Friday, September 14, 2018

What the New York Democratic Primary Results Mean

Well the New York primaries are in the bag, and Andrew Cuomo smoked Cynthia Nixon by a 66/34 margin. The Cuomo-aligned candidates also won the downballot statewide races: Tish James soundly defeated two opponents to win the nomination for Attorney General, and Kathy Hochul held off a very spirited challenge from Jumaane Williams for the Lieutenant Governor's nod.

The news wasn't all bad for progressive challengers -- six of the eight turncoats in the IDC (a group of renegade Democrats who caucused with, and gave control of the state senate to, Republicans) lost last night. And most-scrutinized-state-senate-candidate-in-history Julia Salazar soundly defeated incumbent Martin Dilan (who was not IDC, but was viewed as a relatively conservative figure).

I had registered my predictions for some of these races, and I'd give myself a solid A- on my performance. Sure, "Cuomo will trounce Nixon" and "Felder over Morris" were chalk picks, but I give myself a little more credit for calling Salazar's comfortable win over Dilan (which I've heard described as "stunning" but which I was very confident in). My big miss was underestimating the IDC bloodbath (I set the over/under on IDC losses at "two"), but that's an area I'm happy to be proven wrong.

But enough about me. What are the larger implications of yesterday's results?

1. There really is some genuine anti-Democratic establishment sentiment coursing through the deepest-blue turf.

There have been more than a couple locales where candidates the left has been deeply excited about have won by either knocking off incumbents or beating more establishment-oriented candidates -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the obvious one, along with Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, and last night Julia Salazar in Brooklyn. All of these races occurred in very similar types of district -- urban, very blue, cosmopolitan, and highly diverse. That's why Salazar's victory didn't surprise me -- her district fit the profile for where candidates like her have done very, very well this cycle.

2. This sentiment, so far, is not translating to Democratic politics on a broader -- statewide or larger -- basis.

While progressive insurgents have certainly won some high-profile successes, they've also been rather limited in scope. This is the flip-side of the "very similar types of district" argument: the left wave hasn't really gotten any momentum outside of these very friendly, urban environments. It's not just that Nixon lost last night -- a Nixon victory was always a long-shot. But it is quite notable that Nixon actually didn't improve on Zephyr Teachout's 2014 performance against Cuomo -- despite garnering a lot more media attention and working in a far more favorable political environment.

This isn't to say progressives haven't notched some victories in statewide races -- Ben Jealous in Maryland and Andrew Gillum in Florida certainly qualify. But Democratic incumbents on a state level -- Senators and Governors -- have had no trouble turning back progressive challengers.

It's important not to overintepret either of the above against each other. On the one hand, there really is a noticeable shift in Democratic politics occurring in the types of locales where Ocasio-Cortez or Salazar are winning. It's more than idiosyncratic, and it's wrong to dismiss it. On the other hand, it is a shift that so far is confined -- it isn't all places or all Democrats (there's an annoying heads-I-win-tails-you-lose quality to some progressive analyses of, e.g., New York, wherein Julia Salazar's victory shows that what the people really want is Democratic Socialism, and Andrew Cuomo's victory shows that the Democratic Party is hard at work suppressing what the people really want, Democratic Socialism).

3. For the most part, primary challengers are doing their job.

My view on primaries is that they should serve two important purposes. First, punish bad guys. And second, push incumbents to adopt better positions. On that score, I'd say that the results in New York were a rousing success.

Start with the latter metric. No, Nixon didn't win, but she absolutely pushed Cuomo to adopt a raft of more liberal positions, and that's almost as much of a victory as if she'd actually assumed office (one could argue that, given Nixon's lack of actual political or administrative experience, it's a better outcome. A savvy political operator like Cuomo pushing progressive policies may well accomplish more than a well-meaning but inexperienced novice like Nixon). That's the thing about establishment politicians -- if the established wisdom shifts, they'll follow right along.

And on the "punishing bad guys" front, the IDC bloodbath is beautiful political justice. Moreover, I do think that Nixon's campaign helped bring attention and energy to that campaign too (notably, while many of the IDC incumbents occupied districts that were of the left-friendly type I identified above, there was more diversity there -- David Valesky lost his Syracuse area seat, for example, and IDC leader Jeffrey Klein represents a mixed district encompassing parts of the Bronx but also Westchester County). Six Democrats who deserved to lose, lost. And I highly doubt the two IDC survivors will return to similar shenanigans in the future.

The interesting thing about primary challenges is that they can win even if they lose. Sometimes, entrenched incumbents need a scare put in them. A close primary fight keeps them honest, and ensures that they stay inline with where Democratic politics are going.

So overall, I consider last night to have been a heartening display. Sure, there are some incumbents who survived when I might've rather watched them go down in flames. But there were some instances of righteous retribution and, perhaps more importantly, those who survived the ordeal will emerge wiser for it. I think 2018 will be a very good year for progressive politics in New York -- in part because of who won, but maybe in large part based on who came to fight.

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