When Eric Adams won the Democratic mayoral primary in New York earlier this year — clearing his path to win the general election in an overwhelmingly blue city — he started calling himself the “face of the new Democratic Party.” Many pundits and Democratic insiders agreed with his sentiment. Adams’s victory was proof, they argued, that the Democrats’ path to electoral success lies in centrist candidates unwilling to be pushed by the demands of progressive activists. His moderate campaign, in which he called for police reform while speaking out against defunding the police, should be the Democratic mold.
Several months later, Democrats lost the governor’s race in Virginia and came very close to losing the governorship in New Jersey — both states that President Biden won by double-digit margins in 2020. Strategists and pundits once again concluded the same thing: that the loud progressive wing of the party is making it difficult for Democrats to win. This time, however, the argument made less sense. For starters, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, wasn’t exactly a bulwark of leftist ideas, and he still lost. More pertinently, there was another election last week where progressive Democrats, unlike their moderate counterparts, won decisively: here in Boston.
Mayor-elect Michelle Wu’s victory in Boston was in some ways a rebuke to Adams’s in New York. She ran an unapologetically progressive campaign in which she called for a city-scaled Green New Deal, rent control, and free transit. And when it came to policing — an issue at the center of electability conversations among Democrats — Wu took a tough stance and stood firm in her call to reallocate some police funds to social services, and she still managed to win by nearly 30 percentage points against a moderate who was widely seen as the more police-friendly candidate. (It wasn’t just Wu: Kendra Hicks and Tania Fernandes Anderson, candidates for Boston City Council who campaigned on reducing police funding, also won by big margins.)
And yet in spite of Boston’s progressive wave, which happened against the backdrop of moderate Democrats losing ground elsewhere, few people have pointed to this city as a potential blueprint for Democrats or even as a case in point for how the progressive wing is not actually failing electorally. And the truth is they shouldn’t.
Though there’s an apparent appeal for observers to cherry-pick elections to demonstrate what ought to succeed electorally, the reality is that there’s only so much someone can learn from Wu’s win. After all, Wu, like Adams, won in an off-year municipal election and with low voter turnout — hardly the kind of election that can give anyone a sense of what’s possible in the broader electorate.
That’s why pundits and party insiders should stop trying to nationalize a winning strategy for Democrats. What worked for Adams in New York would not have worked for Wu in Boston. (And it didn’t for her opponent, Annissa Essaibi George.)
It’s true that it’s difficult for Democrats to deliver a coherent message at the national level when the party is so ideologically diverse that someone as conservative as Joe Manchin caucuses alongside democratic socialists. And so it may be tempting to believe that less disagreement within the party and its candidates — specifically by avoiding bold positions on the more polarizing issues like policing — might win over voters in the middle. But that’s not how democracy works. Progressives like US Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota all won reelection in landslides last year, and they ought to keep fighting loudly for the voters who sent them to Congress, no matter how moderate some conservative Democrats think the overall electorate is. Indeed, when only one of the two major parties is at least trying to respect the rules of democracy, it’s especially important for that party to embrace its ideological diversity rather than suppress it.
In the end, all politics actually is local. That’s why running Adams-inspired campaigns across the board will not fend off the worst outcome for Democrats in the midterms next year, and neither would nationalizing a Wu strategy. Tailoring campaigns to local needs, however, might.