In String of Wins, ‘Biden Democrats’ See a Reality Check for the Left

Progressives are holding their own with moderates in fights over policy. But off-year elections suggest they need a new strategy for critiquing President Biden without seeming disloyal.

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Nina Turner, the hard-punching Bernie Sanders ally who lost a special election for Congress in Ohio this week, had unique political flaws from the start. A far-left former state legislator, Ms. Turner declined to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald J. Trump in 2016. Last year, she described voting for President Biden as a grossly unpalatable option.

There were obvious reasons Democratic voters might view her with distrust.

Yet Ms. Turner’s unexpectedly wide defeat on Tuesday marked more than the demise of a social-media flamethrower who had hurled one belittling insult too many. Instead, it was an exclamation mark in a season of electoral setbacks for the left and victories for traditional Democratic Party leaders.

In the most important elections of 2021, the center-left Democratic establishment has enjoyed an unbroken string of triumphs, besting the party’s activist wing from New York to New Orleans and from the Virginia coastline to the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. It is a winning streak that has shown the institutional Democratic Party to be more united than at any other point since the end of the Obama administration — and bonded tightly with the bulk of its electoral base.

These more moderate Democrats have mobilized an increasingly confident alliance of senior Black and Hispanic politicians, moderate older voters, white centrists and labor unions, in many ways mirroring the coalition Mr. Biden assembled in 2020.

In Ohio, it was a coalition strong enough to fell Ms. Turner, who entered the race to succeed Marcia Fudge, the federal housing secretary, in Congress as a well-known, well-funded favorite with a huge lead in the polls. She drew ferocious opposition from local and national Democrats, including leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus who campaigned for her opponent, Shontel Brown, and a pro-Israel super PAC that ran advertisements reminding voters about Ms. Turner’s hostility toward Mr. Biden.

Ms. Brown, a Cuyahoga County official, surged to win by nearly six percentage points.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a top member of House leadership, said in an interview Wednesday that Democratic voters were clearly rejecting candidates from the party’s most strident and ideological flank.

Where some primary voters welcomed an angrier message during the Trump years, Mr. Jeffries said, there is less appetite now for revolutionary rhetoric casting the Democratic Party as a broken institution.

“The extreme left is obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter, when the majority of the electorate constitute mainstream Democrats at the polls,” Mr. Jeffries said. “In the post-Trump era, the anti-establishment line of attack is lame — when President Biden and Democratic legislators are delivering millions of good-paying jobs, the fastest-growing economy in 40 years and a massive child tax cut.”

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Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe won every city and county of Virginia in the Democratic primary to seek a new term in office.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

In Washington, Democrats have worked to keep a delicate peace between the party’s centrist and left-wing factions, viewing collaboration as vital to enacting any kind of ambitious legislative agenda. The tense give-and-take has yielded victories for both sides: This week, a group of insurgent House progressives, led by Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, pressured Mr. Biden into issuing a revised eviction moratorium even after he had questioned his power to do so.

But moderate party leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House are greeting the results from the off-year elections with undisguised glee, viewing them as a long-awaited reality check on the progressive wing’s claims to ascendancy. Mr. Biden’s advisers have regarded the off-year results as a validation of his success in 2020 — further proof, they believe, that the Democratic Party is defined by his diverse, middle-of-the-road supporters.

Top lawmakers have also grown more willing to wade into contested races after the Democrats’ unexpected losses in the House in 2020, which many of them blamed on a proliferation of hard-left language around policing and socialism.

Earlier this year, Representative James E. Clyburn, the majority whip, and Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, rallied behind a centrist Democrat, Troy Carter, in a special election for Congress in Louisiana, helping him defeat a more liberal candidate. Both endorsed Ms. Brown and campaigned for her in Ohio, with Mr. Clyburn accusing the far left of intemperate sloganeering that “cuts the party’s throat.”

The Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, too, yielded a moderate winner this summer: The Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, who campaigned on an anti-crime message, rolled up endorsements from organized labor and won immense support from working-class voters of color. Visiting the White House, Mr. Adams branded himself “the Biden of Brooklyn.”

In Virginia, Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond said the trend in Democratic politics this year was unmistakable. A former aide to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Mr. Stoney endorsed his old boss’s comeback bid this year, backing him over several candidates running to the left. Mr. McAuliffe, a white centrist who used to lead the Democratic National Committee, won the primary in a landslide, carrying every city and county in the state.

“When you look at Ohio, New York City and Virginia — voters, and particularly Democratic voters, are looking for effective problem solvers,” Mr. Stoney said. “I know Democrats want to win, but more than anything they want to elect people who are going to get things done.”

Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist who advised Ms. Brown in Ohio and Mr. Carter in Louisiana, said both candidates had won majority support in their races from demographic groups that also make up the core of Mr. Biden’s base. Those voters, he said, represent a strong electoral bloc for a candidate seen as “a Biden Democrat.”

“You had older African American voters, suburban voters; there was a significant turnout of Jewish voters in Ohio,” Mr. Thornell said. “These tend to be more moderate voters, on issues. They’re a bit more practical.”

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Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, campaigned on an anti-crime message to win the Democratic primary for mayor of New York.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

The left has not gone without its own modest electoral victories this year, and progressive strategists are quick to dispute the notion that 2021 has been a wholesale shutout. Activists scored upsets in several lower-profile mayoral primaries, in midsize cities like Buffalo and Pittsburgh. They have also helped a few prized progressive incumbents, like Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney, stave off challenges from other Democrats.

Nelini Stamp, the national organizing director of the progressive Working Families Party, predicted the 2022 elections would be more representative of the overall trajectory of Democratic politics. She acknowledged that Ms. Turner’s defeat was a significant disappointment.

“There have been some tough losses, and this is one,” she said, “but I also believe there have been a lot more wins, from where we’ve come from, in the last five years.”

Yet the off-year elections suggest that the Democratic left urgently needs to update its political playbook before the 2022 midterm campaign, refining a clearer strategy for winning over moderate voters of color and for critiquing Mr. Biden without being seen as disloyal. Progressive groups are already mobilizing primary challenges against Democratic House incumbents in New York, Nashville and Chicago, among other cities, in a renewed test of their intraparty clout.

Waleed Shahid, a strategist for Justice Democrats, a key group that organizes primary challenges from the left, said it was clear that the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party had changed with Mr. Biden in the White House. Intraparty conflict, he said, is “harder when you have an incumbent president.”

“There is a tension between presenting yourself as a yes-man or a yes-woman for Biden, versus pushing the administration like what Cori Bush just did,” Mr. Shahid said, suggesting centrist Democrats might now have a lower bar to clear. “It’s a much easier argument to make: ‘I’m for the status quo and I’m with the president.'”

Democratic Party leaders counter that for the past few election cycles, it is left-wing candidates who have had a comparatively easy run, feasting on older or complacent incumbents who simply did not take their re-election campaigns seriously. They vow that is not going to happen again in 2022, and point to the races this year as proof.

Mainstream Democrats, Mr. Jeffries said, are not “going to act like punching bags for the extreme left.”

“Let me put it this way: The majority of Democratic voters recognize that Trumpism and the radical right is the real enemy, not us,” Mr. Jeffries said. “Apparently the extreme left hasn’t figured that out.”

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