Campaigns & Elections

Another big night for the DSA

The left-wing group showed it isn’t a one-time wonder in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries.

DSA Candidate for Assembly District 36 Zohran Mamdani.

DSA Candidate for Assembly District 36 Zohran Mamdani. Submitted

It’s tough to get an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter. The process is lengthy, involving a detailed candidate interview and questionnaire and multiple rounds of meetings and votes within the party. That’s because it’s an endorsement with teeth, the organization says. It comes with volunteers, data, a fundraising network and enviable branding – at least among the left-wing activists who can dominate in Democratic primaries.

“The real value of the DSA endorsement isn’t just the name recognition,” Matthew Thomas, a Queens DSA chapter member and communications director for Assembly candidate Zohran Mamdani, told City & State. “A lot of it is the campaign staff and volunteers and people that are able to do the work of a campaign in a really effective way.”

Initial primary election results reveal a lot about the DSA effect: a powerful mobilization of young, progressive, digitally savvy college graduates who live in gentrifying neighborhoods. Of the seven candidates officially endorsed by New York City’s socialist organization, state Senate candidate Jabari Brisport, incumbent state Sen. Julia Salazar, Mamdani and incumbent Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez all had promising leadsafter polls closed Tuesday night. Assembly candidate Phara Souffrant Forrest trailed close behind establishment candidate Walter Mosley. Congressional candidate Samelys López and Assembly candidate Marcela Mitaynes appeared likely to lose in crowded fields.

Vote tallies from the ballots cast in person are by no means final, and they likely won’t be until next month. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, between 50% and 75% of the votes in some races will be cast via absentee ballots, according to an estimate from Matthew Rey, a political consultant with Red Horse Strategies. More than 700,000 New York City residents requested ballots in the mail, compared to 471,000 ballots cast in person for the Democratic presidential primary which was also held on Tuesday. In individual districts, the proportion of ballots coming by mail might be even greater. In the 36th Assembly district in Western Queens, which Mamdani hopes to represent, 7,884 in-person votes were counted on Tuesday, according to the city Board of Elections, while 15,580 absentee ballots were requested from voters in that district, though not all of those absentee ballots even reached the voter much less got to them early enough to be returned with a postmark by Election Day. 

Grassroots campaigning, which normally relies on in-person contact with door-knocking and public gatherings, was forced to shift online. And on Election Day, reports of ballot confusion at polling places and missing absentee ballots filled social media. 

Despite being unable to canvas in person, in several races the DSA replicated its feat from 2018 of mobilizing more voters than is typical for a congressional or state legislative primary. The two state Senate races with city DSA-backed candidates had the highest in-person voter turnout of all state Senate Democratic primaries. 

The DSA advantage was most apparent in Mamdani’s race against Assembly Member Aravella Simotas, where Mamdani leads the incumbent by more than 7 percentage points with 91% of the in-person votes counted. DSA-backed Brisport also has a big lead in the race to replace retiring state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery in the 25th Senate district in Brooklyn. Brisport, a public school teacher, is leading current Assembly Member Tremaine Wright 52% to 41% with 93% of the in-person votes counted. A third candidate, Jason Salmon, has 7%. 

Brisport and Mamdani could still lose, however. Absentee ballots have historically skewed toward older voters who are more likely to vote for establishment candidates, but Thomas of the Queens DSA said this election might be different. “Traditionally, progressive campaigns are a little nervous about the absentee vote, but this is a very different year,” he said. “The largest age cohort that requested absentee ballots in our district was 25-34 years old.” 

The two 2018 success stories both easily dispatched challenges from the right. Ocasio Cortez garnered 70% of the vote in the 14th Congressional District in Queens and the Bronx, easily defeating her nearest opponent, former CNBC news anchor and former Republican Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. Salazar, the first Democratic Socialist to serve in the state Legislature after an upset victory in 2018, won more than 80% of the vote in her Brooklyn state Senate district in a decisive victory over Andy Marte, a former legislative aide to the longtime Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Vito Lopez. 

In Assembly District 57 in Central Brooklyn, Forrest, a DSA-backed activist and a nurse, trails incumbent Mosley, but by only about three points. Mosley, a former district leader and Assembly staffer whose mother, Marilyn Mosley, has also served as district leader, was an ambitious target for the DSA.

Forrest’s campaign has refused to concede the election. “While my opponent has declared victory, we are optimistic that the absentee ballots will break in our favor when the paper canvass is conducted next week,” the candidate wrote in a statement.

A Mosley campaign representative said they are confident about the absentee vote outcome, but acknowledged that this year is unusual.

Two DSA-backed candidates, Mitaynes, a tenants advocate, in Brooklyn Assembly District 51, which covers Red Hook and Sunset Park, and López, a housing activist, in the crowded race to replace retiring Rep. José Serrano in the South Bronx, are likely to lose. Mitaynes trails incumbent Félix Ortiz by eight points, though she has a significant lead among the three progressive challengers in that race. In the closely watched Bronx congressional race, López, a first-time candidate, came in fourth with 13% of the in-person vote. 

Though he didn’t receive the city DSA’s endorsement, middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who seems likely to unseat longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in Congressional District 16, touted endorsements from the national DSA and from Ocasio-Cortez. Mondaire Jones, who aims to take over retiring Rep. Nita Lowey’s seat in the Lower Hudson Valley, was also endorsed by AOC, and also looks likely to be heading to the general election in November.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the DSA is an organization, not a party.