Twenty-eight-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off an amazing feat. No, not emerging victorious in her candidacy to represent New York’s 14th District in Congress, an area that favors Democrats by almost 30 points. Ocasio-Cortez’s real accomplishment was how she managed to navigate several months of intense media scrutiny without ever formulating a coherent response to the many interviewers who asked her how she intends to bridge the financial gap between her hopes and dreams and their 13-figure price tags. In this high-wire act, she had the help of some willing accomplices in the press. How should the country pay for the estimated $32 trillion it would cost to nationalize the health-insurance industry, Ocasio-Cortez was recently asked? “You just pay for it,” she averred to credulous nods.
Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez is on her way to Washington, but most of her fellow progressive hopefuls were not appealing to a similarly complacent population of voters. Wide-eyed progressive candidates spent much of the 2018 election cycle generating levels of attention from the political press wildly disproportionate relative to the likelihood of their victories. In fact, the gauzy aura that political media erected around some of these left-leaning candidates seems to have done them no favors.
National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar and the Nation contributor Sean McElwee put together a list of eight of the country’s most progressive candidates in challenging races in a helpful effort to gauge just how receptive the public was to the modern progressive message. Today, we have the answer: not very.
In his campaign for the governor’s mansion in Arizona, David Garcia vowed to treat access to health care as “a right,” pass a single-payer health-care plan for his state, make access to college “free,” and “double down on solar” energy investments. “He doesn’t seem to be outrageously progressive,” University of Arizona Professor Thomas Volgy told the left-wing outlet the Intercept. Arizonans disagreed. Garcia lost to incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey by over 17 points.
Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous ran for the governorship of Maryland by promising to transform that mid-Atlantic state into a model for progressive racial and economic justice. He, too, promoted a plan to institute a single-payer system, tuition-free college funded by ending “the era of mass incarceration,” and a $15 minimum wage. Jealous lost his bid for the governorship in dark-blue Maryland to incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan by over 13 points.
Scott Wallace, the grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s former vice president and Communist sympathizer Henry Wallace, was criticized for co-chairing a fund that gave liberally to anti-Israel organizations and to the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Western British politician George Galloway. His allies promoted him as a pioneer “on climate justice” and promised to expand Social Security and impose sick- and medical-leave plans on firms. Ultimately, Wallace cost the Democratic Party a key swing district in the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia.
Ammar Campa-Najjar somehow managed to lose a race against a Republican incumbent facing a criminal indictment alleging the misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds. Liz Watson helped develop Bernie Sanders’s minimum-wage policy and campaigned on a pro-union platform before losing by nearly 20 points to a first-term Republican in Indiana. Arizona Attorney General candidate January Contreras positioned himself as an activist whose priority was to challenge Donald Trump in high-profile political cases. She, too, was soundly defeated.
And of course, the great hopes of Democrats for the 2018 cycle—Texas senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams—both (as of this writing) went down to defeat. Like Ocasio-Cortez, they suffered from a national media culture that was deeply invested in buying what they were selling. That contributed to their stagnation as candidates. They entered the race as unabashed progressives keen to appeal to the mercurial passions of liberal grassroots activists, and they never tailored that message to their states, which were more hostile toward a progressive message than the average pop-political weekly magazine in the Acela Corridor.
Friends of progressivism do their movement no favors by filling its champions’ heads with the false notion that they are popular. The failure of these office-seekers to understand and acknowledge the obstacles that center-right states and districts place before them leads to hubris, bravado, and a lack of seriousness. In such a comfortable environment, the progressive left’s most foolhardy aspirants are tempted to say out loud what they actually believe. It’s clear now that, even on a good night for Democrats, that kind of honesty represents a grave error in judgment. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said with some unintended wisdom, they just paid for it.
An earlier version of this post asserted that Republican Mimi Walters had defeated Democrat Katie Porter in California’s 45th District.