India Walton didn't start a revolution Tuesday night.
But she did give democratic competition a jolt.
That appeared to be the conclusion among political pros Thursday, two days after Walton stunned the nation with her upset Democratic primary win over four-term Mayor Byron W. Brown.
"This has just been an unprecedented campaign like Buffalo has never seen before. I'm extremely proud," India Walton said Wednesday.
While Walton's win puts her on the path to becoming the first socialist mayor of a major American city in six decades, few saw it as a sign that progressives are taking over the Democratic Party, given that they have been losing primaries elsewhere. Instead, observers saw Walton's win as yet another signal that a dynamic candidate can knock off a complacent incumbent anytime, anywhere – which might just encourage more challengers to take on long-serving elected officials elsewhere in New York and beyond.
"It could create tremendous opportunities for insurgents," said longtime New York Democratic consultant Hank Scheinkopf. "Why? Because if this could happen in Buffalo, if you could get rid of a four-term incumbent as easily as that, then why shouldn't people try it?"
That's clearly what Walton thinks.
“This is not about making India Walton mayor of Buffalo,” Walton said during her victory speech. “This is about building the infrastructure to challenge every damn seat.”
Then again, challenging every seat is hard and expensive work. And for progressives elsewhere in recent months, it has often ended in disappointment.
Several progressives ran in New York City's ranked-choice primary for mayor – and the top vote-getter turned out to be Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer who centered his campaign on getting tough on crime.
Four progressives challenged former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a moderate, in a Democratic primary for governor in Virginia earlier this month – and the moderate won with 62.2% of the vote.
"It's simple. India Walton's base was energized, excited and aggressive," said former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "She got out her vote and unfortunately, the mayor's base did not come out."
And in Louisiana in April, centrist Democrat Troy Carter beat progressive Karen Carter Peterson by about 10 points in a special election for a House seat.
How, then, did Walton pull such an upset over Brown? Political observers cite the Buffalo Teachers Federation's endorsement of Walton and the Working Families Party's support for her. But they say the local mayoral primary swung on a factor that has often been missing in other primaries: a strong contrast between a dynamic progressive candidate and a strangely invisible incumbent.
"India has an electric personality; I can't say it any other way," said Brian Nowak, a Cheektowaga Town Council member who has been deeply involved in progressive politics since Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 race for the presidency. "You meet her and you get a good vibe from her."
Several sources said that other progressives who have successfully challenged Democratic incumbents in recent years were, like Walton, especially compelling campaigners – such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018, and Jamaal Bowman, who did the same last year to Rep. Eliot Engel.
The losers of those races had something in common with Brown. They were longtime incumbents who didn't seem to take their opponents seriously until it was too late.
Brown barely campaigned and refused to debate Walton, who barnstormed the city so vigorously that she won the support of people who don't consider themselves democratic socialists, said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
"She was in contact with the community, and it wasn't just progressives; it was people in the middle of the road," Rumore said. "She was out there, working. So the message that goes out to incumbents is that people do not like to be taken for granted. And the message that goes out to people that would like to challenge incumbents is that you can do it."
That has certainly happened in the recent past.
"Success begets success," said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, a group that has been behind the rise of Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive House challengers. "When AOC and Ayanna Pressley (now a House member from Massachusetts) won their primary challenges, it inspired many more people, like Jamaal Bowman, to get involved and run for office against long-time incumbents who were often seen as absent or too aligned with their corporate donors."
Justice Democrats is now backing Rana Abdelhamid, a community organizer, to challenge Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat who has served in Congress for 28 years. The progressive group is also backing House candidates in Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee.
"The business community and the development community can sustain anything that's out there, because that's what a businessman does," developer Douglas Jemal said.
Sometimes, though, progressives find incumbent Democrats too tough to topple. Two years ago, for example, Justice Democrats failed in an effort to find a challenger to Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat. And several sources said both Higgins and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, are probably too active and too omnipresent in the communities they serve to draw significant challenges.
But sources said that several Democratic state legislators could see a challenge from the left, as could Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Given that so many legislative seats are gerrymandered to favor one party and so many cities so heavily Democratic, primary challenges are often the only chance voters really get to choose their elected officials, said Charlie Blaettler, elections director at New York's Working Families Party, which is more than happy to back some of those challengers.
"If you're a Democratic official who's representing your constituency and delivering for working people, then you should have nothing to be afraid of," Blaettler said. "But, you know, if you're a Democrat who's going to prioritize the interests of real estate developers and corporations and your wealthy donors above working people, then you should be on notice, because we are coming for every seat."
While comments like that won't exactly impress the Democratic Party organization, Walton's supporters tend to say the party should welcome primaries in its ranks.
"Everybody, every position, should be challenged," said former Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant. "I told people: challenge me – and if people think you'll do a better job, they'll vote for you."
Nate McMurray, a three-time congressional candidate who held a fundraiser for Walton, agreed that more primary challenges would be good for the Democratic Party – and added that Walton's win might inspire them.
"The fact that she won in such an unprecedented outsider fashion is good news for politics," McMurray said. "It shows anyone has a chance, that anyone can throw their hat into the ring.