Unseating a longtime congressman in a primary is hard. It’s especially hard to do in a district where the family of the incumbent holds a handful of other elected offices, where there are schools named after the guy you’re trying to defeat. In Texas’s Twenty-eighth Congressional District, 26-year-old immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros came close, though. Her bid to replace U.S. representative Henry Cuellar came up just 2,700 votes short, and 3.6 percentage points away from launching a candidate who’d been pegged as the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress in the solidly blue district. Given the inherent challenges in winning a race like that, it’s an impressive result—but a loss is still a loss, and not just for Cisneros.
Cisneros had the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, the Justice Democrats, and much of the progressive wing of the Democratic party. For the left to rise in the Democratic party, those forces will need more than moral victories—a closer-than-anyone-might-have-thought result doesn’t add a vote in Congress for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.
Cisneros wasn’t the only candidate on the left to fall short in Texas on Super Tuesday. Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, an AOC-backed candidate in the U.S. Senate primary, narrowly missed making the two-candidate runoff, coming behind longtime state senator Royce West for second place by fewer than 25,000 votes statewide. (MJ Hegar, a moderate whose 2018 congressional bid included a viral campaign ad, took first place in the primary and will face off with West in May for the chance to challenge John Cornyn this fall.)
Ramirez’s campaign was close—in the statewide race, 25,000 votes was just 1.3 percentage points—and the Senate primary was curiously low-profile, with no candidate getting anything close to the sort of attention Beto O’Rourke garnered in 2018. It’s unlikely that most of the nearly 1.9 million Texans who voted in the race are intimately familiar with the policy platforms of each candidate (on health care, Ramirez favored Medicare for All, while West and Hegar prefer a policy that reinforces the Affordable Care Act). Voters may not actively be rejecting left-leaning candidates in Texas, but they aren’t finding themselves deeply invested in their campaigns, either.
Of course, the best avatar for the movement is Bernie Sanders himself, and he also struggled in Texas on Tuesday. With 99 percent of precincts in, Sanders trails Biden by five percentage points, and the national result was similarly disappointing for the nation’s best-known democratic socialist, as he trailed Biden by more than 800,000 votes across fourteen states (with pending votes in California likely to narrow that gap some).
The prospect of a ceiling on Sanders’s support has been a concern among his critics. It’s probably one reason why O’Rourke and a handful of other prominent Democrats endorsed Biden on Monday night, given the party’s hopes of retaining control of the House and flipping the Senate this fall. In 2018, Justice Democrats, an organization started by alumni of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, ran candidates in 79 primaries; only 26 of them won their races. Some of them have since become some of the Democratic party’s biggest stars—AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Sanders campaign co-chair Ro Khanna—but in 2020, the slate of primary candidates dropped to nine. (Cisneros lost; Georgette Gómez, in California, advanced to the general election; the other primaries haven’t yet been held.) Beyond Justice Democrats, groups like Democratic Socialists of America, which swelled in membership amid Sanders’s 2016 campaign, haven’t proved themselves at the ballot box, either. In the Twenty-fifth Congressional District, which runs from Austin to just south of Fort Worth, Austin-based candidate Heidi Sloan lost a race to a non-DSA progressive, Julie Oliver, by forty percentage points.
If even half of Sanders’s 625,000 voters in Texas had also backed Tzintzún Ramirez, she would have found herself in the runoff election in May. And the fact that Sanders and his movement haven’t demonstrated long coattails in other elections is a problem even if the Bernie 2020 campaign rebounds.
Sanders’s platform is transformative, built around the prospect of a political revolution. It’s what inspires so many about his candidacy—but even if he wins, that revolution won’t come if President Sanders finds himself constantly at war with members of the party he leads. Conservative Democrats like Henry Cuellar would likely spend a lot of time staking out territory as #NeverBernie figures within the party, just as Trump’s remaking of the GOP included resistance from within—but the fact that so many of the Republicans who opposed Trump retired rather than face primary challenges reflects the president’s ability to move down-ballot races. Sanders still isn’t able to tip the scales for a congressional race in a district he won handily like Texas’s Twenty-eighth—which means there will be little incentive for Democrats who want to oppose him to back his governing agenda, even if he emerges from the primary and triumphs in November.
It’s possible that things would be different for President Sanders than candidate Sanders, but he’s been one of the highest-profile politicians in America for more than four years now, and it hasn’t happened yet. Unless Sanders is able to expand “Not Me, Us” to include a slate of lawmakers who will enthusiastically pass Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the wide array of proposals that excite his supporters, the actual legislative accomplishments of a Sanders administration are likely to look a lot like those of a President Biden. If Bernie does win, it’s possible that the majority of current Democrats will have a change of heart around the signature proposals of the Sanders campaign, and vote to forgive student debt, implement a wealth tax, and guarantee tuition-free public higher education—but his movement hasn’t demonstrated an ability to pressure those officials with primaries yet. They had several opportunities to change that in Texas on Tuesday. The failure to do it was another part of a bad night for Bernie Sanders.