Surfing the Red Wave: How Progressives Could Tackle a Difficult Midterm

By Alex Sicilia

In the timeline of American politics, it seems like yesterday that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were taking the oath of office and walking down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Now it is 2022 and the midterms are slowly ramping up to envelope every aspect of the political conversation. So much can be said about these midterms, from the positioning and plans of the Republicans post-Trump presidency and insurrection, to the battle between the left and moderate wings of the Democratic party. From the redistricting post-2020 census to the numerous voter suppression laws being implemented across the US. The conventional wisdom states that Biden and the Democrats will lose control of the House. The Senate’s fate is, however, less predictable.

This convention comes from the evidence seen from House elections post WWII (1946 to present), where the ruling party has only managed to make gains in the House twice. Those were 1998 when President Bill Clinton’s Democrats gained five seats post-impeachment – although the Democrats were still in the minority – and 2002 when President George W. Bush’s Republicans were bolstered by eight seats following Bush’s extreme popularity a year after 9/11. There are many other factors that can be used to help guide estimations as to the outcome of the midterms, but simply put, it is rarely good for the president’s party. The best plan is not to win seats but to minimise losses.

Let us throw the big picture aside though, forget what is happening between the pro-Trump and anti-Trump wings of the Republican party. For anyone wanting to delve into those topics, look at the open Senate races in Republican held seats (Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania), the primaries of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, or the mess that is GOP politics in the state of Georgia (particularly the gubernational and secretary of state races). The progressive wing of the Democratic Party shall be our focus and with a year that is looking to be a red wave across Washington it will be a tough election for anyone blue.

The Democrats, like most left wing parties, are a party of caucuses. These caucuses differ massively in power depending on the current leader, targeted voting groups, or current political legislative fight. Take for example the Congressional Black Caucus, home to kingmaker Rep. Jim Clyburn a close friend to Biden. Currently they have strong ties to the president and have been instrumental in pushing voting rights into the political gaze.

More ideological are the old Blue Dogs, remnants from the Clinton era, and the New Democrat Coalition who hold the mantle for moderate Democrats in the House. On the left you have the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which itself contains the small group of six representatives known as the Squad. Senators themselves tend not to reside in internal party caucuses, but it is clear which members they choose to stand with as a voting group.

It has become tradition that after every election the moderate Democrats blame progressives for a lacklustre Democratic performance. In 2016 moderates struck out at Sen. Sanders and his supporters for not putting in the effort to rally behind then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In 2020 progressives were blamed for their left wing agenda and its ability to plague moderate Democrats who had to try and defend it. Even now the blame game has begun with moderates and progressives pointing fingers before even the primaries have begun. In doing so they attempt to absolve themselves of all possible wrongdoing that they might have contributed to the results.

Progressives, who have helped shape Biden’s agenda throughout the election and into his presidency, now have a potential opportunity. Their agenda is popular with the American people but not with enough elected officials. The hold-up in Congress is being caused by Republican filibusters and two moderate Democratic Senators: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. In essence, the results of this cycle are not in the hands of the Progressive Caucus, who have had the unity of most of their party in Congress. All progressives need to do is not rock the boat.

This does not mean progressives have to remain idle: they can instead do as they did in 2018. 2018 was the cycle in which the Squad was born, and they, like many other new progressives of the class of 2018, came into power through winning primaries in blue strongholds. With incumbency advantage diminishing, through the rise of internal partisan politics, progressives can challenge entrenched establishment officials while not risking swing districts. With numerous retirements in swing districts caused by the political climate and redistricting there will be a wave of open seat primaries, opportunities progressives should avoid taking. If the Progressive Caucus can aim to retain their seats in safe blue areas, or even gain several, while the Democratic caucus at large loses seats then their percentage in the caucus would swell. This is useless if they reside in the minority, but it could mean much more in future elections when the majority is won again.

An example of progressive action for 2022 is already underway is Texas’ 28th district home to nine-term Rep. Henry Cuellar. He is the only Democrat in Congress who is anti-abortion and has bucked heads with the Progressive Caucus on multiply occasions. The 28th district is a reliably Democratic district that extends from the American-Mexico border to San Antonio’s suburbs. After redistricting it is predicted to be even more Democratic (going from D+4 to D+7 according to FiveThirtyEight’s redistricting projections) as it loses sections of its rural areas in exchange for more of San Antonio. Jessica Cisneros was just under 4-points away from toppling Rep. Cuellar in his 2020 primary, even against the endorsement of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 2022 will be a rematch for progressives to watch as they attempt again to unseat a thorn in the side of their movement.

There is another more obscure task for progressives to push for in the 2022 midterms. In the US voting blocs can have a lot of sway on political agendas. The Congressional Black Caucus holds a large amount of power in Democratic politics, even though it is half the size of the Progressive Caucus, because African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic – above 90% of the African American electorate. Even Native Americans, who also overwhelmingly vote Democrat, have shown their influence in the party by forwarding the advancement of now Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a secretary position even though they constitute barely 2% of the voting population.

Progressives do have a voting bloc in the electorate, but it can be split between many different groups. Sec. Haaland is a former member of the Progressive Caucus, for example. Young African Americans tend to align with more progressive views compared to their older relatives, but their vote share is often combined with the African American population as a whole.

The key for progressives is to capture a voting bloc and get them to turn out in overwhelming margins to support the Democrats. The youth are the most obvious group, but their turnout is notoriously low compared to others. It can also be difficult to garner such a strong showing from an age bracket which is increasingly diverse in every aspect of their lives leading to a 2-1 margin for the Democrats. If progressive Democrats, however, can push this vote margin higher, and make it consistent, then it might give leverage for them to flaunt their political weight the same way moderates flaunt the power of swing voters.

Tracking surveys have also shown the weakness of liberal drop-off, the idea that people tend to get more conservative as they age. The consensus tends to side closer with ideological consistency: people are more likely to maintain the political views they develop in their early life. For progressives this has the potential to produce a swelling voting bloc with each increasingly, and consistently, liberal generation.

The election cycle is a good time to put this into practice. If young voters can help stem the loss of seats and maybe even, by some slim chance, help gain some of the open Senate seats while defending others, then progressives have a path forward for 2024. This is particularly true in places like Georgia, a critical battleground state with a competitive gubernational and Senate race.

The midterms are always an interesting period, and a defining point of any presidency. Progressives, who have managed to push their agenda into the limelight, must tread carefully not to lose what they have worked tirelessly for. Some of the greatest opportunities for them in 2022 are to lie low (this is no way implying they should stop publicly pushing for their agenda), let the moderate Democrats’ legislative mess take centre stage, and make gains in safe Democratic primaries across the nation. Lose now, win later.

Alex Sicilia is a PhD student studying Theoretical Astrophysics who has been following US electoral politics closely since 2014.

Image: U.S Congress. Author: Superinformative, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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