When Rep. Kurt Schrader, a seven-term incumbent endorsed by President Biden, lost his primary in May, he joined a small but slowly growing list of congressional veterans defeated by progressive candidates with the backing of an increasingly influential campaign apparatus on the left.
This renewed progressive movement emerged following Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential primary run, yet despite some high-profile wins in 2018, its candidates lost more often than they won due to a scattershot strategy. Then, in 2020, when progressives got more targeted with their electoral strategy, their win rate increased. But in 2022, the progressive movement appears to have taken a small step back.
FiveThirtyEight tracked every endorsement made by a major progressive group for Senate, House and governor this primary season. We consider a candidate “progressive-backed” if they were endorsed by Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or any of the following groups: Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, the Sunrise Movement or the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.1 We also looked at candidates backed by various groups and leaders representing the more moderate or establishment wing of the Democratic Party and found that, overall, the Democratic establishment has an edge in the battle for the party’s soul.
Incumbents largely staved off progressive challengers
Eleven candidates endorsed by at least one of those progressive organizations or people went into the 2022 election cycle hoping to topple an incumbent.2 Only one of them won: Schrader’s opponent, attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner. By contrast, in 2020, progressives won three out of 17 such battles.
|Mike Ortega||CA-46||✗ Lost||Our Revolution|
|Marie Newman*||IL-06||✗ Lost||Indivisible, Justice Democrats, PCCC|
|Kina Collins||IL-07||✗ Lost||Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Sunrise|
|Junaid Ahmed||IL-08||✗ Lost||Our Revolution|
|Andy Levin*||MI-11||✗ Lost||Indivisible, Our Revolution, PCCC, Sanders, Sunrise|
|Amy Vilela||NV-01||✗ Lost||Our Revolution, Sanders|
|Alessandra Biaggi||NY-17||✗ Lost||Ocasio-Cortez, PCCC|
|Jumaane Williams||NY Gov.||✗ Lost||Our Revolution|
|Nina Turner||OH-11||✗ Lost||Ocasio-Cortez, Our Revolution, Sanders|
|Jamie McLeod-Skinner||OR-05||✓ Won||Indivisible, Our Revolution, PCCC|
|Jessica Cisneros||TX-28||✗ Lost||Ocasio-Cortez, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, PCCC, Sanders, Sunrise|
Of these races, one of the most closely watched was in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, where progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros took on Rep. Henry Cuellar for the second time. Cuellar is a long-time moderate in the party and an opponent of abortion rights. In 2020 Cisneros came within 4 percentage points of unseating him. Cisneros and her supporters were looking to replicate the success of Rep. Marie Newman, who defeated eight-term Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in 2020 after she lost to him by 2 points in 2018. (Lipinski also opposed abortion rights.) But despite all seven progressive entities we tracked being in her corner, Cisneros came up short: After forcing a runoff, she lost to Cuellar by only 289 votes. (Newman is out this cycle too. She lost to fellow incumbent Rep. Sean Casten.)
Incumbents’ myriad advantages help them win primaries most of the time. For one, they (usually) have the support of party leadership. For instance, in the race between Cisneros and Cuellar, Cuellar was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries. And while Biden does not typically issue primary endorsements as his predecessor did, the president made three exceptions for House candidates this cycle, all for incumbents facing progressive primary challengers: Schrader and Reps. Shontel Brown and Danny Davis. Schrader lost, but both Brown and Davis prevailed.
Races like these that pit a progressive against an establishment Democrat are watched closely as referenda on the future direction of the party. And among more moderate Democrats, progressive losses are seized upon to suggest that the party’s base is still pro-establishment — or at least satisfied with the status quo. For instance, Jeffries, a known critic of the progressives in his party, was asked in August if he thought the progressive movement had stopped gaining ground. He responded, “Politically, the left did have some success in primarying Democratic incumbents in 2018, and 2020 … But a lot of their electoral momentum began to dissipate shortly after Biden was elected … Perhaps the voters are sending us a message.”
Progressives had more luck in open-seat races
Jeffries’s analysis ignores that progressive-backed candidates do much better in primaries without an incumbent on the ballot. For example, in 2022, the progressive-backed candidate won 14 out of the 25 open-seat primaries in which they ran — good for a 56 percent win rate.
|Maxwell Alejandro Frost||FL-10||✓ Won||PCCC, Sanders|
|Jonathan Jackson||IL-01||✓ Won||Our Revolution, Sanders|
|Delia Ramirez||IL-03||✓ Won||Indivisible, Our Revolution, Sanders|
|Litesa Wallace||IL-17||✗ Lost||Indivisible, Our Revolution|
|Charles Booker||KY Sen.||✓ Won||Indivisible, PCCC, Sunrise|
|Attica Scott||KY-03||✗ Lost||Our Revolution, PCCC|
|Trish Gunby||MO-02||✓ Won||Indivisible|
|Randi McCallian||MO-08||✓ Won||Indivisible|
|Lucas Kunce||MO Sen.||✗ Lost||Indivisible, PCCC, Sanders|
|Tom Winter||MT-01||✗ Lost||PCCC|
|Erica D. Smith||NC-01||✗ Lost||PCCC, Sunrise|
|Nida Allam||NC-04||✗ Lost||Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, Sunrise|
|Melanie D’Arrigo||NY-03||✗ Lost||Indivisible, Our Revolution|
|Brittany Ramos DeBarros||NY-11||✗ Lost||Indivisible, Our Revolution, PCCC|
|Josh Riley||NY-19||✓ Won||Indivisible|
|Morgan Harper||OH Sen.||✗ Lost||PCCC|
|Doyle E. Canning||OR-04||✗ Lost||PCCC|
|Summer Lee||PA-12||✓ Won||Ocasio-Cortez, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, PCCC, Sanders, Sunrise|
|David A. Segal||RI-02||✗ Lost||Our Revolution|
|Odessa Kelly||TN-07||✓ Won||Indivisible, Justice Democrats|
|Jasmine Crockett||TX-30||✓ Won||Our Revolution, Sanders|
|Greg Casar||TX-35||✓ Won||Ocasio-Cortez, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, Sanders, Sunrise|
|Peter Welch||VT Sen.||✓ Won||Our Revolution|
|Becca Balint||VT-AL||✓ Won||Our Revolution, Sanders|
|Mandela Barnes||WI Sen.||✓ Won||Ocasio-Cortez, Indivisible, PCCC, Sanders|
And some of these were pretty big wins. For instance, after Rep. Mike Doyle announced his intention not to run for reelection in Pennsylvania’s safely Democratic 12th Congressional District, most progressive groups lined up behind state Rep. Summer Lee. As a result, Lee edged out Doyle’s chosen successor by less than 1 point. Likewise, in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race, progressive-backed Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes was such a formidable candidate that his closest rivals could not gain traction and dropped out one by one. That eventually led to his primary coronation (though it remains to be seen whether he will win the general election in November).
However, progressives also won fewer of these primaries than they did in 2020. That year, their win rate in incumbent-less primaries was a robust 69 percent (22 wins in 32 tries). Part of the decline could be because of the emergence of a well-funded opposition mobilizing against them. For example, progressives endorsed two congressional candidates in North Carolina, former state Sen. Erica Smith and Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, who failed to win their primaries. In both those elections, the same foe stepped up to block them: the United Democracy Project, a pro-Israel super PAC funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The United Democracy Project spent nearly $24.3 million this election cycle helping to elect moderate Democrats over progressives, with their biggest outlay coming on behalf of former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey over former Rep. Donna Edwards in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District.3 The super PAC’s efforts were not always successful — it also spent heavily against Lee, for example — but it did win more races it got involved in than progressives did: seven out of nine, or 78 percent.
Similarly, progressives’ win rate was far lower than the win rate of candidates supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official House campaign arm of the Democratic Party. All 18 candidates who were put on the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” list before their primaries advanced to the general election.4
|Jevin D. Hodge||AZ-01||✓ Won||✓|
|Rudy Salas||CA-22||✓ Won||✓|
|Jay F. Chen||CA-45||✓ Won||✓|
|Brittany Pettersen||CO-07||✓ Won||✓|
|Yadira Caraveo||CO-08||✓ Won||✓|
|Annette Taddeo||FL-27||✓ Won||✓|
|Christina Bohannan||IA-01||✓ Won||✓|
|Liz Mathis||IA-02||✓ Won||✓|
|Nikki Budzinski||IL-13||✓ Won||✓|
|Glenn Ivey||MD-04||✓ Won||✓|
|Hillary Scholten||MI-03||✓ Won||✓|
|Adam Hollier||MI-13||✗ Lost||✓|
|Don Davis||NC-01||✓ Won||✓|
|Valerie Foushee||NC-04||✓ Won||✓|
|Gabriel Vasquez||NM-02||✓ Won||✓|
|Bridget Fleming||NY-01||✓ Won||✓|
|Jackie Gordon||NY-02||✓ Won||✓|
|Max N. Rose||NY-11||✓ Won||✓|
|Pat Ryan||NY-18||✓ Won||✓|
|Francis Conole||NY-22||✓ Won||✓|
|Greg Landsman||OH-01||✓ Won||✓|
|Emilia Sykes||OH-13||✓ Won||✓|
|Steve Irwin||PA-12||✗ Lost||✓|
Notably, the party went head-to-head against progressives only once: in New York’s 11th Congressional District, where former Rep. Max Rose defeated Army veteran Brittany Ramos DeBarros. Ramos DeBarros was endorsed by Indivisible, Our Revolution and the PCCC. In fact, 13 of the DCCC’s Red to Blue candidates faced no Democratic opposition in their primaries. This is a good reminder that progressive and establishment candidates aren’t necessarily in opposition.
Different progressive groups have different strategies
It’s also important to remember that not all progressive groups are the same. Some groups and leaders still see the value in endorsing a longer-shot candidate with little chance of winning to influence agenda-setting or remind more establishment candidates that their party’s tent is big. Others, by contrast, are more strategic, hoping to funnel their resources into the races they feel they have the best chance of winning. As a result, certain progressive endorsers have better records than others.
|Sen. Bernie Sanders||10||8||80|
|Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez||4||3||75|
|Progressive Change Campaign Committee||11||4||36|
For instance, Justice Democrats have a 100 percent win rate in incumbent-less primaries (three for three), up from 67 percent in 2020 (two for three) and a marked improvement from 2018 (32 percent), when they endorsed more broadly (50 candidates). As we wrote in 2020, of all the progressive groups emerging since 2016, Justice Democrats, in particular, seem most targeted in their recruitment efforts and deliberate about their endorsements, which helps explain their success. Ocasio-Cortez (three for four) and the Sunrise Movement (three for five) also succeeded with limited endorsement strategies.
Of the progressives who were a bit freer with their endorsements, Sanders did the best with an 80 percent win rate in incumbent-less primaries (eight for 10), up from 75 percent in 2020 (six for eight) and 56 percent in 2018 (five for nine). This could reflect Sanders’s status as the godfather of the party’s progressive wing, but given the growth in his own win rate, it could be the product of a shrewder endorsement strategy. Finally, the PCCC was the only progressive endorser we looked at with a losing record (36 percent, or four for 11).
The 2022 primaries continued to display all the factors working against progressives — factors that have kept the soul of the Democratic Party fairly establishment-friendly. But it’s also important to remember that progressives are playing the long game. They may not have won as often as their opponents. Still, many did win their primaries and will join a growing number already on the inside. It may not be a sudden transformation, but progressives are slowly gaining strength within the Democratic Party with every passing election cycle.