The 2018 midterm elections offer Americans a vital opportunity to check and balance the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump, to prevent Mitch McConnell from continuing to enable Trump as Senate majority leader, to finish Paul Ryan’s failed speakership in the House, and to end the crisis in the states created by the Republican governors who helped set the stage for Trump and Trumpism. For The Nation, these are essential political goals. But they are not the only ones. It is insufficient simply to oust bad players. This election must also empower leaders who are prepared to make a truly progressive change—and we will not get that change merely through a shift of power from one party to the other. Americans who want an alternative to Trumpism are seeking an end to status-quo politics. As new polling by Celinda Lake for the Congressional Progressive Caucus reveals, proposals for Medicare for All and for a crackdown on Wall Street “make voters more likely to support Democrats.” Going bold on those issues doesn’t just secure the base, it excites swing voters far more than tepid centrism.
This campaign season, The Nation will highlight candidates who recognize the need for issue-driven progressive politics. As the electioneering hits its stride, here’s an initial list of 10 we’ve got our eyes on.
Ben Jealous, Maryland gubernatorial candidate: The prospect that a crusading champion of voting rights and criminal-justice reform—who served as the youngest-ever leader of the NAACP and director of the US Human Rights Program at Amnesty International—could become the governor of Maryland offers a sense of what’s possible in 2018. Jealous supports Medicare for All and makes connections between guaranteeing a living-wage and building a new economy. He recognizes “an economic responsibility to cultivate the talent immigrant families bring to Maryland” and offers “a comprehensive police reform plan to stop the killings of unarmed civilians and improve community relations.” Friends of the Earth Action president Erich Pica hails Jealous as “a leader who builds strategic coalitions to solve big problems.”
Stacey Abrams, Georgia gubernatorial candidate: In 2014, Governing magazine named the leader of the Democratic minority in the Georgia House as one of the nation’s “Public Officials of the Year,” noting how she had “walked that tricky line” between resistance where necessary and coalition-building where possible. Abrams did so with such agility that, four years later, her bid to become the first African-American woman governor in the nation is being championed by national organizations from Emily’s List to Our Revolution and by in-state leaders such as Congressman John Lewis, who hails Abrams’s work to “build coalitions to protect the poor and middle class, fight voter suppression, and register hundreds of thousands of people to vote.”
Cynthia Nixon, New York gubernatorial candidate: After launching her insurgent Democratic-primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Nixon declared, “We can’t just elect more Democrats, we have to elect better, bluer Democrats.” That’s a smart premise on which to base a run against an entrenched Democrat in a very Democratic state, and the actress turned candidate is focusing on issues that matter to progressives: funding education, fixing the subway, responding to the needs of neglected rural regions, breaking the corrupting grip of big money on politics. Echoing the appeal of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid, the Nixon campaign promises that “Cynthia hasn’t been bought and paid for by special interests and won’t be accepting any corporate contributions in this campaign. Instead our campaign will be powered by the people.”
Dennis Kucinich, Ohio gubernatorial candidate: Often underestimated by national pundits and Ohio pols, the former Cleveland mayor and congressman remains a potent force in his home state, as a late-March poll confirmed when it showed him tied with presumed front-runner Richard Cordray in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Cordray, former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has an impressive résumé, but he’s run a cautious campaign. Not so Kucinich, who has outlined one of the most ambitious agendas of anyone running for anything this year. He says, regarding fracking, that clean water is “not negotiable”; proudly touts his “F” rating from the NRA; and backs an assault-weapons ban. An unapologetic progressive populist, Kucinich declares in his pro-labor platform that “we must establish once and for all, as a moral and political imperative, the rights of workers. The right to join a union. The right to organize. The right to strike.”
Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin lieutenant governor candidate: A former state representative who was a fierce foe of Governor Scott Walker’s assaults on labor rights, Barnes is campaigning for the state’s No. 2 job in a year when Democrats believe they can finally defeat the anti-labor governor. Barnes’s appeal to people of color, young voters, and union activists marks the veteran grassroots organizer as a contender who can energize and expand the base with unapologetic responses to economic inequality (“Company profits belong in workers’ paychecks, not CEO bonuses”), a tough line on environmental abuses that calls for reining in corporate exemptions, and a stance on gun violence so bold that the gun-safety group Moms Demand Action named him a “Gunsense Candidate of Distinction.”
Jocelyn Benson, Michigan secretary of state candidate: A former dean of Wayne State University Law School and current Southern Poverty Law Center board member, Benson has for more than a decade advocated election protection, campaign-finance reform, and redistricting reform while outlining a vision for how secretaries of state can promote voting rights. Now she’s running for the job, promising to make Michigan a national model for election integrity where “the voting rights of every citizen are protected.”
January Contreras, Arizona attorney general candidate: Democratic state attorneys general are fast becoming key players in national policy fights, on issues ranging from Trump’s travel bans to net neutrality. Arizona’s Contreras is one of a number of super-qualified contenders who have stepped up to wrestle the mantle of justice away from red-state Republican AGs. A former assistant attorney general and policy adviser to the state’s most recent Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, Contreras is running a campaign that speaks to Arizona’s rising electorate, promising to fight corruption, defend civil liberties, and put Arizona on the side of DACA youth. “With the liberty of 28,000 of our state’s inspiring young people at risk,” Contreras says, “this is a legal fight that Arizona should be a part of.” If she’s elected, it will be.
Beto O’Rourke, Texas US Senate candidate: Democrats can take charge of the Senate if they reelect progressive incumbents like Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and pick up two more seats. Congresswoman Jacky Rosen is narrowly ahead of the most vulnerable GOP senator, Nevada’s Dean Heller. But where does the second seat come from? Could it be Texas? O’Rourke gave up a safe US House seat to mount what the Texas Observer has called a “seat-of-the-pants, DIY, break-the-rules campaign” against Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s road-trip race has taken him to regions where Texans haven’t seen many Democrats in recent years, and he’s getting traction with a campaign that rejects PAC money and—on the strength of more than 55,000, mostly small donations—outraised Cruz in the fourth quarter of 2017. O’Rourke’s doing it as a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ-rights supporter of gun control who highlights his last NRA rating, an “F,” and his NRA money total: $0.
Liz Watson, Indiana US House candidate: “Our laws have yet to acknowledge the reality of people’s lives—parents working two jobs who need affordable child care, daughters and sons caring for aging parents who need paid family leave, women who need equal pay, people who made mistakes in their lives who need a second chance, and working people who need stronger protections for organizing so that we can restore unions’ strength,” says Watson, former executive director of the Georgetown Poverty Center and labor-policy director for congressional Democrats. Running in a region that used to send Democrats to DC, she’s up against Trey Hollingsworth, a first-term Republican known more for his deep pockets than his legislative skills. Watson’s got strong Indiana roots and solid support from unions that know she’d hit the ground running in Congress—where, as a policy aide, she helped develop the $15 minimum-wage bill introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders.
Scott Wallace, Pennsylvania US House candidate: Bucks County is the sort of suburban region where Democrats are hoping to gain the seats they’ll need to retake the House, and Wallace vows to grab the local seat from a first-term Republican. A former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and general counsel for the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Wallace is the grandson of former Vice President Henry Wallace and for many years ran the Wallace Global Fund, a charity that supports women’s empowerment and climate-change initiatives. Wallace says he’s running to overturn the efforts of Trump and “his congressional enablers” to “tear down the possibility of a government that serves the common good.”
Some of these contenders are likely to win, and some are long shots. What they have in common is what the nation is looking for in 2018: candidates who promise a transformation toward the bolder and more progressive politics of the post-Trump era.