-by Kyle Dalsimer,
campaign manager for Ally Dalsimer
On June 8th of this year, Virginia held statewide elections for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and 100 delegate seats. What we saw as progressives in this race was nothing short of carnage. Despite some encouraging results (progressive Delegate Elizabth Guzman retains her seat, DSA-backed NaDarius Clark defeated a corrupt conservative incumbent), we were overwhelmingly defeated. Why did this happen? Is it what many people claim: that Virginia is "not ready" to elect progressives? Or is the answer far more nuanced, necessitating a deeper inspection?
The first place to look at what went wrong is the Lieutenant Governor race, which saw six candidates make the final ballot, 4 of whom could be quantifiably described as progressives (to varying degrees). While it was remarkable to have progressive discourse front and center in this race, the lack of Ranked Choice Voting (a system which all candidates verbally endorsed), we saw what would have been a clear plurality divided four ways. This was not the only problem, as county-by-county map shows, the industrialized east coast of the state voted a majority for the Dominion-backed victor, while nearly all of the rural western portion of the state voted for Sam Rasoul, a delegate with the endorsements of virtually every progressive organization statewide. Polling showed a very close race with high undecided numbers until just days before election day, when the eventual winner suddenly shot up in the polls, a spike that directly coincided with a television ad cut by the current Governor endorsing her campaign. Despite concerns about integrity and taking funds from corporations she’d sworn to denounce earlier in the campaign, we did not see an organized effort to rebuke the new frontrunner. While this may have been a result of timing and lack of resources, it must also be noted that former frontrunner Rasoul had the largest grassroots fundraising totals, and would have had the funds to put out media exposing these issues to less in-the-loop voters statewide. Rasoul ran a very clean and cordial campaign, and did not attack other candidates, a decision that made sense for the presumptive frontrunner, but may have cost him the election in the final stretch. While we’ll never know if results would have been altered under a Ranked-Choice voting system, it was clear that having four progressive candidates in the race muddied messaging and opposition to corporatism. Had efforts been made to release factual, if damning, information on a wider scale, voters may have come to the polls with different intentions. Instead, not only did the most conservative candidate on the ballot secure the nomination, but one of the losing progressive candidates, Mark Levine, also lost his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Levine’s voting record is one of the most consistently progressive in the state, and his work to end gun violence and create transparency in Richmond are second to none. The same can be said for Gubernatorial candidate and socialist Lee Carter, who flipped a deep red seat in 2017 and wrote the legislation to cap insulin copays at only $50 statewide. Both will be sorely missed in the state house.
Another bold progressive candidate to lose their seat is Herndon Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, a 29 year old Dentist who advocated for statewide single-payer healthcare, and drew national attention for disrupting a Trump rally in Jamestown. Despite being the incumbent, Samirah’s opponent was able to outraise him 2:1 with the help of establishment PACs and dark money. She also garnered endorsements from centrist and conservative Democratic legislators that seemed to disapprove of Delegate Samirah’s bold vision and refusal to compromise values. Delegate Samirah was also the victim of a slew of vicious attack ads that attempted to paint him as someone to fear, a tactic targeted specifically at older voters who fear "radicals." This included an attack ad in which Delegate Samirah’s skin was darkened. With final votes tallied, Samirah was defeated by just over 200 votes in an election that saw nearly 7,000 cast.
Progressive challengers to corporate incumbents fared even worse than incumbent progressives, as they were both outspent and had to make up the gap in name recognition. In Northern Virginia alone, there were three major insurgents running, those being Jennifer Adeli (HD-34), Karishma Mehta (HD-49), and Holly Hazard (HD-38), who ranged from progressive to Democratic Socialists. Each had incredibly robust field games, with Adeli’s team knocking over 20,000 doors in a district that only saw 7000 total votes. Despite this, these campaigns were unsuccessful in defeating their opponents, earning 26%, 30%, and 39%, respectively. When I spoke to an anonymous campaign staffer, they informed me that the data they received for knocking doors came from the Virginia State Democratic Party, and included information about voters who had previously voted in statewide primaries. Immediately, red flags began to rise. The state party’s interest is in keeping their incumbents, so the data available (as many canvassers experienced) was not always to friendly homes or even voters who had an interest in the race. In addition, targeting people who previously voted in state primaries inherently targets voters who have voted for the incumbent at least once before. In doing so, we miss the biggest part of trying to run a progressive campaign: bringing in voters who have never been involved in the process. When I canvassed for one campaign, I was sent to a wealthy neighborhood in which the incumbent’s signs stood in every other yard. Every door I came to was hostile because they knew the incumbent and liked him. It wasn’t until I turned the corner towards an apartment complex and met a single mother whose sister was struggling to pay medical bills that I had my first genuine conversation. She was thrilled to hear about the challenger, and became emotional when I mentioned that ending medical debts was a key part of her platform. She asked "why have I never heard of her before, she is amazing!" I looked down to my canvassing app to see where she was on my list and mark her off, only to find she and her household were not on there. She had not voted in previous primaries because in her words: "why bother? No one has ever come to me to ask for my vote until today." By complete accident, I found the base of support every progressive campaign needs. Knocking doors is important, but for us to have any chance, we must meet people where they are, and not trust a data-supplying institution that actively opposes our cause.
So what is the takeaway? Did progressives simply lose because our message is not popular? Is the woman I met who became emotional at the thought of medical debt cancellation the exception to a mostly apathetic state? Or are we simply reaching to the wrong people? What every single example today has shown us is that attempting to reach victory through traditional pathways will not lead to progressive wins. In the Lieutenant Governor’s race, wealthy suburbia went overwhelmingly for the establishment figure, while the rural (mostly ignored) Western half of the state came out overwhelmingly for Sam Rasoul, who actively traveled to each county and spoke to people in towns that hadn’t seen a statewide candidate since the days of Henry Howell in the 70s. Ibraheem Samirah was defeated because his opponent mobilized a militia of wealthy suburbanites to the polls with pseudo-racist fear mongering. Incredible primary challengers with armies of volunteers knocking doors were unable to defeat corporate incumbents because many of the houses they were given to knock already had a long standing history of supporting their opponents, while NaDarius Clark in Chesapeake utilized his organizing background in turning out hundreds of voters who wouldn’t traditionally vote in a statewide primary. Above all else, we faced a double-edge sword. 2021 saw more progressive candidates running for office than any time in recent memory, and while chapters of Sunrise, Our Revolution, and DSA had more candidates than ever who aligned with their vision, they also had more candidates in need of resources than ever before. Progressive organizing is growing in Virginia, but with so many excellent candidates running for different seats, I fear that we as a movement were spread too thin and unable to put substantive efforts into any one race. Unlike the state establishment, we do not have unlimited resources and staff, so while they are able to put efforts towards their incumbents and preferred candidates in open races, our division of resources and focus created a power vacuum that I fear lead to some preventable losses and shortchanged some strong challengers who had a path to victory if given more support.
So what’s next? Where do we go from here in Virginia? My attention turns to June 14th, 2022, just under a year from today. In Northern Virginia, there will (as of today) only be one election on the ballot: Gerald Connolly vs Ally Dalsimer for Virginia’s 11th Congressional District. The progressive movement has a unique opportunity to allocate all its resources to a single race, and put a complete focus on what could be a referendum on corporate politics in Northern Virginia. Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a living wage, Universal Pre-K, tuition free Public University and Trade School, Worker and Union Rights: these are just some of what Ally is running for. We have an opportunity next year that will very rarely come around, a Congressional primary that pits a progressive and a corporate incumbent head to head, with no down-ballot races to worry about or higher office races to overshadow the challenge. With a progressive Congresswoman representing a large portion of Northern Virginia, down ballot progressives running for state and local office in the future would have institutional support that can swing many voters. Just as the Lieutenant Governor’s race was decided by the Governor’s endorsement, a progressive delegate running in Northern Virginia could be lifted to victory by the support of the sitting Congresswoman from the district. This race has implications that could shift Virginia politics for the next decades, and the only path to success is a unified progressive coalition of organizers, grassroots groups, progressive leaders and officials, and more. From Sam Rasoul to Lee Carter to Ibraheem Samirah to Sean Perryman to Mark Levine to Elizabeth Guzman and beyond, we must unify after the losses of June 8th to elect a progressive leader to Congress from Virginia’s 11th district. The result is dire, and I hope you will join me in making sure that result is victory for Progressives.