The liberal resistance to President Donald Trump hasn't managed to capture any new Congressional seats for Democrats — but it's having a major effect on politics at a more local level.
In Jackson, Miss., progressives elected a candidate last month who promised to make his Deep South town “the most radical city on the planet.” In Cincinnati, a liberal favorite earned more support than the incumbent mayor in the first round of voting this spring.
And in Philadelphia, a Black Lives Matter advocate won the Democratic primary in May to be the next district attorney — in a city where even Democratic law enforcement officials have traditionally taken a hard line.
“We have a president who any sentient person recognizes is a wannabe dictator,” said Larry Krasner, who won the Democratic Party’s primary for district attorney in Philadelphia. “That’s the kind of thing that can wake you up in the morning, make you lace up your shoes, and go vote. So, yes, I think that had impact.”
Indeed, while Trump’s election has whipped progressives into a frenzy and driven new activists and big dollars into high-profile federal races for the House and Senate, it’s in cities and towns that the vociferous response against the president is transforming politics.
The effect has major implications for the Democratic Party, both in the agenda it pushes and its electoral bench of future candidates for higher office.
Krasner is the crown jewel of liberal success in local elections this year, winning a competitive multi-candidate primary in a city where the winners of Democratic primaries almost always win the general election. The civil-rights attorney — an open critic of the city’s police who is closely aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement — is on track to take office just eight years after the retirement of former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who over the course of nearly two decades in office earned the moniker “Queen of Death” for the frequency with which she sought the death penalty.
Liberals also have had success elsewhere: In Cincinnati, for instance, City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson won 45 percent of the mayoral-race vote in May’s election, earning more support than even the incumbent mayor. Democracy for America, a nationwide liberal group based in Vermont, endorsed Simpson.
They also scored a major victory in Jackson, Miss., where Chokwe Antar Lumumba became mayor-elect just three years after narrowly losing the mayor’s race. Lumumba already has a national presence, after thrilling an audience of several thousand liberals gathered last month at a conference in Chicago, where he vowed to govern not as a calculating centrist but as a progressive champion.
Trump hasn’t explicitly been at the forefront of any of these campaigns. But officials involved say the backlash he has elicited has left liberal voters hungry for aggressive candidates who promise big changes.
“In the Age of Trump, the political power of bold progressive visions — and the social movements that generate them — has increased substantially,” said Joe Dinkin, spokesman for the unabashedly liberal Working Families Party.
The Working Families Party endorsed Lumumba, and its Pennsylvania chapter endorsed Krasner.
The national liberal groups involved in these races say they’re also focused on even more obscure races than those for mayor or district attorney. Democracy for America, for instance, endorsed a candidate in a Library Board race in a western Chicago suburb, arguing that progressives should seek to press their advantage in every race.
“I don’t think there’s a position too small to start building progressive power, especially with all the energy you’re seeing among progressives this year not just in opposing Trump, but also recognizing how important it is to push for progressive policies like minimum wage to universal health care,” said Vivek Kembaiyan, DFA spokesman.
The effect of electing unapologetic liberals to local positions will be consequential immediately — Krasner supporters argue that his election literally could mean life or death for some people.
But progressive strategists are also eyeing the long-term effect of putting so many liberal candidates in local office. For a party that often looks to citywide officials as its next generation of leaders, installing progressives now means that future governors, House members and senators share the activists’ liberal values.
“Electing the next progressive president or a new generation senator or governor, really that work begins immediately and it begins at the local level, in city council and in mayor’s offices and changing the way DAs think about their jobs,” Kembaiyan said. “That’s what it’s going to take.”
Liberals have had more success in municipal races even before Trump’s election. In New York City, for instance, the election of Bill de Blasio in 2013 was a triumph of a liberal-backed candidate over the party’s Democratic establishment.
The movement’s ambition grew further still after the unexpectedly competitive presidential campaign of liberal icon Bernie Sanders.
“Bernie’s movement expanded people’s view of what was possible,” Dinkin said. “And the Trump presidency has made people hungrier for a more aggressive vision of change.”