For an illustration of the power of identity over ideology in politics, look at the divergent results in two of the biggest Democratic governors’ primaries in the country. Actress Cynthia Nixon, who received national attention for her insurgent campaign against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, performed dismally even though her opponent was reviled by the Left. Meanwhile: Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who barely had enough campaign cash to air television advertisements in Florida, achieved one of the most dramatic upsets in the 2018 cycle.
White progressive candidates performed dismally in Democratic gubernatorial primaries this year. Nixon, despite her celebrity, barely won one-third of the vote in New York against Cuomo. Progressive stalwarts like Chris Giunchigliani in Nevada, Dennis Kucinich in Ohio, and Daniel Biss in Illinois were crushed by more-pragmatic challengers. The cycle began when former Rep. Tom Perriello, a favorite of inside-the-Beltway liberals, lost badly to the more moderate Ralph Northam in Virginia.
But African-American candidates, all running to the left, greatly exceeded expectations in statewide contests. Gillum surged in the Florida primary’s final days to overtake more moderate former congresswoman Gwen Graham, despite being badly outspent by his competition. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams cruised past a centrist challenger in a race that originally looked to be highly competitive. Former NAACP president Ben Jealous scored a decisive victory in Maryland’s Democratic primary, exceeding early expectations. All three candidates benefited from a surge in black turnout in a midterm-election year.
The demographic patterns in these races are clear. African-American candidates were able to build an energized Democratic coalition of black voters, white liberals, and younger voters to swamp more-established candidates in primaries. But white liberal candidates struggled to expand their support beyond the most predictable precincts, unable to build racially diverse coalitions for their progressive messages.
Consider: Nixon’s weakest showing in the primary occurred in the Bronx, where she won a measly 17 percent of the vote in the predominantly black and Hispanic New York City borough. Despite facing criticism for making patronizing comments about African-American leaders in Illinois, black voters provided Pritzker with critical support against more-progressive opponents. Perriello struggled badly in majority-black cities and counties across Virginia, dooming his chances against Northam.
It’s a reminder that the Democratic Party’s crucial bloc of black voters is more interested in electing familiar faces than supporting true-blue ideologues. When African-American candidates can excite white progressives, it’s a potent combination in a Democratic primary. White progressives, dependent on ideological fervor alone, often underachieve in party primaries where nearly half of voters still identify as moderate or conservative.
It’s no coincidence that the two Democratic congressmen who lost primaries this year were both veteran white politicians who grew disconnected from their diversifying constituencies in New York and Boston. Representing majority-minority districts, Reps. Joe Crowley and Michael Capuano were uniquely vulnerable to energetic challenges from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Both insurgents ran on progressive messages, but their victories wouldn’t have happened without the underlying demand for representatives that look more like the communities they represent.
This isn’t just a Democratic Party phenomenon. Three of the biggest Republican overachievers running for the House this year—Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, and California recruit Young Kim—are nonwhite GOP candidates who boast a unique appeal in their diverse districts. Even though they’re all running in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, polls show these Republicans with a good chance of winning despite an expected Democratic landslide. “Anything that makes you seem different from the current brand of the Republican Party is worth several points,” said Republican strategist Liesl Hickey.
The significance of identity in our politics will be critical in the wide-open battle for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is emerging as an early front-runner, but she faces similar obstacles as her like-minded white progressive counterparts in the states. There’s a long history in Democratic presidential primaries of the“wine-track” candidates—Howard Dean, Bill Bradley, Gary Hart among them—generating early hype but underachieving because they failed to win support from nonwhite voters. Bernie Sanders had a similar problem in 2016.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who slammed critics of identity politics at a noteworthy Netroots Nation speech, has more potential to forge a diverse Democratic coalition along the lines of what Gillum achieved in Florida. If Gillum makes history in November in a vote-rich swing state, expect more Democrats to appreciate the importance of having a candidate of color running against President Trump in 2020.