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Progressive Democrats Gain Influence In Congressional Races


The progressive wing of the Democratic Party did not get one of its candidates nominated for president this year. In some congressional races, they're doing better. Young, progressive and diverse candidates are receiving a lot of votes. Activists say the pandemic and the racial reckoning in this country are shifting the political ground. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Like most people in American politics, Maurice Mitchell can't believe how much has changed since January.

MAURICE MITCHELL: It's hard to believe that the Iowa caucuses and the uprisings happened in the same year.

DAVIS: Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party, a New York-based minor political party. He sees two main reasons for the shift.

MITCHELL: The logic of COVID-19, as well as the logic and the righteousness of the movement for Black lives, I think, is forcing all of us to reimagine both what's necessary and what's possible.

DAVIS: The result is a political climate that has been favorable for candidates like Mondaire Jones. He's a young, Black, openly gay Democrat who's on track to win a contested open seat primary for a mostly white, wealthy New York congressional district that's home to the Cuomos and the Clintons.

MONDAIRE JONES: Have I benefited from the newfound realization by some folks that we live in a severely unjust society as it concerns issues of race? Yes. Is that why I won? No.

DAVIS: Jones says he's winning because he ran on unabashedly liberal proposals.

JONES: I am the only candidate in a crowded Democratic primary who supports the only policy that would literally ensure everyone has health care in this country. And that is Medicare for All.

DAVIS: Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden opposes a government-run health care system. But in recent contested primaries, progressive candidates made races competitive running on some of the party's most provocative ideas - Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, paths to citizenship for all undocumented workers and dramatic redistributions of wealth to the working class - with messages like this.


JAMAAL BOWMAN: Poverty is by political design. And it's rooted in a system that has been fractured and corrupt and rotten from its core from the inception of America.

DAVIS: That's Jamaal Bowman, another Black candidate, in a speech last Tuesday. Bowman is favored to defeat white incumbent Eliot Engel for a Bronx-based seat. But Engel has not yet conceded. Both Jones and Bowman would be all but guaranteed to win in November.

In Kentucky's Democratic Senate primary, another Black candidate, Charles Booker, gave establishment-backed candidate Amy McGrath a close race despite raising less than a million bucks and relying on volunteer, progressive activists. Evan Weber is the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a progressive group that backed Booker's campaign. He's clear-eyed about where the progressive wing still stands right now.

EVAN WEBER: We're sort of like a junior party in a governing coalition.

DAVIS: But the movement is energized by these races. Waleed Shahid is with Justice Democrats, a group closely aligned with Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Looking ahead, Shahid says that if Biden wins, the progressive wing will have leverage.

WALEED SHAHID: The Congress that Joe Biden is inheriting if he becomes president in 2021 looks really different than the Congress that Barack Obama inherited in 2009.

DAVIS: And there could be a fresh crop of lawmakers, like Jones and Bowman, coming to Washington to take on the establishment and push the party to the left.


BOWMAN: I am happy.


BOWMAN: I am fired up.


BOWMAN: I cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems.


DAVIS: Progressives are now working against Democratic incumbents in upcoming primaries in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "AWAKENINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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