Challenging Democrats from the Left

By Amy J Dean
Al Jazeera America

Progressive grass-roots tactics can go a long way in the primaries

Since 2010 the tea party has made considerable strides in completing an ideological purification of the Republican Party. By running challengers in party primaries against candidates they perceive as too moderate, far-right activists have helped shape the Republicans into a relatively coherent force. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is full of underrepresented constituencies who can’t agree on key progressive causes, including workers’ rights, campaign finance reform, environmental protection and the regulation of Wall Street. If anything, the party’s tendency over the past two decades has been to drift rightward.

After years of soul searching, several dissatisfied progressive groups are coming up with more creative approaches that allow them to avoid getting caught up in perpetual debates of “let’s vote for a third party” vs. “we must choose the lesser of two evils.” And they’re taking cues not from third parties, which end up being ineffective, but the tea party, which has managed to engage Republicans and disrupt the way they do business by functioning as a party within the party.

Community model

Traditional community organizing groups, using the model pioneered by left-wing grass-roots activism guru Saul Alinsky, made avoidance of electoral politics a point of pride and opted to push for policy changes and community improvements from the outside. National People’s Action (NPA) has long followed this model, engaging in direct action campaigns around issues such as financial reform and housing rights. They have bused their members out to the homes of financial lobbyists and occupied bank branches. In the past the NPA tried to push policy changes by pressuring elected officials from the outside. But now the group wants to participate in electoral politics not as a substitute for its direct action tactics but to supplement them, and it’s throwing its hat into the ring with a newly minted sister organization, the NPA Action Fund. “The Democratic Party isn’t very responsive to social movements,” says Daniel Espinosa-Krehbiel, director of strategic initiatives for the NPA. “The Democratic Party is a field of struggle (where) we want to contest for power. If we do that more often, we are more likely to be in power at least some of the time.”

The NPA’s membership is concentrated a scattershot array of states: Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio. The group’s organizers hope to start changing the political conversation in these states before influencing the federal level. They aren’t opposed to running primary challenges against conservative or moderate Democrats, but they operate “mostly in purple and red states, (so) the party lines are where the front lines are,” says Espinosa-Krehbiel. Presumably, this means that the NPA Action Fund will be mostly working against Republicans (except in Illinois and other blue-tilting states, where Democratic primaries will be greater priorities).

The NPA doesn’t want to wait for local or state Democratic Party chapters to announce their candidates or positions before deciding to back them or not. Instead, it wants to recruit its own candidates and give them the support they need to run successful campaigns. With an army of thousands of volunteers, the group can provide a huge boost to candidates’ campaigns, which is appealing to people who are considering a run but may not have the backing of establishment Democrats.

“Instead of just falling behind the party message, we are trying to set the terms of the debate ahead of time,” says Espinosa-Krehbiel. “If they agree to run on it, we’ll help them get them elected by delivering a big portion of their field program through our organizing. We’ve got thousands of highly active members in most states who want to volunteer for our campaigns, and voters are way more responsive to a message that’s delivered to them from one of their neighbors than someone to who has been paid to come in from some other state.”

Going national

A second group, Working Families, is taking a similar tack. Over the past decade, the organization has established strongholds in New York, Connecticut and Oregon. These states have fusion voting laws, which allow multiple parties to endorse the same candidate. This allows the Working Families Party (WFP) to be a third party that is not a spoiler, since voters can pull the lever for candidates who are jointly endorsed by the WFP and the Democrats, while giving the WFP leverage over the Democrats: If candidates don’t make policy concessions to Working Families, they won’t get the cross-endorsement or the votes. But in each place, the WFP has scored impressive wins even without that quirk.

The WFP in New York is strongly associated with the mayoral victory of Bill DeBlasio and the equally important if not as well publicized progressive conquest of the City Council. In 2012 the Oregon WFP organized the primary ouster of a 10-year Democratic state lawmaker notorious for siding with Republicans, and in 2013 Connecticut’s WFP successfully fought off a Democratic pro-education-privatization slate in the state’s largest city. “In every situation, having an institutional home outside the Democratic Party is an important thing for progressives to build political power,” says Jon Green, national deputy director for Working Families.

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