Democrats Have a Big Night, and a Bigger Fight Ahead
Progressives and democratic socialists scored big victories in Tuesday’s U.S. elections, giving the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party fresh momentum, says The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Tuesday was Election Day in the US. One year after that same day gave us President Donald Trump this year’s election brought many victories for those who oppose his agenda. Democrats won the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. They also took back the Washington state legislature and are on the brink of doing so in the Virginia House of Delegates, pending a recount.
Tuesday also saw progressive victories in closely watched races for state positions. Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who wants to end mass incarceration will be Philadelphia’s new district attorney. Krasner is one of many candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America who came out victorious on Election Day.
Joining me is Zaid Jilani, a reporter for the Intercept. His latest piece is called A Year After Trump: Democrats, Socialists, and Populists Sweep Elections. Welcome, Zaid. Your sense of what happened on Tuesday, can this be seen as a big victory for Democrats over Trump?
ZAID JILANI: Yeah. I think there was a big question looming after the election of President Trump and that question was could he build this sustainable coalition or will his presidency turn a lot of people off and create a backlash? It seems like what we saw last night was the second. A lot of eyes were on Virginia. It’s true that Democrats already held all the state-wide offices in Virginia. They won state-wide in 2016.
However, something very unexpected happened, which was that they actually, as you mentioned earlier, they appear to be on the verge of winning control of the House of Delegates. Now the day before yesterday, Democrats held 34 out of 100 seats I think in the House of Delegates. You can see how big of a change that is. There were a lot of stable long-time, long-term Republican incumbents who were defeated in that state.
Part of it, my colleague Lee Fang and I, we went out to some of the polls and talked to voters. I think part of it is a reaction to President Trump. I think a lot of people thought he and the Republican party were not governing very well and so they wanted to respond to that.
I think there was also some level of backlash to what Ed Gillespie, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, was doing. Towards the end of the race he started airing a lot of ads about MS-13, which is this Hispanic-dominated gang that has a small presence in Virginia. He was airing ads related to Confederate statues. I think he was really running a fearful campaign.
It’s interesting. At the very end of the night, Lee and I stopped by a Young Republican party where they were watching election results and one of them even told us, “Yeah, I think those ads were really stupid and I think it’s a big mistake.” I think that’s really a reckoning for the Republican party. Can they keep running the same old playbook and think that that’s an alternative to having real policies that help people and that move their states, their cities, and the country forward?
AARON MATÉ Right. Ed Gillespie of Virginia essentially ran a Trump-style race baiting campaign but he didn’t openly embrace Trump. He sort of kept his distance from him. Let me ask you, the Democratic candidate Ralph Northam in his acceptance speech he was protested by immigrant rights activists over his opposition to sanctuary cities. I think it’s fair to say, correct me if I’m wrong, that he’s not quite a progressive stalwart.
ZAID JILANI: No. He actually had voted for George Bush twice. He admitted that. He is more or less the favored son of the Democratic party in the primary race. In the primary race he was up against another gentleman named Tom Perriello, who has a little bit more of a progressive record. He comes from progressive movements. He’s done a lot of international NGO work. Perriello was soundly defeated in that race.
It was largely seen as sort of the Democratic establishment, the McAuliffe establishment, sort of standing up for their guy and bringing Northam forward. I think that’s the other interesting thing that when we went out and talked to voters yesterday every voter we talked to was opposed to the Republicans. I don’t think a single one, and we talked to many, said anything positive about Northam. I don’t think this was really about Northam.
Like I said, I think that he’s kind of maintaining the status quo in Virginia because they already held the governor’s office. What was sort of more interesting and impressive was we saw a lot of young people that had never been involved in politics before winning races in the House of Delegates, which is the legislature. I think that was a less covered story that is a little bit more interesting than the Democrats keeping the governor’s mansion by basically advocating for status quo.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, Zaid. Let’s talk about one of them in Virginia. Lee Carter, he was backed by the Democratic Socialists, ran as a Democrat, received no help from the state Democratic party, but he still won.
ZAID JILANI: Yeah. Lee Carter actually he did get a little bit of help at the tail end. I think there was a mailer or something. It was a small amount of money from the Democratic party. Basically what happened was he was running against … For instance, there’s a lot of energy monopolies in Virginia. There are a number of companies that people protest saying that they basically have carte blanche to raise rates and things like that.
He was very strongly opposed to them. The Democratic party is sort of on one hand or the other about those sort of things. Northam, for instance, refused to distance himself from a number of the fossil fuel, utilities in the state. He was very opposed to them. Actually, I think after he won the Democratic primary because he was running as a Democrat … For the most party they really didn’t help him. They didn’t really send people out to his district or anything like that.
He built this campaign off of small donations and just local support. Yeah, actually the Republican that he defeated last night was no small fish either. This was the Republican whip in the House of Delegates so one of the senior people in the Republican leadership was the person he defeated. He openly ran his campaign saying that he doesn’t really think the Democrats or the Republicans are doing a whole lot standing up for the issues that he was running on, pro worker issues, pro environment issues.
His win was an extreme surprise. I don’t think anyone thought that district was even vulnerable to anyone. Now we have a young guy who is an openly Democratic Socialist person. I’m sure we’ll see a lot from him going forward to see how he serves as the first Socialist lawmaker in the Virginia legislature.
AARON MATÉ: Also, some surprising victories for Democratic Socialists at the local level in Pennsylvania.
ZAID JILANI: Yeah. We saw, I think it was the 31st district, that we have a judicial position elected. A guy who unseated a 24 year incumbent Democrat as an independent candidate running very strong criminal justice reform on restorative justice, which is very interesting. In that state I think we’re seeing a lot of movement on the issue because also a neighboring … This was in Pittsburgh.
In neighboring Philadelphia we saw Larry Krasner who is going to take office as a DA. Krasner won his Democratic primary a few months ago so he was considered sort of shoo-in last night because Republicans aren’t very competitive in Philadelphia. Krasner truly is a radical. He’s very strongly opposed to the death penalty. He had represented Black Lives Matter protestors. I believe he also represented Occupy protestors or at least he was supportive of it.
Certainly, he’s probably the most left wing DA of any major city in America and this is in Philadelphia, which is not a city known for having robust criminal justice reform. It has had quite a bit of police abuse, quite a bit of incarceration. That is truly going to be something I think everyone in the country is going to be watching and probably people from other countries. Probably globally people will be watching this reform-seeking [inaudible 00:07:56] in Philadelphia and if he can really move it away from a judicial administrative state that focuses very heavily on incarceration as a response to social problems.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s go to what some of Larry Krasner said upon his victory last night.
LARRY KRASNER: If you, like us, believe it’s time to end the death penalty. If you believe it’s time to end mass incarceration. If you believe it’s time to stop making prisoners for poor people by using cash bail.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Larry Krasner who will be Philadelphia’s next district attorney. Zaid, let’s talk about where progressives fell short. In Ohio there was a really big campaign involving the pharmaceutical industry, a referendum on drug price control. Pharmaceutical companies spent something like $60 million to have it defeated and they prevailed. Can you talk about what happened there?
ZAID JILANI: Yes. Actually this was a mirror ballot referendum to what happened in California last year. In both cases what happened was the AIDS Foundation, which works very heavily on HIV/AIDS drugs, access to them … Basically what it is they sponsored an amendment saying that the state’s Medicaid program they would basically lock in and negotiate prices for drugs. Similar to how, let’s say, the US federal government level.
In both cases, we saw enormous spending by the industry to defeat that referendum. In California, it was really interesting. You even had a lot of civil rights groups and LGBT groups come out against it because unfortunately many of them were soliciting money from the industry as well.
Actually, the defeat last night in Ohio was much more extreme than in California. I believe the referendum went down something like 20/80. That’s what happens when you have an industry spending $60 million on a referendum in a state where there were some local elections last night but there weren’t really any major elections beyond that. That’s how much money they can throw in a complete off-year election where nothing else is happening. You can imagine the kind of funds they might generate if other things were going on that help drive their vote.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen two very strong pushes by the drug industry in I guess the past year now to defeat drug pricing control. If you’ll remember, President Trump himself campaigned on reforms in that area. For instance, I think letting Medicare negotiate drug prices. That’s something he’s completely backed off of and that’s also something where we see votes in the US Senate about drug reimportation. We see big losses there.
That’s one of the spots where we need to start looking seriously and see if there is actually a path around the power of this industry. They consistently win and they almost never lose any of these political fights, whether it’s in legislatures or whether it’s in ballot referendums.
AARON MATÉ: There were a lot of people rooting for Jabari Brisport, a Green party socialist running for council. He fell short. You profiled him for the Intercept. Your thoughts on his race and what it says about the challenge of translating the growing momentum, the growing membership of the Democratic Socialists of America, translating that into electoral victories.
ZAID JILANI: Yeah. I think Brisport was a candidate who I interviewed over the summer and profiled over the summer. He ran a very strong and spirited campaign on issues related to housing affordability and gentrification, which is something I think that you saw as an issue in many municipal elections last night.
I think the main challenge here is that we saw quite a bit of backlash against Republicans last night. I think socialists and populist candidates did benefit from some of that. We saw a number of them elected last night. I think the issue with what happened in Brisport’s race, what happened in some other neighboring races, was that the Democratic establishment itself is still fairly strong.
Organizing people against a party that’s right now receiving the benefits of a backlash against Republicans and Trump is a little bit more difficult. This is a party that not every day does Jabari Brisport’s opponent tweet something stupid or is on TV saying something obnoxious. To organize against candidates like that, against Democratic establishment candidates in places like New York or Seattle or Atlanta, you have to do a lot of mobilizing of voters.
I think to some extent Jabari was a first time candidate. He was a third party candidate as a Green party candidate. He actually received more votes than I think any third party candidate for a city council race in like a decade. Certainly he beat everyone else last night who did that. Probably beat most of the Republican candidates who ran for city council races last night.
To some extent, he can take a lot of pride in the robustness of his campaign and the DSA can. This was one of two candidates the DSA backed for city council races. The other one did not survive their primary. They lost by seven percentage points a couple of months back. I think this is a growing pain for DSA. Normally this organization has been around for decades. It has not really engaged in electoral politics at all. Now it’s starting too. It has some successes and it has some failures but I think even the failures they’re learning a lot and they’re getting a fair and decent amount of votes. Much more than socialist candidates and third party candidates would have in the past.
I think in that sense they can take heart from that experience but they should understand that there are still things to learn and the establishment they’re fighting there is actually at this moment in history fairly stronger than them and outmatches them in a lot of these local races.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about the Democrats overall. They’ve lost something like 1000 seats at the state level since President Obama’s first term. They’ve lost the House, the Senate, and the White House. After their gubernatorial victory in Virginia last night the DNC chair Tom Perez declared Democrats are back. His job was said to be on the line if they lost Virginia. Do you agree that the Democrats are back? Your thoughts on their prospects heading into next year’s elections, the midterms in 2018?
ZAID JILANI: Yeah, in our system where there’s two parties control most of the seats when one party is hurting, in this case the Republican party is not governing very well, the other party tends to benefit. Now here’s the question. Does that mean Tom Perez is doing his job well? The Democrats are doing their job well? Not necessarily if it’s largely about a backlash to the Republicans.
The true question is if there’s a backlash, if you take power to a backlash, do you govern well? Or are you yourself going to be the victims of a backlash? That certainly happened in 2010. After 2008 Democrats had near historic amounts of control. It had been decades since they had that much control and by 2010 voters judged their governing poorly and they saw tremendous losses and that continued through 2016 to where the Republicans almost had enough power in state legislatures to rewrite the entire constitution.
Perez obviously his job is to be a pitch man for the Democrats and to protect his own job but saying that they’re beneficiaries of a backlash against the Republicans right now is very different than saying that as a party it’s functioning well or that it’s governing well, especially placing so much of that on Northam is a little bit unusual because Northam is simply another Democrat taking the governor’s seat in Virginia where they did win statewide last year and where they already had the governor’s seat.
That’s a little bit less of an achievement. It’s probably more of an achievement if Democrats were to win statewide in states like Georgia, in states like Texas next year, because those are states where they have not been in power for decades, for more than a decade. That would take I think a little bit more electoral ingenuity than simply holding onto a seat you already had in Virginia, which I think is mostly what Perez was referring to.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Zaid Jilani, reporter for the Intercept. His latest piece is A Year After Trump: Democrats, Socialists, and Populists Sweep Elections. Zaid, thank you.
ZAID JILANI: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.