California’s Primary Shows A Blue Wave Of Progressive Democrats Isn't A Sure Thing

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call.
Photo: Leigh Vogel/WireImage.
Hundreds of thousands of people head to the polls today in California, the nation’s most populous state. There’s a lot of talk about California being a liberal haven compared to the rest of the United States, but the state’s issue with finding female candidates — and letting go of long-time ones for more progressive, diverse, and younger voices — showcases the larger uphill battles Democrats have to climb come November and through the next several election cycles.
For a state that’s so progressive in relation to practically any other state, California’s not seeing much progress in terms getting Democratic women elected to office. Women aren’t making up much ground in the state when it comes to the number of them who are running, and there aren’t high hopes for a number female candidates on the ballot for one reason or another.
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For many, it’s simply a numbers game; Democratic candidates are lining up in droves for key seats, especially in districts held by Republicans in flippable districts, like that of Dana Rohrabacher in California’s 48th congressional district and Darrell Issa in the state’s 49th. The higher the number of candidates in the field, the more split the primary vote. In addition, many women new to the game may be running against others more entrenched in a particular district’s political apparatus, creating further challenges.
But on top of that, despite all the talk of getting more women in the pipeline and really challenging the status quo by electing more progressives, two of the most well-known stalwarts of the Democratic institution who’ve received a ton of flack, Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, are still favorites to win their races despite having challengers who fit the bill of being far more progressive, diverse, and young. It’s assumed Pelosi, who’s become a target for House Democrats as midterm primaries have started up, will sail to victory during the Democratic primary and through the general election as well. And Feinstein, despite the criticism she’s faced for not being liberal enough in Congress, is currently anywhere from 25 to 32 points ahead of her nearest primary challenger in polling from the back half of May.
The question we have to ask is, why? And what do these patterns we’re seeing in California mean for the Democratic party as a whole as we head into November and beyond?
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For one thing, the demographics of who makes up the state’s population versus who actually votes are incredibly different. For example, the Latinx and Asian communities are growing faster than other racial counterparts in the state, but white people, who often tilt more conservative, tend to vote at higher rates than people of color, meaning that their votes count disproportionately more. Additionally, voter turnout amongst young people, who tend to be more progressive, still lagged behind older generations back in 2016, even at their height during the primary, meaning that older folks had disproportionate influence.
Thus, even though California is overall a progressive state that stands for change and seems to move leftward well before most of the country, many of the communities that are driving that desire for change aren’t making it to ballot boxes.
California’s primary predicament is a wake-up call for liberal Americans everywhere, especially in Democratic strongholds on the coasts and in urban areas, that we can’t get complacent when a state or country turns blue. We need to continue fighting to not just have a variety of different candidates, but to have all citizens feel like their voices will be heard at the voting booth. We shouldn’t just settle for having any ol’ Democrat in office; we need Democrats who’ll fight for their constituents’ rights for years to come, especially as times change and public opinion changes with it.
There’s so much good news this primary season for Democrats, and there’s a lot to be excited about heading into the back half of the primaries and into the general midterm election. But let’s not lose sight of what we want here: We don’t want status quo. We want people who are going to change the game. And to do that, we need to campaign for the people we want and vote for the people we want.
Sometimes we’ll win the battle, and sometimes we’ll lose. But the most important thing we can do is understand that every single campaign and every single vote helps us win the war — and that includes places that are firmly in the blue category.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29 and the founder of political volunteer network Get Her Elected. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.
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