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Progressives Took A Step Back In The 2022 Primaries — But They’re Playing The Long Game

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.

Most progressive challengers lost to incumbents

How candidates endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee or the Sunrise Movement fared against incumbents in the 2022 Democratic primaries for Senate, House and governor

Candidate Race Result Endorsements
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

*Incumbent running against another incumbent.

Sources: Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, PCCC, Sunrise Movement, Twitter, news reports, ABC News

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.

Progressives won more than half of open-seat primaries

How candidates endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee or the Sunrise Movement fared in the 2022 Democratic primaries for Senate, House and governor without an incumbent on the ballot

Candidate Race Result Endorsements
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

Sources: Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, PCCC, Sunrise Movement, Twitter, news reports, ABC News

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

The establishment wing of the party decides

How candidates supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or United Democracy Project fared in the 2022 Democratic House primaries without an incumbent on the ballot

Candidate Race Result DCCC UDP
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

The United Democracy Project also opposed CA-42 candidate Cristina Garcia (who lost) but did not explicitly support any of her opponents.

Sources: DCCC, OpenSecrets, ABC News

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. 

Which progressive group or leader has the best endorsement record?

Number of candidates endorsed by progressive groups and figures in the 2022 Democratic primaries for Senate, House and governor without an incumbent on the ballot, and how often the candidates won

Endorser Endorsements Wins Win Rate
Justice Democrats 3 3 100%
Sen. Bernie Sanders 10 8 80
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 4 3 75
Indivisible 12 8 67
Sunrise Movement 5 3 60
Our Revolution 12 7 58
Progressive Change Campaign Committee 11 4 36

Sources: Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, PCCC, Sunrise Movement, Twitter, news reports, ABC News

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.


  1. Though some of these groups have local chapters, we counted only the candidates endorsed by national organizations.

  2. That includes two who were incumbents themselves, Reps. Marie Newman and Andy Levin. New congressional maps threw them into the same district as their fellow Reps. Sean Casten and Haley Stevens.

  3. Although Edwards is ideologically progressive, interestingly, none of the seven progressive entities we tracked endorsed her.

  4. The Democratic Governors Association does not endorse in open-seat primaries, and in a departure from past practice, nor did the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this cycle.

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.”

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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