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Democratic Socialists Rack Up Wins in States

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib made headlines for their congressional wins. But a number of Democratic Socialists also won state-level races this election.

new york state salazar
Julia Salazar, a candidate endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, won election to the New York Senate.
(AP/Mary Altaffer)
This year’s midterm elections saw “the rebirth of the American socialist movement after generations in retreat.”

That was the post-election assessment from the Democratic Socialists of America, which backed 40 winning candidates at the state, county and municipal levels. As of Friday, 11 of this year's winning candidates had been endorsed by the national DSA organization, and 29 others had been endorsed by local chapters. 

“Each of these candidates ran against corporate-backed Republican or Democratic political establishments on inspiring platforms demanding an end to austerity and oppression,” the group said in a statement on Wednesday. “We are building a pipeline from local positions all the way to national politics.”

DSA’s biggest successes, undoubtedly, were the Congressional elections of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

But the group is also highlighting the “incredible victories" of state legislative candidates such as New York state Sen.-elect Julia Salazar, Maryland Delegates-elect Gabriel Acevero and Vaughn Stewart, and Pennsylvania state Representatives-elect Summer Lee, Sarah Innamorato and Elizabeth Fiedler. Maine state Rep. Mike Sylvester, a DSA member first elected in 2016, won a second term in a landslide.

Left-wing candidates didn’t win everywhere they were on the ballot, of course. At least 30 DSA-endorsed state or local candidates lost their general election races this week. Candidates backed by the progressive groups Our Revolution and Justice Democrats failed to flip a single federal House seat. As the prominent leftist activist Sean McElwee wrote in his own post-election analysis, “many of the insurgent Democrats that progressives were most thrilled about were not able to pull through” outside of solidly blue districts.

Stewart, the Maryland delegate-elect, acknowledges the election results were a "mixed bag" for left-wing Democrats. In his state, progressive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous lost to incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan by 13 points.

But Stewart says election outcomes have less to do with competing ideologies—socialism or liberalism, centrism or conservatism—than candidate quality, fundraising and other factors.

"We oftentimes can overrate how important a platform is to an electorate that doesn't always have a lot of time to study policy minutiae,” he says. "Yes, I did run on a bold, populist platform. I also raised more money than any candidate in the race.”

Politicking matters, he says. "If you have the charisma of a potted plant, a progressive platform isn't enough to win an election.”

Democratic socialists certainly want the Democratic Party to adopt their platform of policies. Salazar, who at 27 says she’s the youngest woman ever elected to the New York Senate, made this clear when she appeared on The Real News Network on Wednesday. She said party leaders need to decide whether they will continue to “capitulate to the center, or whether they are going to be more receptive to the actual base of the party -- the majority of registered Democrats and Democratic voters who, I think, share a more progressive agenda.”

One issue at the top of Salazar’s agenda is strengthening New York’s rent laws. Stewart, in Maryland, is also focused on housing, as is Colorado State Sen.-elect Julie Gonzales—another DSA victor who will be the only Latina serving in her chamber next year. "Denver is going through tremendous growth and transformation,” Gonzales says, “and the cost of living is spiraling out of control. That's a lot of what our campaign really focused on. Every Coloradan should have an affordable place to live.”

It remains to be seen how much influence DSA members will have in state legislatures and city halls. A few dozen victories is not—to borrow a phrase for America’s most famous democratic socialist, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders—a political revolution. But it is certainly a start, and the DSA hopes to build on that foundation in the years to come.

“This is a movement, not a moment,” says Gonzales. “This is going to take time, and we plant seeds every time we engage a new volunteer to knock doors for the first time, or see voting as not a choice between the lesser of two evils but as one tool of many to achieve concrete change in our communities.”

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