Progressive women look to revamp label’s image

Progressive women are reemerging as a powerful force in the midterm elections, moving further away from the white male image that has dominated the left’s narrative.

As moderate female lawmakers look to exit Congress, left-wing candidates — specifically women of color and Black women — are pushing to redefine what the party could look like in November with more liberals in the House.  

Insurgents who were once relegated to fringe status are now on the air and blitzing the mainstream media, hoping to move voters in different parts of the country. They’ve also fine-tuned their messaging to show that both ideology and identity are necessary for what they see as a winning calculus ahead of the fall. 

“Cycle after cycle, Black women put this party on their back, but rarely are we given the opportunity and resources by our party to lead from the front and represent our communities,” said Summer Lee, a progressive first-time House candidate seeking election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District. 

“It’s always our priorities, progressive priorities, that are on the chopping block first because the people making decisions have the luxury of not seeing our crises as urgencies.” 

Five out of the six candidates endorsed this cycle by Justice Democrats, the group that first backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), are women of color: Lee, Jessica Cisneros in Texas’s 28th District, Kina Collins in Illinois’s 7th, Rana Abdelhamid in New York’s 12th and Odessa Kelly in Tennessee’s 7th.  

Several candidates told The Hill that their personal identities are central to their primary campaigns.  

Lee, an activist and organizer running in an open primary, released her first ad this week, emphasizing a platform of Medicare of All and union jobs. She also mentioned reproductive freedom, an area where liberal advocates see room for traction as several GOP-led state legislatures and governors work to unwind reproductive rights.  

A graduate of Pennsylvania State University and Howard University, an HBCU, Lee’s personal story has been at the forefront of her bid to win a Pittsburgh-area seat. Historically, few women in Pennsylvania have been elevated to higher office, a reality that further propelled her candidacy.  

“That’s why so many of us across the country have done the work ourselves, organized our communities, and decided it’s time for representation that has lived our urgencies to lead our communities,” she said. 

Collins, a social and racial justice activist from Illinois, was inspired to run after feeling directly left out of conversations where decisions were being made that impacted communities like hers. 

“I’m a Black, millennial woman from a working-class family on the West Side of Chicago, and because of those identities I have experienced erasure in a unique way both in society and in policy,” she said.  

“Too many of the people who control the purse strings and make decisions on critical issues, from health care access to gun violence prevention, don’t look like the people who experience the impact of those decisions every day.” 

Some of Congress’s most visible moderate Democratic members have announced retirements. Centrist Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-N.J.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) have each said they will not seek further terms in the House, opening a flood of seats that come as the party scrambles to retain control of the chamber.  

That framework has added new attention on progressives, some of whom are already pushing back against the conventional wisdom that voters prefer moderate candidates — oftentimes longtime officeholders who are men — to leftists in Democratic districts.  

That logic was first questioned when Ocasio-Cortez won a surprise victory against former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in 2018. Following that upset came Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and ultimately Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who ousted a prominent Black centrist, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), to secure her place on Capitol Hill.  

Left-wing female candidates are now facing new tests, with moderates watching to see how they fare at a challenging time for the country and party. President Biden’s first term in office has been rocky, and Democrats’ chances of holding both the House and Senate are not looking great. 

Biden and top congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have been on a quest for moderation both in rhetoric and policy. The president has resisted promoting certain activist-led slogans, including “defund the police” that Bush and several other progressives of color prefer, to return to the middle. He’s also been stymied at times by a handful of his party’s own moderates, who did not want to see top progressive provisions in “Build Back Better” pass.  

Still, female candidates on the left are plowing ahead in their mission to add more numbers to the “Squad” and the aligned Congressional Progressive Caucus chaired by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), an Indian American woman.  

“Growing up, I felt excluded from electoral politics because I never saw myself in my elected officials,” said Abdelhamid of New York, who is Muslim, expressing a frustration felt among progressives of color in describing their rationale for launching unlikely bids.  

Abdelhamid is hoping her perspective will help further diversify Congress. Tlaib from Michigan and Omar from Minnesota, who are also Muslim, have often spoken about their unique place at the table. In recent years, that meant swatting back against what many considered incendiary and Islamaphobic rhetoric from former President Trump and his allies.  

That’s been changing as more women Abdelhamid can relate to have won hard-fought elections, she said.  

“In recent years, I’ve seen more people elected to office that are not only fighting for women like me, but who look like me,” she said. “It motivated me to join the fight.” 

Arguably the highest-profile progressive race this cycle is happening in Texas, where Cisneros, a Latina civil rights attorney, is challenging Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (D–Texas) in a forthcoming runoff election in the state’s 28th District.  

By forcing a runoff, Cisneros was able to motivate just enough voters to turn out for her lesser-known primary campaign against the longtime conservative Cuellar. The two had battled before, with Cisneros, a political neophyte at the time, coming up short. 

The party’s establishment is now strongly backing Cuellar, with the latest indication being Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) announcing that he will stump for him next month. Up against tough political headwinds from the ranks of Congress, Cisneros has had to walk a fine line. 

Some strategists say that there’s not enough padding in place to help prop up female candidates of color against better-funded male opponents.  

“The party politic is the one that I’m concerned about,” said Karundi Williams, executive director of re:power, a group that helps progressives run for office. 

“While we have seen the need to have more representation, we don’t have the infrastructure, the resources, the system is not set up for us to be successful,” she said. “That’s where attention is needed, and that’s where the conversation needs to go.”