Highlights from The Downballot: Why building progressive state power is imperative

Earlier this week in Ohio, all eyes were on the Senate primaries. On the Republican side, J.D. Vance won the Republican primary to fill retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s seat, defeating former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel and state Sen. Matt Dolan, as what began as a five-way race turned into a three-way race late in the primary. In the end, Vance got 31% of the vote, Mandel got 24% of the vote, and Dolan got 23% of the vote. While there was a bit of separation between Vance and the other two, in the broader scope of things, the results appeared somewhat close.

“There was a real sense going into Election Day that folks were not sure who was going to win,” Beard said.

Vance did well across most of the state, but particularly in the southern and eastern portions of the state, many of which swung sharply to the right during the Trump era. Vance spent most of the primary behind, lagging the leaders, but ultimately was propped up by a super PAC from megadonor Peter Thiel. Yet, in a race where there was never really a clear frontrunner, Trump’s late endorsement that took place a couple of weeks ago was enough to launch Vance into the lead, no matter how small.

In November, Vance will face off against Rep. Tim Ryan, who easily won the Democratic nomination on the same night. Ryan already has released an attack ad going after Vance for leaving Ohio and getting rich from companies that benefit from globalization as well as having this celebrity persona who wrote a book and has attended a lot of Washington cocktail parties. Beard isn’t sure that will be able to dent Vance: “Obviously, Ohio has become quite Republican-leaning of late, so it’s going to be a very tough road for Ryan to beat Vance, but he’s going to obviously really go after Vance between now and November.”

Nir pointed out that despite the fact that Trump’s influence might not be as great as it seems, all three candidates aggressively courted his endorsement. “It does feel to me that almost 80% of the vote in this primary was in fact pro-Trump,” he said. “But ultimately voters had to pick just one candidate.”

Beard agreed, adding his thoughts that while Trump’s endorsement is not determinative in any election, it is definitely the single best thing you can get in any Republican primary: “It is the thing that will help you the most over anything else that you can get because, overwhelmingly, most Republican primary voters still like and support Trump.”

Beard and Nir also highlighted a Democratic primary in Ohio’s 11th district, which includes Cleveland—one they considered to be “a total non-event.” Last year, a special election was held for this seat where Shontel Brown defeated former state senator Nina Turner by about five points in what was a huge upset. While Turner is closely associated with the Bernie Sanders campaign and raised enormous sums of money for that race, Brown really came from behind by presenting herself, in many respects, as a much more loyal Democrat, according to Nir.

This time, Turner decided to run again, arguing that the outcome would be different this time in part because the district had shifted due to redistricting to cover the entire city of Cleveland, which is Turner’s hometown and where she once served on city council. And while it was easy to imagine that this transformation due to redistricting in this safely blue district was going to give Turner a boost, that was ultimately exactly the opposite of what happened.

As Nir explained,

Brown completely crushed Turner two-to-one. She won 66-34. Afterwards, Turner in her—I guess you could call it a concession speech—started rattling off a list of familiar early primary states as if to suggest that she’s going to primary Joe Biden in 2024. But then in an interview afterwards, she said she was considering running for president as an independent. So I don’t really understand what that list of states was supposed to mean. Is she planning to run in the independent primary for president? Anyhow, Shontel Brown can feel pretty good about this week’s results, and her spot in Congress looks pretty secure.

Ohio’s ninth district, centered around Toledo, also saw an interesting Republican primary in which J. R. Majewski, a far-right QAnon-aligned activist, won the nomination. Majewski attended the notorious January 6th rally and has been connected to the QAnon movement online in a number of different ways. He also benefited from outside support in this race; the Drain the DC Swamp PAC spent close to $400,000 on his behalf, mostly on mail and radio ads. Now that he has won, he faces Rep. Marcy Kaptor, the longest-serving woman in the history of the House. That district could be up for grabs now, according to Beard’s analysis:

Her previously pretty safe Democratic seat was turned into a 51-48 Trump district thanks to the Ohio GOP’s—almost certainly unconstitutional per their own state constitution—gerrymander that they’re going to use anyway because they just sort of ran out the clock on using the map for 2022. This is, as I said, a 51-48 Trump seat, so it’s going to be very tough for Kaptor. She’s going to need a lot of things to go right for her. But one of the first things to go right for her is having Majewski instead of a state rep[resentative] or state senator, who she can really paint as very far outside the mainstream.

Further to the east, New York has been without a lieutenant governor ever since the previous incumbent, Democrat Brian Benjamin, resigned after prosecutors charged him with bribery last month. Gov. Kathy Hochul named a new lieutenant governor to that empty spot, Congressman Antonio Delgado, who was first elected in the 2018 blue wave. Delgado will not require any sort of confirmation by the legislature, as Hochul can appoint him unilaterally. Yet the real issue remains who’s going to appear on the ballot in the primary.

Benjamin is actually stuck on the ballot because New York law makes it almost impossible for candidates to get off the ballot unless they die, move out of state, or are nominated for some other office. That changed this week when Hochul succeeded in pressuring the legislature into passing a law in the middle of his election that is really designed to benefit her. The measure adds a new category of candidates who can remove themselves from the ballot, which includes anyone who is charged with a crime. Brian Benjamin said that he did not want to run for office while he’s fighting these corruption charges and agreed to take his name off the ballot as a result.

The legislation also allows a special committee of Democratic Party leaders to name a replacement candidate for someone who drops off the ballot this way, and thus, Hochul tapped Delgado. Interestingly, Nir noted, it was fairly unpopular with a lot of Democrats in New York’s legislature:

It is pretty rare to see dissent, but it only passed the state senate by a 33-29 vote, even though Democrats have a supermajority in this Senate. After Benjamin was arrested, a number of progressive leaders decided to rally around another candidate for lieutenant governor, activist Ana Maria Archila, who is allied with a different candidate for governor, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. If we see real blowback to the way that Delgado was added to the ballot, it’s certainly possible that Archila, who is definitely the most progressive candidate running for LG, could wind up winning. And then you have one of these shotgun marriages with Hochul.

“If there’s anyone who knows the risks of this situation, well, it’s Hochul herself: in 2018, Andrew Cuomo faced a challenge from the left from actor Cynthia Nixon, and he dispatched her easily. He beat her about two-to-one,” Nir recalled. “But Hochul was his lieutenant governor, and she faced a challenge from Williams that year; she only won by about a 54-46 margin despite the fact that Cuomo was cruising.”

Ultimately, Nir said, this is really feels like a risky move for Delgado:

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps he will cruise. But he is potentially giving up a seat in the House for what could be a very brief tenure as lieutenant governor. I should also add that his decision to change roles like this and to leave the House … Frankly, that really depressed me. It depressed me about Democrats’ chances for November. Obviously, it was already looking like a difficult year, but when a young, rising up-and-comer like Antonio Delgado, who really was one of the most talented candidates of 2018, decides that he would rather be anywhere but the House … And being lieutenant governor New York is a notoriously weak position. That really just did not make me feel good about what Democrats in the House are thinking about our chances this year.

Goldstein joined the hosts for the second half of the show to talk about what’s next for reproductive rights in the wake the leak of the Supreme Court’s potential decision about the fate of Roe v. Wade

Now, Goldstein and her team are working on helping candidates pivot after this devastating news. While the leak was shocking, the decision and its reasoning are not, she pointed out. Yet, Goldstein was clear about how it was the result of a century of strategic power-building on the right, which has at its core the expansion of state power. She also called out progressives for over-investing in federal strategies and elections to the exclusion of focusing almost any significant attention on building power in states. As she put it,

Conservatives have been just ruthless and consistent in building power at different levels of government, and we have not. We have neglected state power. And so, now we’re in this moment of ascendancy of state power, where state power is growing exponentially. From abortion access to free and fair elections, states are growing in power and progressives are, in my mind, structurally and rhetorically unprepared for this moment.

“So we are at this moment not by accident. This is not accidental. [It was] decades in the making, bought and paid for by a very strategic and focused conservative project that has always centered the idea of state power as consistent with its ideology,” Goldstein added.

Progressives lack that deeply-rooted connection to the idea of state power and are what Goldstein considers “averse” to the idea of state power, which has caused avoidable and crippling issues for Democrats. In this moment when the court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, this decision goes further, she noted: “If it is published as drafted, it really puts on the chopping block a number of other individual rights that we should all be very concerned about, including contraception. Anything not, quote, rooted in tradition puts a lot on the chopping block.”

Abortion access remains a motivating issue for Democrats, and this is especially true for candidates who are running for state legislatures, Goldstein explained. “They know how important they are as a critical firewall against so much regressive policy and also, as I said before, that they are the gatekeepers of a resonant, positive future for their constituents in ways in which their constituents’ lives can be better and will be better when they’re in office,” she said. “So it’s going to be really, really critical for state legislative candidates to communicate that to constituents this year.”

Reproductive rights might not be the top issue in every single district all across the country, but she believes it will definitely be a strongly motivating issue, and thus that it is necessary for Democratic candidates to talk openly about it.

Goldstein also offered some advice on how progressives can start building power in a meaningful way: “We need to build towards that narrative of progressive federalism that is simply lacking on our side. We are, as you say, often in the defensive position, talking about all the terrible things Republicans are doing. The way we can start building towards that narrative vision, that resonance with state power, is to lift up the great things that blue states are doing.”

The Downballot comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. As a reminder, you can reach our hosts by email at [email protected] Please send in any questions you may have for next week’s mailbag. You can also reach out via Twitter: @DKElections.

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