WASHINGTON — Democratic primary voters have been turning away this year from the anti-elite furies that continue to roil Republican politics, repeatedly choosing more moderate candidates promising steady leadership over disrupters from the party's left wing.
Tuesday's elections in Virginia, which brought the renomination of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and primary losses by three of the Democrats' most outspoken liberal delegates, only underscored a pattern that was previously apparent in special House elections in Louisiana and New Mexico. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a moderate Democrat, won his party's nomination without a challenge from the left after two protest candidates failed to collect the 1,000 signatures needed for ballot access.
In the crowded Democratic primary in New York City, a similar crop of contenders, including Eric Adams and Andrew Yang, have emerged as front-runners by pushing platforms that include an embrace of police as an essential component of public safety, a far cry from the "defund the police" mantra that some liberal activists embraced in 2020.
"There is nothing wrong with being one of those trailblazers who shakes up the status quo, but you can do it in a way that brings people along with you," said Michelle Maldonado, a small-business owner from Bristow, Va., who defeated the state House of Delegates' only self-described democratic socialist in Tuesday's Democratic primary. "Prac-tactical – you've got to be practical and tactical at the same time."
Such rhetoric has left some liberal politicians fuming, as they see the dream of remaking the Democratic Party slipping away like it did during the 2020 presidential campaign, when perceived electability became the most valued commodity and voters coalesced around Joe Biden.
"People like myself who are grassroots-funded, who don't take corporate money, are not able to compete effectively," said Del. Ibraheem Samirah of Fairfax, another disruptive liberal who lost in the primary Tuesday after his opponent was endorsed by centrist leaders. "The party is not progressive."
The centrist successes contrast with the sharp rightward turn in the Republican Party, which has largely adopted the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump. Rank-and-file members, at the state and local levels, continue to rail against the nation's institutions, passing censure resolutions against the few leaders who have contradicted Trump's false claims that the election was stolen – a rallying cry that has been widely repeated by GOP candidates across the country.
Such litmus tests have not applied in Democratic races this year.
The candidates speaking out the loudest on issues such as racism, police abuse and health care inequities often find themselves behind in the polls. Winning candidates in many cases, such as McAuliffe, have adopted liberal positions on issues such as the death penalty and marijuana legalization, but even as they express support for the Black Lives Matter movement have stopped short of backing activist calls to "defund the police."
"Almost everywhere, voters' preference was: We need to win and there is nothing wrong with the Democrat I am voting for," Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said of Tuesday's result in his state. "They are progressive Democrats, maybe not as far on the spectrum as some would like, but they are perfectly acceptable."
The trends could complicate Republican plans to reprise their 2020 campaign strategy of painting Democrats down the ballot as "radical socialists" who favor a dramatic remaking of the nation. Democratic strategists have broadly concluded that those attacks were effective in 2020, including the frequently false claims that Democrats running for federal office wanted to defund the police.
Glenn Youngkin, the former private equity CEO who won the GOP nomination for Virginia governor, has cast his own campaign as a crisis moment against a dangerous ideological fringe. "I couldn't recognize my home state of Virginia with the radical leftist takeover," he tweeted about his reason for running.
But Virginia Democrats did little to hold up that GOP narrative of far-left extremism with the results of Tuesday's primary elections, with centrists and more business-friendly candidates winning in almost every race.
McAuliffe, 64, who was a longtime Democratic fundraiser and party leader before serving as governor from 2014 to 2018, won the gubernatorial nomination over four challengers who positioned themselves to his left. McAuliffe, who is white, resoundingly defeated Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American to ever win statewide in Virginia, and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy of Prince William, both of whom were attempting to become the first Black woman ever elected governor of any state.
Primary challengers running on an anti-corporate message across Virginia had a tough time. Many of them had been funded by husband-and-wife Charlottesville megadonors Michael Bills and Sonjia Smith – who along with Bills's Clean Virginia PAC pushed an agenda aimed at curbing the influence of the state's largest utility, Dominion Energy.
Despite pouring about $3 million into various House and statewide races, Bills and Smith only unseated one incumbent – Del. Stephen Heretick of Portsmouth, who was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.
Left-wing groups also lost the biggest statewide races, with organizations that grew wildly in the Trump years, like the Sunrise Movement, supporting both Foy for governor and Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke for lieutenant governor.
Both ran as outsiders with crucial legislative experience, with Rasoul attacking the eventual primary winner Hala Ayala for accepting $100,000 from Dominion Energy, and Foy calling McAuliffe a "politician of the past" who wouldn't excite voters.
Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist who worked for the political newcomer who defeated Heretick, the conservative Democrat, said the party's liberal record in Richmond gave other insurgent challengers little to run on. Among the laws passed by Virginia's Democratic-run legislature and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) are measures legalizing marijuana for adults and eliminating the death penalty.
"Attacking the establishment is a really hard place to be politically when so much is being accomplished," Tribbett said.
Many liberals have expressed frustration with President Biden and other party leaders, most recently over his lengthy negotiation with Republicans that has shrunk the scale of a potential infrastructure bill and their refusal to eliminate the filibuster rule that effectively gives Republicans veto power over top Democratic agenda items like voting rights and police overhaul legislation. But any anger at the Democratic establishment in Washington has thus far not translated to a widespread repudiation at the polls.
"There is a direct correlation between the giant shift in the progressive direction that we are seeing in the Democratic Party's agenda and what we are seeing at the ballot box," said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supports what it calls "bold" liberal candidates. "When even supposedly conservative Democrats are running in 2022 on trillions of dollars of public investment, what does that say about who won the battle for the soul of the party?"
In a special House election in Louisiana, a Green New Deal-backing Democrat lost to a more moderate Democrat, Rep. Troy Carter, who emphasized his ties to the Biden administration. In New Mexico, Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat, was elected to Congress after defeating a more liberal rival in an intraparty selection process.
In Ohio, where former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner is running for Congress, she's emphasized her Democratic bona fides over her disagreements with Biden, while continuing to advocate for Medicare-for-all and the Sanders platform.
That strategy, according to her campaign, has given her an advantage in the Aug. 3 special primary election.
"Bernie's very popular in the district," said Ben Tulchin, Turner's pollster and the pollster for the 2020 Sanders campaign. "He's not as popular as Biden, but he's popular in his own right."
The next big test in the Democratic Party will come on June 22, when New York Democrats decide on their mayoral nominee, who would immediately become a prohibitive front-runner in the general election. The most liberal candidates in the race, Maya Wiley, who has attracted endorsements from liberal stalwarts such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., but has yet to break into the top three in public polls.
Sean McElwee, the founder of the liberal polling group Data for Progress, said Biden's victory had robbed left-wing candidates of one of their most powerful arguments.
"Democratic voters were very frustrated with the party establishment over its failure to beat Trump, and that led to Democratic partisans being willing to throw the bums out," McElwee said.
Biden, at least for the moment, is still seen by Democrats as a politician capable of leading the country away from Trump.
"The moral of the story is that Joe Biden was on to something," Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin said. "We are in a place where the country is rebuilding and Democratic primary voters want the same thing that voters want, which is big change but in a way that will create meaningful progress."
Lee Carter, the democratic socialist who lost his Virginia House seat to Maldonado, predicted that the strategy would still backfire on the party in the fall, when more people come out to vote.
"The people most likely to show up and vote in a party primary are people already the most satisfied with the way the party is structured," he said. "What seems like the safe vote in June is not necessarily the safe vote in November."
He added that he did not plan to be involved.
"Now I'm going to go try to start a farm," he said. "I'm going to raise sheep and not be harassed."