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How Progressive Candidates of Color Are Building Winning Coalitions


Just last month, it looked as if Amy McGrath would coast to the Democratic Senate nomination in Kentucky. A moderate former fighter pilot with strong backing from the party establishment, she had raised over $40 million, far more than all her competitors combined. From her TV ads, you would have thought she was already running against Senator Mitch McConnell in the general election.

But then came weeks of protests for racial justice, and a flush of new energy on the party’s left wing. Charles Booker, a state legislator endorsed by the likes of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had been campaigning on a platform of “Medicare for all,” the Green New Deal and bold police reform; he surged in the weeks before Tuesday’s election.

On Thursday, after a new batch of preliminary results were released, Mr. Booker held a 3.5-percentage-point lead over Ms. McGrath, although most absentee ballots haven’t been counted yet and we may not know who won the race for days.

As swift and dramatic as Mr. Booker’s rise has been, it’s part of an ongoing trend in Democratic politics — one that’s been a long time in the making, according to polling on political attitudes.

In congressional races across the country this year, candidates of color are assembling coalitions that bring together liberal white voters and voters of color, picking up where Mr. Sanders’s unsuccessful presidential run left off and building support in areas where he was never fully able to.

“The task going forward for progressives is combining the African-American and Latino base with white progressives in increasingly diverse districts,” Sean McElwee, the founder of the left-leaning polling firm Data for Progress, said in an interview.

“The way progressives win is to find progressive candidates of color who can build trust with voters of color and then can win over white progressives,” he said.

That dynamic played out this week in congressional races around New York, where three black progressives — Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres — appeared on track to defeat their more moderate foes.

Mr. Bowman, a middle school principal who campaigned on a racial-justice platform, held a wide lead Friday morning over Eliot L. Engel, a 30-year incumbent. Mr. Engel is white; his district, which includes parts of the Bronx and nearby suburbs, is about one-third black, one-third white and one-quarter Latino.

Mr. Bowman held decisive leads in both Westchester County, which is predominantly white, and the Bronx, which is heavily black and Hispanic.

“The interests are aligned,” Mr. Bowman said in an interview, referring to his varied racial constituencies. “They are aligned more urgently because of the moment that we are living in, but even prior to the moment, we all centered this work in our common humanity and our values around equality and justice for everyone.”

For years, polling shows, black voters have been broadly supportive of liberal policies such as universal government health care and free tuition to public colleges. That’s only becoming more true as millennials and members of Generation Z account for an increasing share of the electorate.

Black voters are among the most likely to name health care as a key voting issue, according to PRRI polling.

And data suggest that as some particularly left-wing ideas move from the party’s fringe into its mainstream, they are being carried there by a coalition of voters of color and some white progressives.

Among people of color younger than 45, fully 81 percent expressed support for the Green New Deal, according to an aggregate of NPR/PBS/Marist College polling from last year provided to The New York Times.

Two out of three of these younger adults of color backed making public colleges and universities tuition-free, and 65 percent supported instituting a tax on wealth over $1 million.

On each of those issues, white people under 45 were also broadly in support, though not in equally high numbers, according to the NPR/PBS/Marist data. But among progressives, support ran considerably higher.

Candidates of color in many states are building winning coalitions around staunchly progressive platforms with messages of racial justice and representation at their center.

The road was paved in many ways in 2018, when Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna S. Pressley beat out establishment Democrats. Each of them combined a progressive policy vision with a localized approach to campaigning, often rooted in community identity.

This year, in New Mexico, Teresa Leger Fernandez campaigned in support of the Green New Deal and Medicare for all. She beat Valerie Plame, the establishment-backed Democratic candidate, in a primary in a heavily Latino congressional district.

Candace Valenzuela of Texas and Georgette Gómez of California are each Hispanic congressional candidates who have been endorsed by high-profile progressives; both are headed to runoffs after advancing in their respective Democratic primaries.

Even in whiter areas, candidates are finding that Democratic voters are receptive to campaigns that put calls for racial justice at the center.

In Kentucky, analyzing only the 10 counties where the most votes have been counted thus far, Mr. Booker’s support tends to run higher in counties with larger black populations, suggesting that he is indeed drawing crucial support from African-American voters.

If the current numbers hold, he will have won all three of the large counties in which black people make up at least 10 percent of the population, while losing to Ms. McGrath in the more overwhelmingly white areas.

But roughly four in five Kentucky Democrats are white, and Mr. Booker could not be performing strongly without meaningful support from white progressives.

Years before the current wave of protests against systemic racism and police brutality, polling showed that white liberals, influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, were beginning to express far greater concern about the nation’s legacy of racism.

But something key has changed in the past few weeks: A wider swath of voters now expect candidates to put bold proposals for racial justice at the center of their platforms.

No less than 96 percent of Democrats in a recent Monmouth University poll said they saw racism as a big problem. And in a New York Times/Siena College national poll released this week, 74 percent of Democrats expressed a “very favorable” view of the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s roughly on par with the 77 percent of black people who said so.

In that poll, more than four in five Democrats across races said they supported the protests.

The call by protesters to defund the police is less popular, though the concept is still a relatively new entrant into mainstream political discourse. Just 14 percent of Americans said in a Quinnipiac University poll this month that they supported scrapping their local police department and replacing it with a new one.

But 41 percent — including 62 percent of black people and 70 percent of Democrats across races — said they would like to see some funding cut from the police and rerouted to social services.

Jeffery C. Mays contributed reporting.


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