By the time New York’s primary election arrived earlier this month, Julia Salazar was drowning in controversy.
The 27-year-old Democratic state Senate candidate had drawn intense criticism over how she described her personal background -- calling herself an immigrant despite being born in Florida and suggesting she grew up working-class while her brother maintained their family was middle-class. The candidate faced questions about her political and religious conversions from conservatism to leftism and Christianity to Judaism. There were also bizarre revelations about an alleged affair with a former New York Mets player, which both parties have denied.
Yet when the votes were tallied on Sept. 13, none of this seemed to matter. Salazar trounced incumbent state Sen. Martin Dilan by a whopping 18 points, buoyed by her populist left-wing platform and a robust organizing operation built primarily by one increasingly influential political organization.
“I want to thank the Democratic Socialists of America,” she said in her victory speech, prompting chants of “D-S-A! D-S-A!” from the crowd.
It’s been a remarkable two years for the DSA -- a once-marginal group whose national membership swelled from roughly 5,000 to 35,000 following the 2016 presidential campaign of Democratic Socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The organization gave Salazar a national endorsement, and her success was a bright spot on a night when two candidates backed by the group’s New York City chapter -- gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon and would-be lieutenant governor Jumaane Williams -- lost their races.
Sanders and DSA-backed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democratic congressional nominee, are shaking up politics at the federal level with calls for “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage and dramatically reining in the power of corporations. This year’s primaries also demonstrated that their movement to shift American politics leftward is making inroads at the state and local level.
DSA chapters endorsed 93 state and local candidates in 2018, according to the national group. Of those, 43 lost their primaries, but 50 are advancing to the general election after either winning or facing no competition in the primary season. They could win seats for school boards, city councils and legislatures in 20 states. (Of the 25 state and local candidates who also earned DSA’s national endorsement, eight lost their primaries.)
“We're very excited about what's happening,” says Allie Cohn, who serves on DSA's National Political Committee. “I think it’s been an amazing election cycle. … You lose some battles, but it's very obvious that we're winning the ideological war.”
DSA first turned heads with its electoral gains last November, when 15 of the group’s candidates won their races nationwide. In a stunning upset, 30-year-old Marine veteran Lee Carter defeated one of Virginia’s most powerful Republicans to win a seat in the state's House of Delegates.
This year’s campaigns received even more attention. In a June column titled “The Millennial Socialists Are Coming,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg highlighted three young women -- Summer Lee, Sara Innamorato and Elizabeth Fiedler -- who won state legislative primaries in Pennsylvania with DSA’s backing. Goldberg noted that these candidates “won decisive primary victories over men heavily favored by the political establishment” and described them as “part of a grass-roots civic renewal that is happening across this country.”
Fiedler was previously a reporter at a local public radio station. A mother of two, she says she’s running to address “the inequality that exists in our public schools, and specifically the under-funding of schools primarily attended by people of color or immigrant communities.” Like all DSA candidates, Fiedler consciously differentiates herself from traditional Democrats. She says, “many of our politicians are bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry” and stresses, “I do not take any money from big oil and big gas.”
“Being a Democrat is not enough,” she says. “It was never enough, and it's certainly not enough right now.” In this way, she sounds like a number of left-wing insurgents nationally, who insist that “any old blue just won’t do” for their party in 2018. It’s part of why a growing number of Democrats are embracing the term Democratic Socialist for the first time.
“Part of the draw for people like me using that term is that the term 'progressive' has been watered down,” says Vaughn Stewart, a Democratic nominee for the Maryland House of Delegates. “The term ‘liberal’ was so demonized by the right that everyone in the Democratic Party abandoned it. … Calling yourself a Democratic Socialist inherently is a critique of capitalism.”
Stewart hopes to tackle “the intersection of environmental justice and public health” in the House of Delegates, moving Maryland as quickly as possible to 100 percent clean energy and expanding public transportation. In the meantime, he’s under no illusions there will be a Democratic Socialist takeover of Annapolis anytime soon.
"Obviously I'm not going to be able to overthrow or become the speaker of the Maryland state house in a year,” he says, “but I want to spread the gospel.”
Stewart thinks the state and local level is the best place to spread that gospel.
“If the left wants to win, reverting to the laboratories of democracy idea and investing in state and local races is the future,” he says. “I think the media and the Democratic Party are always so obsessed with national elections. It's part of why we lost so many state and local offices during the Obama era.”
For all its growth, the DSA remains a relatively minor player in Democratic politics. The vast majority of party candidates aren’t aligned with the group or embracing the term Democratic Socialist. Yet this movement is having other discernible effects.
In Florida, Sanders-backed Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won a surprise victory to become the Democratic nominee for governor. While Gillum wouldn't call himself a Democratic Socialist, he campaigned on key Democratic Socialist priorities, including “Medicare for All,” legalizing marijuana and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- and he’s currently ahead in the polls.
In New York, Cynthia Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” actress who ran as a Democratic Socialist against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, spoke in her concession speech about what people had called “the Cynthia effect.” Her candidacy over the course of the past six months appeared to prompt the governor to shift his policy views left on a whole host of issues.
“Before even a single vote was cast in this election,” Nixon said, “we had already won. We have fundamentally changed the political landscape in this state, and we have changed what is expected of a Democratic candidate running in New York."
The five states where all Democratic Socialist-backed candidates ran for state or local office but lost are:
- New Jersey
The 20 states where Democratic Socialist-backed candidates are advancing to the general election are:
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- Washington state