The United States faces a deeply polarizing midterm election this November, as a worsening economic outlook signals weak enthusiasm for Democrats and a slew of far-right candidates appears likely to take power across the country.
This national political clash is playing out locally in New York, where the most high-profile race is the increasingly close competition between Governor Kathy Hochul and GOP challenger Lee Zeldin. In the Hudson Valley, several contentious campaigns will also be decided on election day, including Pat Ryan’s bid to stay in Congress, now in the 18th district against Colin Schmitt; former gubernatorial candidate and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro’s race against Democrat Josh Riley in the 19th district; and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Sean Patrick Maloney’s effort to hang on in the 17th district.
In this tight electoral environment, New York’s Working Families Party (WFP) is primed to play a significant role. The progressive third party—which cross-endorses Democrats (including all mentioned above) through the process of “fusion voting,” and is fighting to maintain a ballot line threatened by electoral changes enacted in 2020—will try to convince voters that it remains a vital force in New York politics, while seeking to push a number of Democrats over the finish line and promoting a slate of progressive policies statewide and nationally.
What is the Working Families Party?
Left-leaning third parties often get a bad rap, accused—even if unfairly—of playing spoiler for Democrats and helping elect Republicans. Fusion voting, which allows third parties to run mainstream candidates on additional ballot lines, offers a pragmatic way to avoid this problem. “Voting on the Working Families Party line is a way you can vote your values without any risk of splitting the vote and aiding a far-right candidate,” says Ravi Mangla, WFP spokesperson, describing doing so as “an affirmative vote for a New York where fundamental rights are protected, that people can actually afford, and for real investments in communities (whether it be housing, healthcare, and climate).”
The goal, via this model, is to push Democrats to take up WFP priorities—which include investments in public colleges, building affordable housing, boosting the minimum wage, and promoting clean and affordable energy through publicly owned utilities, among others—without running against those candidates and tipping the election to Republicans.
The WFP’s ability to leverage financial resources, electoral organization, and a secondary ballot line for Democrats has been notable since its inception in 1998. Mangla points to recent statewide successes via this model, like higher taxes on the wealthy, improved public school funding, and strengthened childcare investments.
He doesn’t mention it, but the WFP also played an integral role in the effort to dismantle the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the group of elected Democrats in the State Senate who—with support from former Governor Andrew Cuomo—joined Republicans to enable GOP control of the chamber, stymying progressive legislation for several years. In part due to WFP backing, six members of the IDC were defeated in primaries in 2018.
Relationships Across the Political Spectrum
The IDC fight was a success, but it was also only one battle in a long and contentious relationship between the party and Cuomo—a conflict that looms large over this year’s election. The WFP supported Cuomo in 2014 over left-leaning challenger Zephyr Teachout, but only after significant debate during the endorsement process; in 2018, the WFP endorsed progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon before ultimately backing Cuomo in the general election.
The conflict reached a crescendo in 2020 when Cuomo-backed changes to state electoral law altered qualification requirements to maintain a ballot line, forcing third parties to earn at least 130,000 votes or 2 percent of the vote (whichever is higher) every two years in gubernatorial and presidential races. Widely understood as an assault on the WFP, the law has imbued this election with an added urgency for the party.
An October 27 article in the New York Times about the tightening race for governor helps make this clear, publishing excerpts from an internal WFP email in which Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York WFP, writes: “depressed progressive turnout could have disastrous consequences for WFP-endorsed down-ballot candidates and the party’s ballot line and future.”
Mangla sees a need to change the qualification law—which has also effectively barred other third parties, like the Green Party and Libertarian Party, from the ballot. “No other state in America requires a party to qualify for the ballot every two years, on both the presidential and gubernatorial lines.” he says.“We believe the state should ease the ballot thresholds to the lower of 130,000 or two percent and return to a four-year qualification cycle.”
Meanwhile, the party has also faced criticisms from the left. While its not-exactly-enthusiastic choice to back Cuomo in 2014 irritated the then-governor, it also upset progressives who wanted the party to forcefully back a challenger. More recently, the party’s choice to support Elizabeth Warren over Bernie Sanders in 2019—through an opaque process that weighed votes of party members and leadership via an undisclosed formula—disturbed many Sanders supporters.
Asked about these decisions, Mangla replied: “Not everyone will agree with every endorsement decision. We understand that. Parties are spaces of struggle, where our goals may align but often we have different ideas of how to get there.”
The WFP’s Impact
Despite conflicts, the party has clearly made a difference in recent elections. In the Hudson Valley, Mangla points out that the WFP served as the margin of victory in Pat Ryan’s special election win this summer; the party was also involved in Sarahana Shrestha’s primary victory over Kevin Cahill in the 103rd state assembly district.
While some voters might take these wins for granted, it’s not always clear what would happen without WFP ballot lines. “It’s very hard to tell where those votes would go if the third party didn’t exist, and the cross-endorsement didn’t exist,” says SUNY New Paltz political scientist and local government expert Gerald Benjamin, asked about the role of the WFP. “It’s presumed that they would go to the major party candidate, but that candidate might not attract those votes, because he or she would be unappealing to the people who would vote on the third-party line.”
Benjamin sees the WFP potentially strengthening into the future, assuming Democrats maintain control of the state. Without a strong statewide Republican Party, he says, political conflict plays out primarily within the Democratic Party. “In that context, the Working Families Party is enormously important, because its resources will be aligned with the so-called progressive Democrats, and [will] strengthen them,” Benjamin says.
He acknowledges, though, that a Zeldin upset will change that calculus—and could strengthen the fortunes of New York’s other major third party, the Conservative Party, which practices a parallel form of fusion voting with Republicans. “If the Conservative Party provides a margin for Zeldin to become governor, it would become a major factor in the initial days of Republican administration,” Benjamin adds.
This is something the WFP, and Democrats statewide, are scrambling to avoid—and the WFP hopes to hold off the GOP while still allowing people to better vote their values. “When hundreds of thousands of people vote on the line, we make it clear that working people’s issues can’t be ignored and we show that our policies—like guaranteed health care for all, universal child care, and a decarbonized economy—are supported by vast numbers of New Yorkers,” Mangla says. “With more WFP-aligned legislators in office, we feel there’s a lot more we can win for everyday New Yorkers.”
Sarahana Shrestha, who is backed not only by the WFP, but also by the Democratic Socialists of America, and is poised to be the only socialist elected to the state legislature outside of New York City, believes this approach is important. “The general election often becomes about holding the line against the havoc the Republican Party wants to create, which means that it becomes less about voting on a vision and more about voting to keep the boat from sinking,” Shrestha says. “Having a Working Families line on the ballot gives us an opportunity to not lose sight of the vision as well, an opportunity to continue having conversations around organizing and issues.”
To that end, on November 6, Shrestha will join Pat Ryan, state senate candidate Michelle Hinchey, and Ulster County executive candidate Jen Metzger for a WFP rally and volunteer canvass in New Paltz, collectively exhorting voters to make their voices heard in this election.
“We’ve been able to convince many disenchanted voters to vote by mentioning the WFP line,” says Shrestha, “by telling them they could vote for the Democrats on the WFP line as a way of saying, I voted for you, but I expect you to do better.”