Even while giving Republicans a narrow margin in the House of Representatives, voters elected a historic cohort of insurgent progressive newcomers, adding at least 11 new members to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The CPC, which just reelected Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal as its leader, had numbered 101 members, making it the largest ideological caucus in the last Congress. It will grow in the new one, even after losing members to retirement (like Eddie Bernice Jackson of Texas), election to other offices (Karen Bass as Los Angeles mayor, Peter Welch as senator to Vermont), or election reversals (including, regrettably, one of the true champions of working people in Congress, Michigan’s Andy Levin, brought down by reapportionment and a multimillion-dollar dark money assault in the Democratic primary waged largely by AIPAC and Emily’s List).
These new members represent the future of the party. Under Jayapal, the CPC has begun exercising real power in the Democratic caucus. Two of the newcomers will serve in leadership roles from day one: Jasmine Crockett, a civil rights attorney from Texas, will be a freshman class representative; Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach, Calif., was elected freshman class president.
Within the CPC itself, Greg Casar of Texas was elected whip, the caucus’s third-highest position. Becca Balint, Vermont’s first woman and openly LGBTQ+ representative, and Jill Tokuda, a former Hawaii state senator, were elected as vice chairs.
What’s behind this new wave? Slowly, insurgents are turning blue districts progressive. That isn’t easy: 2022 saw an unprecedented flood of dark money mobilized by corporate and conservative interests intent on defeating progressives in primary battles.
Fortunately, citizen movements and community organizing gave Democrats the base to counter corporate money. They also put forth bold ideas to address an economy that doesn’t work for working or poor people. All are staunch advocates of progressive reforms—from the Green New Deal and Medicare for All to police and gun reforms, abortion rights, and more. They are also bolstered by a growing progressive electoral infrastructure: Our Revolution, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, Indivisible, People’s Action, the Progressive Congress Campaign Committee, and the CPC PAC, among others.
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And they are no doubt lifted by a new, motivated, diverse, and progressive generation of voters. This election featured the second-highest turnout among young people in midterm history, with 27 percent of voters age 18 to 29 casting a ballot. Exit polls show Democrats won the votes of those under 45 by a significant margin.
This was the first time members of Gen Z were eligible to run for Congress, and Maxwell Frost, 25, of Orlando, Fla., became the first to win a seat. He’s a gun control activist who centered his messaging on the power and priorities of young people, while arguing that all Americans share concerns about gun violence, living on a habitable planet, and having affordable health care.
Running in a Pittsburgh district, Summer Lee emphasized coalition building—even as she fended off aggressive, late-stage spending by AIPAC in the Democratic primary. Four years after she upset a 10-year Democratic incumbent for a seat in the Pennsylvania House, she became the state’s first Black woman elected to Congress. “When we build movements that include all of us—when we build movements that are big enough for all of us—then our movements cannot be defeated,” Lee said.
In Illinois’s First District, Jonathan Jackson, the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, beat 17 primary challengers before winning the general election on a platform of “Three Gs”: guns, groceries, and gas. In Kentucky, Morgan McGarvey, an attorney and state senator, won on a pro-climate platform, making him the coal state’s lone Democrat in Congress. And as an Austin City Council member, Greg Casar passed a measure that lifted the city’s tent ban for those experiencing homelessness.
Many of these representatives come from backgrounds that historically haven’t had a seat at the table. Delia Ramirez, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants and an advocate for women and families, became the first Latina congresswoman from Illinois. Two of the CPC freshmen are immigrants themselves: Shri Thanedar, an entrepreneur originally from India, won Rashida Tlaib’s old seat in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District after her home was redrawn into another district. Robert Garcia, who emigrated from Peru at age 5, will be the first openly LGBTQ+ immigrant in Congress.
With Democrats losing control of the House, the newly emboldened progressives will be forced to take on an even greater role. They will need to consolidate their inside/outside strategies with grassroots groups across the country—and to push hard for an aggressive executive-order strategy from the Biden White House. They will sharpen the reform agenda and contrast it with the chaos and venom that will mark the Republican caucus. And they’ll continue to build—challenging a corrupted Democratic establishment. “You can win or lose elections,” Representative-elect Casar said, “but you don’t ever lose a movement. Our work is on a much greater horizon than one election.”