Zephyr Teachout’s Loss and the Struggle to Maintain the Sanders Platform Beyond 2016Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Politics Features Zephyr Teachout
At the Rhinebeck Inn in Rhinebeck, NY on the evening of Nov. 8, Democrats from the surrounding area clustered to watch the election results come in.
Initially boisterous and jovial, as the hours and results continued to roll in, the ground floor, with a large projector showing MSNBC’s coverage, fell more quiet. Florida didn’t look like it was supposed to, neither did North Carolina, and Pennsylvania was surprisingly close.
As the night wore on though, it became clearer that not only were states such as these close, but they weren’t going to go for Hillary Clinton at all. They would, instead, be going to Donald Trump, along with the presidency.
Many across the country were shocked that Trump had triumphed over Clinton. The range of emotions at the Rhinebeck Inn ranged from slow deflation to anger, with people audibly asking “why are you cheering?” when people applauded the calling of Virginia for Clinton.
On the floor above, though, there was the Democratic congressional candidate, Zephyr Teachout, who had the fate of her own race against Republican John Faso to consider.
Teachout was a newcomer to the NY-19th district. Before the election season, she moved from Brooklyn to NY-19 to run against the former state assemblyman Faso after three term Republican incumbent Chris Gibson resigned from office. Teachout, a lawyer and professor, oversaw the Sunlight Foundation, a group that focused on government transparency and campaign finance reform, before she emerged on the political circuit in 2014 when she made a surprisingly strong showing in a primary challenge to incumbent governor Andrew M. Cuomo.
In terms of her policies, she closely aligned with the Bernie Sanders legacy, and Sanders had campaigned for her earlier in the year at a rally in New Paltz, NY.
Both her and Sanders are vehemently for campaign finance reform,decrying dark money in politics, and at the time, she was at odds with the traditional Democratic party on trade, opposing both NAFTA and the TPP (Clinton later stated she was opposed to the TPP). “Bernie has done an amazing job reaching young people,” Ms. Teachout said in an interview with the New York Times after the rally. “Young people care about water and jobs just as much as anybody else. And what Bernie has done by speaking truth to power is connected to young people who are tired of career politicians and want to hear somebody just saying, ‘Hey! The billionaires have a problem.’ ”
In many ways, Teachout showed how the legacy of Bernie’s primary challenge to Clinton might live beyond the end of the primary. Targeting the rare swing congressional district, which had overwhelmingly gone for Bernie in the primary (58 percent for Sanders versus 41 percent for Clinton), Teachout hoped to build on a legacy of liberal principles that resonated with young voters (the district contains multiple colleges) and disillusioned voters who were drawn to the populist (though very different) platforms of candidates like Trump and Sanders.
Despite this, Faso followed a strategy that had worked for Gibson in the past in the district—label your opponent a “liberal carpetbagger,” stressing their lack of time in the district, and run a slew of negative ads against them. The strategy worked against the last Democratic challenger, Sean Eldridge, and it would go on to work against Teachout, who ended up losing the district by 9 points.
As the night began to wind down, staffers stood in the back of the room as Teachout made her concession speech in front of TV cameras and supporters alike. Some cried, others stood silently, mouths set in a grim line.
“Once in a generation, we are called upon to restore American democracy,” she said at the end of her address. “And you’ve seen what’s happened across the country tonight. It’s urgent and it’s going to take all of us. We may have lost this race, but we are not going away.”
As supporters of Sanders’ presidential bid start to mount campaigns to displace long entrenched members of the Democratic party in states across the nation, it’s worth trying to remember that candidates like Teachout were already running on that platform, and just like Clinton, were rebuffed. Only four out of the twelve primary challengers and general elections candidates the website Progressive Army identified as being most aligned with Sanders’ platform won their campaigns in 2016.
Campaigns like Teachout’s have laid the groundwork for future campaigns on a leftist liberal platform, but they will need to be in a more widespread and cohesive way than the 2016 elections, and they will need to be at all levels of government.
As Teachout said, “We may have lost this race, but we are not going away.” It’s up to the movement Sanders started to make sure those words don’t ring hollow in 2018 and 2020.