The California primary—What happened to the revolution?

Esteban Meza, a longtime Salinas voter, stands in front of a voting booth ready to vote inside St. Mary of the Nativity Catholic Church  s hall during the 2022 California Primary elections in Salinas, Calif., on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.
Editor's note:

Party primaries are now the most consequential elections in American politics. With more and more states and congressional districts becoming dominated by one party or the other, the most consequential choices for voters come in party primaries. At the Brookings Primaries Project, we are studying all the candidates in congressional primaries. This is the fourth piece in that project. Special thanks to Andy Cerda, Jordan Muchnick, Sylvia Garrett, John Hudak, Avi Gulati and Ethan Jasny for their work on it.

Ever since Sen. Bernie Sanders burst on to the national scene six years ago with the statement that “we need a political revolution,” conventional wisdom has maintained the rise of a new progressive base in the Democratic Party. Although Sanders’ two presidential campaigns failed, his movement picked up some seats in Congress and seemed to keep the revolution going. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Ortiz (D-N.Y.) became the charismatic and youthful alternative to the elderly Sanders. She was joined by other very liberal representatives who together became known as the Squad.[1] The progressive caucus in the House was strong enough to convince President Biden to tie his infrastructure bill to a large spending bill. Although the strategy ultimately failed, it seemed to show the power of the left in the Democratic Party.

And yet, the “revolution,” if there ever really was one, shows serious signs of running out of steam.

In Tuesday’s California primary the most watched race was not a primary for Governor or Senator.[2] Instead, the focus was on a recall election aimed at the San Francisco District Attorney—Chesa Boudin. A former public defender, he was elected in 2019. During his tenure crime, homelessness, and lawlessness in San Francisco grew worse. Criminologists can debate whether his policies were causal or not, but in the minds of many voters, he brought to his new job a preference for criminals over victims. This did not play well in a city which, while famously liberal, was also being overrun by crime. His defeat was not close—60% voted to remove him from office as of this writing.

Other California results showed a similar lack of enthusiasm for left-wing politics. In the Los Angeles race for mayor, a billionaire former Republican, Rick Caruso, received more votes than progressive Representative Karen Bass by promising to fight crime and clean up homeless encampments throughout the city. However, his five-point besting of Bass still fell short of a majority, prompting a runoff in November. Bass may still win the general election race, after a low turnout primary.

Taking a look at the country as a whole, so far what strikes us is the sheer absence of far-left candidates in the Democratic Party. As of this date, 478 people have run for the Democratic nomination for House and Senate seats. Of those, only 164 (34.3%) called themselves progressives, only 26 (15.9% of self-proclaimed progressives) were endorsed by Bernie Sanders, a member of the Squad or one of the three major left-wing organizations; Justice for All, Our Revolution and/or Indivisible. And only 129 (27%) used the following phrases “defund the police, abolish ICE, Medicare for all, green new deal, or opposition to ‘corporate’ Democrats” in their campaign materials. And out of all these Democratic candidates, only nine identify themselves as Democratic Socialists.

These findings, however, are biased because most of the states that have held primaries so far have been very Republican states—not hospitable to any kind of Democrat, especially far left ones. Even where Democrats win in these states, they tend to be more moderate. And so, we broke our research down to look at the Democratic-leaning states that have held primaries so far: Oregon, California, and New Jersey. As we expected, in these states a greater percentage of Democratic candidates ran as progressives than as mainstream Democrats. As the tables below indicate, nearly half of the Democrats identified themselves as progressives.

Ideology breakdown # of candidates % of candidates
Mainstream Democrat 63 37.72%
Progressive Democrat 79 47.31%
Democratic Socialists 4 2.40%
No data available 21 12.57%
Total 167 100%
Website contains the following phrases: “defund the police, abolish ICE, Medicare for all, green new deal, opposition to ‘corporate’ Democrats” # of candidates % of candidates
Yes 63 37.72%
No 104 62.28%
Total 167 100%


Candidate was endorsed by Justice for All, Our Revolution, Indivisible and/or Sen. Bernie Sanders and/or a member of the Squad # of candidates % of candidates
Yes 9 5.39%
No 158 94.61%
Total 167 100%

We also expected to find more far left positions on issues. And yet, fewer candidates (37.72%) ran on one or more of the issues that have defined the far left of the Democratic Party. “Medicare for all” was mentioned most, but candidates stayed away from the most controversial ones such as “defund the police.” And finally, very few candidates ran with the explicit endorsement of either Bernie Sanders, the Squad or one of the groups that were founded to carry out their vision. Of the seven House candidates Sanders has endorsed so far, three have won, three have lost, and one, Jessica Cisneros, has filed for a recount.

As we’ve seen among the GOP, thus far, there is a tough battle going on for the soul of the Republican Party. Trump himself is not the powerhouse some expected him to be as recent defeats of his candidates in Georgia, North Carolina, and Idaho illustrated. But more importantly, in spite of all the noise that surrounds Trump wherever he goes there still appears to be a significant non-Trump Republican Party out there.

What appears to be true for the Republicans may be even more true for the Democrats. Of course, there are many blue states yet to vote in their primaries, but evidence from the June 7 primaries indicates that while Democrats have picked up the progressive label, they are staying clear of the more controversial issues such as “Defund the Police” that have turned out to be widely unpopular even in very liberal cities in California. The Republicans will continue to try to paint the Democrats with every unpopular label they can, but in fact there are very few actual Democratic candidates running on a truly far-left platform.

[1] In addition to Ocasio-Cortiz, the other members are: Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman. Endorsements from Nina Turner counted as well.

[2] The incumbent Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom and incumbent (appointed) Democratic Senator Alex Padilla ran essentially unopposed among Democrats.