The liberal push to remake the Democratic Party into a more progressive and diverse political organization will be tested this week in Michigan, where a coalition of grass-roots groups has unified behind Abdul El-Sayed’s underdog quest to become the nation’s first Muslim governor.
Mr. El-Sayed is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Stacey Abrams, who became the first black female nominee for governor in Georgia, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is well-positioned to become the first Hispanic to represent the 14th Congressional District in New York after stunning the political world with a victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley.
“Everyone in the progressive grass roots is lined up behind Abdul,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America.
The 33-year-old’s bid also is more evidence of how November’s elections are shaping up as a major test of identity politics as liberal activists rally behind black, Hispanic, female and other candidates who are putting a greater emphasis on reaching out to marginalized communities rather than focusing on winning over President Trump’s supporters.
Many of them have refused corporate donations, refused to remain silent on race and sexism, and wrapped their arms around a liberal vision that includes Medicare for all, a higher minimum wage and tuition-free college.
Mr. Sroka said the focus on Michigan’s gubernatorial race is part of a broader push to electing “strong progressive governors” who are willing to stand up to Mr. Trump.
“No. 1, these are overwhelmingly people who are unabashedly populist progressives,” Mr. Sroka said. “So they are kind of fearless in their approach to politics.
“Other than Cynthia Nixon in New York, they are also overwhelmingly young and people of color, which also speaks to a rising belief that we need to have leaders of the party who reflect the party, which means more young people, women and people of color in positions of power,” he said.
That line of thinking was front-and-center over the weekend at the 13th Netroots Nation convention in New Orleans, where more than 3,000 activists gathered over three days to listen to movement leaders and attend panels that focused on young voters, women and candidates of color — including one titled “Brown Is the New White: 2018 and the New American Majority.”
Arshad Hasan, chair of the Netroots Nation board, welcomed attendees by trumpeting how 66 percent of the presenters were people of color, 63 percent were women and 25 percent were members of the LGBT community.
“So literally the gayest Netroots ever,” Mr. Hasan said with a smile. “What you see up here is not just the future of the Democratic Party, but of this country.”
The identity politics has rattled some Democrats, who believe the emphasis could hurt the party’s ability to deliver a message that focuses on what unites voters.
At Netroots Nation, though, hard-charging activists stressed candidate diversity and touted left-wing ideas that included impeaching Mr. Trump and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Establishment Democrats worry that such positions could backfire and energize Republican voters.
“Our swing voter is not red to blue,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez told attendees. “It’s nonvoter to voter.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, a likely 2020 presidential contender, slammed critics of identity politics and made the case that black women deserve a greater voice in the upper echelons of Democratic politics.
“The truth is that the folks who helped build the Democratic Party and have been the backbone of the Democratic Party have not always been given equal voice in the Democratic Party, and we need to deal with that,” Ms. Harris said.
“The truth is, we shouldn’t just be thanking women of color for electing progressive leaders,” she said. “In 2018, we should be electing women of color as those leaders.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey — who also are possible presidential candidates — also addressed the conference, as did Gina Ortiz Jones, a House candidate in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“There is no district too red for us to flip,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said.
Atima Omara, a liberal consultant, kicked off a panel discussion, “This Is What Democracy Should Look Like 2018 & Beyond,” by highlighting how white men comprise 31 percent of the nation’s population but hold 65 percent of elected offices.
Women make up more than half the population but represent just 29 percent of elected officials, while men of color comprise 19 percent of the population and hold 7 percent of elected positions, she said.
“While our government is structured to be representative of the people and by the people, I think most of us can agree it does not look that way,” she said.
Aimee Allison, president of Democracy in Color, lamented that Democratic leaders and Beltway insiders have been slow to respond to a “huge cultural shift” that, she said, is transforming politics, moving it away from a system that is “foundationally around white voters” toward one that is more reflective of a “multicultural reality.”
“It wasn’t until Stacy Abram’s landslide victory that many in the Democratic establishment started to believe,” Ms. Allison told attendees.
Ms. Abram’s primary win marked the first big victory for liberals this year. She campaigned on universal pre-K, debt-free college and criminal justice reform, as well as expanding Medicaid and rejecting the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Also, she has focused on turning out new voters, ditching the idea that the path to statewide victory in Georgia hinges on moving to the middle.
“Right now Latino, African-American, Native American and Arab-American women are poised to lead victory for progressives running in states like Georgia, Florida and Texas,” Ms. Allison said. “Women of color are claiming space in blue districts where tired old moderates aren’t fighting for us.”
White men, however, still have a place in the movement, most notably in Kansas, where grass-roots activists, including Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, are backing the congressional bids of James Thompson and Brent Welder.
But they are the outliers. In the Tuesday primaries, liberals are rallying behind Cori Bush’s push to unseat Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri. In Michigan, Fayrouz Saad and Rashida Tlaib are vying to become the first Muslim woman — or women — in Congress.
“Women of color are leading the charge by engaging new and younger voters and people of color,” Ms. Allison said.