Before this summer, Jovanka Beckles wasn’t considered a serious candidate to represent California’s Assembly District 15. She was seen as far left and a long-shot.
But Beckles surprised pundits by placing second in the June primary. She was propelled forward after being endorsed by Our Revolution, a national group supporting progressive politicians that sprung out of Bernie Sanders’ failed but surprisingly virile presidential campaign. Her success shows the potency of progressive issues and how they’re making their mark on the Democratic party ahead of November’s mid-term elections.
Now the question is whether Beckles, who served on the Richmond City Council for eight years, can pull off an upset again. As she goes head-to-head with former President Barack Obama-backed Buffy Wicks, the upcoming November 6 race, like many others across the country, will serve as a litmus test for the direction of the Democratic party going forward.
“This election is a test of what is the strength of more progressive candidates, especially in these legislative races,” says Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Institute of California.
Over the past few months, progressive candidates have made impressive headway. Some Our Revolution-backed candidates have pulled off shocking upsets, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic socialist who defeated incumbent Joseph Crowley in the primary in a bid to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 14th district.
And the issues pushed by Sanders and Our Revolution are gaining traction, as seen in the similarities in Beckles’ and Wicks’ platform. Both call for California to have 100 percent renewable energy within the next few decades—Beckles by 2035, Wicks by 2045. Both want a single-payer healthcare system. And both call for expanded public education, although Beckles champions fully funded education from pre-K through college, while Wicks campaigns for subsidized pre-K and more government funding for higher education but isn’t specific on what proportion of education costs would be publicly funded.
Beckles and Wicks differ more in their spending and endorsements, however. Beckles has received endorsements from key labor unions, environmental organizations, and celebrities, such as Danny Glover. But Wicks, who worked on both Obama campaigns and in the President’s Office of Public Engagement, has received endorsements from California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, and Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who was also the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a presidential contender.
Wicks has also raised almost twice as much as Beckles from January to June of 2018, according to the California Secretary of State’s office: $205,544 for Wicks versus $114,263 for Beckles. But the real difference is in their spending. Wicks outspent Beckles more than five to one during the same period, using her private funds to spend $514,839 on the campaign, versus $92,671 by Beckles’ campaign.
This spending power and political prowess may be part of why getting progressive items on the agenda is easier than getting progressive candidates into office. The New York Times reported in June that nationally fewer than 50 percent of the more than 80 candidates Our Revolution has endorsed have won elections this year. According to Dr. Thad Kousser, professor of political science at UC San Diego, Democrats are happy to move left on key issues, such as single-payer healthcare, but refrain from explicitly seeking Our Revolution’s endorsement because of Sanders’ socialist leaning.
“If you can get in on the positive of the policies without the negatives of Bernie Sanders, then there’s electoral advantage there,” Kousser says.
But Sanders isn’t flustered by electoral losses and the big-name politicians that Our Revolution candidates are up against. Other candidates backed by his group, including former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, were handily beaten in the June primaries. Sanders has said that Our Revolution isn’t necessarily about winning but about building a progressive movement. Mark Van Landuyt, chairman of Our Revolution Contra Costa, says that the organization is reaching a wider group of voters.
“From Eureka to San Diego, progressive alliances have been forming,” he says, citing the California Progressive Alliance. “Even if you don’t achieve victory, we’re helping to define the future of California politics.”