Progressives, Keep an Eye on These 10 Races

Progressives, Keep an Eye on These 10 Races

Progressives, Keep an Eye on These 10 Races

From Andrew Gillum in Florida to marijuana legalization in North Dakota, wins in these elections would be game changers.


The Nation opened the 2018 election season with a list of 10 candidates we were keeping our eyes on: politicians who proposed “not just a change in party, but an end to status-quo politics.” Eight of them eventually triumphed in their primaries and will be on November ballots across the country,

including gubernatorial contenders Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Ben Jealous in Maryland, as well as Wisconsin lieutenant-governor candidate Mandela Barnes. The same goes for Jocelyn Benson, a voting-rights activist running for secretary of state in Michigan, and January Contreras, an advocate for victims of human trafficking, who is running for attorney general in Arizona. Two House candidates, Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania and Liz Watson in Indiana, also won their primaries and are now mounting races vital to flipping control of Congress. So is a progressive Senate candidate we identified in April, Beto O’Rourke, who’s in a tight battle against Ted Cruz in Texas.

We’re still enthusiastic about that list, as we are about the Democrats’ prospects of retaking Congress. But the urgent challenges of the moment—ending austerity, addressing inequality, upending systemic racism, replacing militarism with diplomacy, and saving the planet from climate change—demand more than changing R’s to D’s. So here are 10 more vital races (eight candidates and two referendum fights) that we’re keeping our eyes on for signs of a progressive wave on November 6.

§ Andrew Gillum, candidate for governor of Florida: The 39-year-old Tallahassee mayor upended conventional wisdom by running a progressive primary campaign that proposed criminal-justice reform, adoption of gun-safety measures, state-based Medicare for All health care, and a plan to create jobs and address climate change by making Florida the country’s “solar capital.” Polls said he didn’t have a chance, but with a big boost from Bernie Sanders, people of color, and young supporters, Gillum beat his better-funded primary rivals. Now he faces the noxious, Trump-quoting Republican Ron DeSantis, who’s been criticized for mounting a racist campaign against the man who would be Florida’s first African-American governor. If Gillum’s progressive project prevails in this battleground state, he’ll provide a model for beating Trump in 2020.

§ Janet Mills, candidate for governor of Maine: The state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, is one of the most Trump-like figures in the country. In 2016, he failed to respond to the state’s opioid crisis by vetoing a bill making it easier to obtain the overdose drug Narcan. Rejecting science and common sense, LePage claimed that reversing overdoses perpetuates opioid abuse. That was too much for State Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, who took the lawsuit-settlement funds controlled by her office, bought the lifesaving drugs, and distributed them to first responders. “Making Narcan available to police agencies is simply part of my responsibilities to law enforcement and is in aid of their responsibility to save lives,” she explained. Now Mills is running to replace LePage. If the woman who refused to file his amicus briefs supporting Trump’s immigration orders is elected, a reactionary governor will be replaced by one who “has made it her mission to stand up to those who have tried to exploit Maine people.”

§ David Zuckerman, candidate for Vermont lieutenant governor: An incumbent backed by the Vermont Progressive Party (of which he’s a longtime member) and the Democratic Party, in a state where votes on separate party lines can be combined, Zuckerman is an organic farmer who has a talent for getting urban and rural voters together in support of progressive initiatives: legalizing marijuana, labeling genetically modified food, defending net neutrality, raising wages, and welcoming refugees. Using the bully pulpit that comes with a statewide office, Zuckerman has taken bold stands—and voters respect him for it. In 2016, when Democrats lost the governorship, Zuckerman beat a Republican legislator by more than 20,000 votes. This year, he faces the Republican minority leader of Vermont’s House in an intense race. But Zuckerman’s running as he always has: as an independent progressive who Bill McKibben says exemplifies “what’s very best about citizen politics.”

§ Dana Nessel, candidate for Michigan attorney general: “The AG’s job is to protect Michigan citizens against the individuals and corporations that would do them harm, not the other way around,” says Nessel, who has mounted an unapologetically progressive campaign to take charge of one of the most powerful law-enforcement posts in the country. With experience as a prosecutor, civil-rights attorney, and head of the LGBTQ-rights group Fair Michigan, Nessel promises to “aggressively prosecute hate crimes and all cases of discrimination, protect women’s rights to access health care, and defend immigrants from federal overreach.” She’s ready to “demand justice for Flint” and fight pipelines that threaten the Great Lakes; defend workers and labor unions; and “work in concert with AGs around the country to push back against many of the worst policies from the Trump administration and their allies in Congress.”

§ Ricardo Lara, candidate for California insurance commissioner: Big states like California can lead the nation in developing single-payer health-care models, just as Saskatchewan did in Canada. State Senator Ricardo Lara knows this; he led the fight for the Healthy California Act, one of the most innovative single-payer proposals in the country. As insurance commissioner, he’d be uniquely positioned to implement desperately needed reforms—a fact the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee has emphasized in its advocacy for his bid. Lara’s also a defender of immigrants, an ally of unions, and a fighter for LGBTQ rights who would serve as a national champion for economic, social, and racial justice.

§ Ammar Campa-Najjar, candidate for California’s 50th Congressional District: “Country Over Party” is the central message of Campa-Najjar’s campaign, which offers a progressive alternative to the low-road politics of Representative Duncan Hunter, one of Trump’s closest allies. Running in a San Diego–area district gerrymandered to favor Republicans, the Democrat is asking voters to turn out an incumbent who was recently indicted on charges of diverting a quarter-million dollars in campaign funds to cover personal expenses. Hunter’s running a vile campaign to save his seat, with ads claiming that Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old Palestinian-Mexican American, is engaged in a “well-orchestrated plan” to “infiltrate Congress” and poses a “security risk.” The ads fail to mention, of course, that Campa-Najjar served for four years in the Obama White House and the Department of Labor. Campa-Najjar is rallying voters to reject “Hunter’s un-American, racist attacks.” Democrats have targeted 10 GOP-held seats in California in their effort to flip the House. By electing Campa-Najjar, however, voters can do something more: They can reject the foulest expression of Trumpism.

§ Jahana Hayes, candidate for Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District: Raised in a public-housing project by her grandmother as her own mom struggled with drug addiction, Hayes says she was “cast aside.” Yet she worked nights, attended community college, and earned an education degree. Her remarkable ability to connect with students in her history classes earned her the 2016 National Teacher of the Year Award. Nonetheless, when she announced her candidacy this year, Hayes recalls that “people told us we had no chance and no business trying to upset the status quo.” On August 14, she proved them wrong, beating a candidate backed by party leaders in the primary. Running for an open seat in a district that leans Democratic, this committed union activist and progressive advocate now has a good chance of becoming the first African-American congresswoman to represent a New England state. Hayes says she comes from a place “where people are strong, but they aren’t supposed to run for Congress.” But she’s changing that calculus because she knows that “if Congress starts to look like us, no one can stop us.”

§ Kara Eastman, candidate for Nebraska’s Second Congressional District: When Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan made an Omaha stop on her behalf, Eastman told him, “I can’t wait to join you in the Progressive Caucus.” While many candidates in swing districts mount insipidly cautious campaigns, Eastman is running as a true progressive. A social worker who has made Medicare for All central to her bid, she declares in ads that “I won’t take a penny from insurance companies.” Eastman’s also ready to take on Trump. “Here’s the truth: This Republican Congress and the Trump administration are united in cutting funding for Social Security and Medicare,” she bluntly declares. “Democrats want to not just protect those benefits, but expand them. The rest is just noise.”

§ North Dakota Measure 3, the Marijuana Legalization and Automatic Expungement Initiative: Willie Nelson’s Texas has not legalized marijuana, and neither has Andrew Cuomo’s New York, but North Dakota might just do so on November 6, when jurisdictions across the country vote on legalization. The state voted by an almost 2–1 margin to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, and now it’s entertaining a sweeping proposal that would permit people 21 and older to possess, use, buy, sell, or grow marijuana for recreational purposes. “If it’s marijuana, it’s legal,” explains the advocacy group Legalize North Dakota. In addition, the measure proposes a process to automatically expunge the records of North Dakotans with marijuana convictions. That’s legalization and criminal-justice reform all at once.

§ California Proposition 10, the Local Rent Control Initiative: Access to affordable housing has become a front-burner issue across the country. Candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ben Jealous in Maryland have made housing central to campaigns that address economic and racial inequality. Yet even in supposedly liberal states, restrictions still prevent communities from using rent-control laws to help working families obtain affordable housing and remain in gentrifying neighborhoods. Backed by the Coalition for Affordable Housing, unions, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Proposition 10 would overturn laws that preempt local authority, making it possible for cities to protect working-class tenants.

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