enforcement 90 percent of the time, and knowing the value of a hard day’s work. He had his closing rally with Joe Biden and Barack Obama. Not exactly Chapo Trap House material.”
“In the House, it’s even clearer. No House candidate endorsed by the Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, and Brand New Congress had ever flipped a seat,” he said.
Other moderates believe the party needs more of the Biden-style candidates to win in future elections. While some acknowledge they’re not as flashy as progressives, they say their proven appeal in swing states and districts will allow for possibly bigger margins of success.
Spanberger, in Virginia, is an example of that.
“We have to realize that this country’s huge,” said Wilson. “You’re going to need moderates to run and win to keep a governing majority.”