In N.Y. Primaries, a Fight for the Democratic Party’s Future
Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a moderate Democrat from New York City’s northern suburbs, saw a clear-cut lesson in his lopsided primary victory Tuesday night over one of his home state’s brightest left-wing stars.
“Tonight, mainstream won,” Mr. Maloney, who also leads House Democrat campaign committee, declared afterward. “Common sense won.”
The 30-point margin appeared to be a sharp rebuke to the party’s left flank, which had tried to make the race a referendum on Mr. Maloney’s brand of leadership in Washington. A second, narrower win by another moderate Democrat, Daniel Goldman, in one of the city’s most liberal House districts prompted more hand-wringing among some progressives.
But as New York’s tumultuous primary season came to a close on Tuesday, a survey of contests across the state shows a more nuanced picture. Four summers after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory ignited Democrats’ left flank and positioned New York at the center of a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, the battle has entered a new phase. But it is far from abating.
Mostly gone this year were shocking upsets by little-known left-leaning insurgents like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and a gaggle of challengers in Albany. They dislodged an entrenched block of conservative Democrats controlling the State Senate in 2018. Representative Jamaal Bowman defeated a powerful committee chairman in 2020. Those contests made the political left appear ascendant.
Two years later, though, the tension within the party appears likely to grind on, as progressives struggle to marshal voters into movements as they did during the Trump presidency. At the same time, the party’s establishment wing has regained its footing after President Biden and Mayor Eric Adams, avowed moderates, won the White House and City Hall.
“We are past that political and electoral moment,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of New York’s liberal Working Families Party, said of the rapid gains of past election cycles. “The headwinds are a real amount of voter fatigue, economic malaise and just the pressures of everyday life.”
Ms. Nnaemeka and her allies still found reason to celebrate on Tuesday though, particularly over state-level contests. Kristen Gonzalez, a tech worker supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, won a marquee Brooklyn-Queens State Senate race over Elizabeth Crowley, despite Mayor Adams and outside special interests openly campaigning against her.
“Today, we really proved that socialism wins,” Ms. Gonzalez told jubilant supporters after her win.
As moderates backed by well-financed outside groups and well-known leaders like Mr. Adams sought to oust them, progressives also successfully defended key seats won in recent election cycles.
Among them were Jabari Brisport, a member of the Democratic Socialists, and Gustavo Rivera, another progressive state senator targeted by Mr. Adams. Mr. Bowman, whose district had been substantially redrawn in this year’s redistricting process, also survived.
“We had some really good wins,” Ms. Nnaemeka added. “Despite the headwinds, despite the dark money, despite the redistricting chaos, we sent some of the hardest working champions of the left back to the State Senate to complete the work the federal government isn’t doing right now.”
But in many of the most recognizable races, there were clear signs that those wins had limits.
Mr. Maloney provided moderates with their most resonant victory, defeating Alessandra Biaggi, a progressive state senator who was part of the 2018 insurgency, by a two-to-one margin. This time, she had the vocal backing of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. She fiercely critiqued Mr. Maloney as “a selfish corporate Democrat with no integrity.”
But she was drowned out by a flood of outside spending that came to Mr. Maloney’s aid, with attacks centered on her harsh past criticisms of the police. She struggled to quickly introduce herself to voters in a district she had never run in before. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton also openly lent their support to the congressman.
In the race for an open Democratic seat in New York City, Mr. Goldman, a former federal prosecutor, beat out three progressive stars in some of the city’s most liberal enclaves. All had once enjoyed the backing of the Working Families Party. And former Representative Max Rose, an avowed centrist attempting to make a comeback on Staten Island, handily turned back a primary challenger championed by activists.
The outcomes — along with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s yawning primary victory in June over a left-aligned challenger, Jumaane Williams — left leaders of the party’s more moderate wing crowing over what they see as a more pragmatic mood among the electorate in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.
“Common-sense, get-things-done, mainstream Biden Democrats have been winning all across the country,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn Democrat and House leader whose political action committee backed Mr. Maloney.
He added: “The voters are clearly supporting individuals who are getting big things done in Washington, D.C., and are committed to working with President Biden and his administration, not undermining it.”
Political analysts and Democratic operatives who run campaigns in New York offered competing explanations for the shifting electoral landscape.
After the upsets of 2018 and even 2020, incumbents and the outside groups that often fund them have learned how not to get caught flat-footed against underdog challengers. In many cases, they have shifted to the left on key issues, undercutting the ideological case against them.
Progressives, especially those on the far left, may also have simply already won many of the lowest-hanging electoral fruit in areas of Brooklyn and Queens packed with a diverse array of younger voters.
“What you’re seeing is that Democrats who do not define themselves as pure progressives are able to cherry-pick the most popular progressive ideas, adopt them as their own and use the rhetorical excesses of progressives to build up defenses,” said Bruce N. Gyory, a veteran political strategist trusted by some of the state’s top Democrats.
The question for progressives today, he added, was whether they could continue to build bridges reaching beyond their most fervent supporters, or fade as a major electoral force like the antiwar Democratic reformers of the 1960s and ’70s .
The left has tried to recalibrate, with mixed success. Their victories at the state and congressional level have often come when progressive groups consolidated voters behind single, viable challengers in fewer races.
But the strategy has not always worked. Mr. Adams, a former Republican who has disavowed his party’s left flank, won the mayor’s office last year in part because more liberal candidates cannibalized each other’s support, while he won over working class Black voters.
A similar dynamic played out on Tuesday in the 10th Congressional District, where three Working Families Party aligned candidates — Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, Representative Mondaire Jones and Council Member Carlina Rivera — ultimately split about 60 percent of the vote between them. Mr. Goldman, a Levi Strauss heir who made his name working on the first Trump impeachment, and took more moderate positions in the race, won with just a quarter of the vote.
“On the congressional side, we’re not there yet,” said Camille Rivera, a strategist who helped Mr. Rivera, a progressive state senator from the Bronx, successfully fend off a challenge from a moderate backed by the Bronx Democratic Party. Congressional races require speaking to a bigger electorate and are often shaped by outside money many progressives eschew.
“Organizing and educating voters and turning the tide on messaging takes years,” Ms. Rivera added. “There will be peaks, but that doesn’t mean every race will be like A.O.C. or Bowman.”