His arrival atop a “blue wave” of Democrats in 2018, two years into Donald Trump’s caustic presidency, marked the beginning of a bold new era of young, diverse and left-leaning political power on Capitol Hill.
Four years later, the prospect of a retaliatory Republican wave in the 2022 midterm elections is set to encourage and empower the bulk of the change-minded progressive caucus inside President Joe Biden’s party.
Welcome to the polarized world of American politics, where the forces of change wash away the moderate swing-vote middle, leaving only the safe-seat edges of the ideological spectrum as shelter from the impending election storm.
“Indeed, if a party is wiped out, the caucus becomes more extreme—it’s closer to the ideological end,” said Michael Berkman, director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University.
“So I am not sure that (Progressives) will lose power. In fact, they can seize power – both because they are a large percentage of the overall Democratic caucus, but also because they can say, ‘We lost – you should have listened to us.'”
They’re far from infallible: The notion that moderates are more electable is a big reason why Biden — not Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – won the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
Many progressive Democrats failed to survive the primary season, particularly in New York, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to power four years ago was a breakthrough moment for the Liberals.
And when the state’s liberal governor, Cathy Hochul, steamrolls left-wing rival Jumane Williams in the primary, she now finds herself in a more-than-expected battle with Republican challenger Lee Zeldin.
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the most prominent and controversial members of a coalition of progressive Capitol Hill Democrats known as “The Squad,” swooped down narrowly through a primary challenge earlier this year — defending next week. A closer call than expected of his solid Democratic seat.
Nor are established progressives safe by any means: The Cook Political Report, one of the most-watched political barometers in Washington, this week moved California Representative Katie Porter’s Orange County district to a “toss-up” category .
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In a recent interview with Politico, Sanders, a self-described socialist who has long served as the standard-bearer of progressive politics in Washington, rejected the notion that moderate Democrats are swaying this cycle. Keeping a low profile.
Quite the opposite, said Sanders, who sees his mission as mobilizing young voters.
“If we don’t instill a sense of enthusiasm among young people and working-class people and we don’t have a high voter turnout in the midterm elections, I think Democrats could be in a lot of trouble,” he said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Berkman was quick to point out that he was not predicting a Republican setback in next week’s midterm elections. But both traditional political wisdom and recent polling indicate that the momentum is with the GOP.
If that happens, the surviving progressive members of the Democratic caucus would have the freedom to drop out of power in Congress.
“Those more ideological members are now at a real advantage, because they don’t have to make policy, they don’t have to pass bills and they’re in an entirely oppositional role,” Berkman said.
“When they are in the majority they are trying to make policy, but when they are in the minority they are not trying to make policy.”
But while progressives can play a greater opposition role in Congress, they may find themselves in a place with less leverage, said Chris Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in DC.
Past Democratic presidents have found themselves forced to adopt a more centrist posture when dealing with the Republican Congress – and this is likely to be the case for Biden, whose party will also be dealing with a new political reality.
“What happened to both Clinton and Obama is that once they had a foil — whether it was a Republican-run House or Senate chamber — they had the ability to navigate closer to center in American politics,” Sands said.
“They could have said to progressives, while pushing the envelope aside, ‘Look, I don’t like them more than you, but if we’re going to work, we’ve got to find a way to peel some of these votes. Will have to work with his leadership.
If anything, the next two years in Congress are likely to be turbulent, Berkman said.
Republicans have vowed to do everything from impeachment proceedings against Biden to a congressional investigation into his son Hunter, whose finances have long been a subject of attraction for the president’s political enemies.
He said that famous bomb-throwers such as Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene may find themselves playing a more prominent role within the House and party machinery.
“I’m not sure I can even imagine what the next few years are going to be like,” Berkman said.
“Marjorie Taylor is leading the Green House Republican Party – if that were the case, what would it mean for the party? All indications to me are that she may be being raised in that party.
“So what else interests him beyond chaos?”