“Politics ain’t bean-bag,” said Mr. Dooley, a character created by the humorist Finley Peter Dunne (d. 1936). But it also ain’t horseshoes—in other words: Close don’t count.
For progressives, especially those who see the Democratic Party as the only plausible vehicle for achieving political power, the combination of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat in November heralded a power shift within that party. Sanders, an out-of-left-field rebel, energized the left, Democratic activists, independents, and many others—millennials, young single women—disenchanted with the business-as-usual Democratic Party, and he showed that it was possible to challenge the party’s establishment and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in small donations on the Internet. Meanwhile, Clinton’s ignominious defeat seemed to put an exclamation point on the failure of that establishment.
But, as recent elections in New Jersey and Virginia—along with the hard-fought race for chair of the Democratic National Committee—show, that establishment isn’t going down without a fight. Even Hillary Clinton, after a brief pause to wander in the woods, is back. And while the special election in Georgia today could elevate a Democrat, Jon Ossoff, to the House, Ossoff is solidly a member of the Democratic establishment.
So, despite the emergence of a multi-hued, self-starting array of resistance groups that has emerged since the election of Donald J. Trump, the “Sanders-Warren wing” of the Democratic Party has yet to win much. In Montana, a Sanders-backed insurgent Democrat, Rob Quist, lost his bid for a House seat on May 25, while getting virtually no support from the Washington-based Democratic Party.
In the DNC race, the Clinton-Obama establishment closed ranks to guarantee that the Sanders-allied Representative Keith Ellison was shut out, getting the consolation prize of being named to the powerless post of “deputy” DNC chair.
And in the two most important contests this year, the twin races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia, progressives mounted strong challenges to the party’s anointed ones—and lost. Each of these races had earlier been touted as a possible turning point in the establishment’s ability to control the party after the 2016 debacle, and in each case that turning point, well, turned the other way. These uncomfortable results have crucial implications for the left-liberal challenge to the center-right in the party.
In New Jersey, Phil Murphy won the Democratic nomination on June 6 with 48 percent of nearly half a million votes cast, beating an array of four more progressive candidates, including Jim Johnson and John Wisniewski, who garnered about 22 percent each. Both Wisniewski, a longtime assemblyman who’d chaired Sanders’s campaign in New Jersey and who’d been endorsed by Jeff Weaver of Our Revolution, the organizing spinoff from Bernie’s presidential campaign, and Johnson, an African-American lawyer who’d served as a US Treasury under secretary and who’d chaired the Brennan Center for Justice, drew enthusiastic support from many progressives. But both knew it was a steep uphill climb.