Cynthia Nixon stood in the middle of a crowd of several hundred onlookers, holding a wire coat hanger. Donald Trump had nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and the likelihood was that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion across the US, would soon be struck down. Nixon, a former actress and now a candidate for governor of New York State, wanted to emphasise the significance of the appointment. ‘This is something that women in this state and this country were driven to use out of fear and desperation,’ she said, brandishing the coat hanger. ‘Performing abortions on themselves, often with devastating effects on their health and sometimes their life.’ Nixon described the ‘awful and scary’ abortion her mother had had in New York in the days before legalisation. ‘She wanted to make sure that I knew her history, so I can fully value how crucial reproductive freedom is.’

Nixon, best known for playing the neurotic lawyer Miranda Hobbes in the HBO series Sex and the City, is among an unexpected number of women candidates running on left-wing platforms in the midterm state and congressional elections in November. She has built her campaign on issues central to people of colour and the working class: income inequality, public school funding, marijuana (‘We have to stop putting black people in jail for something white people do with impunity’) and New York City’s blighted subway system.

On the same day, Nixon declared herself a democratic socialist, signalling her sympathy with the Democratic Socialists of America, a leftwing group that has grown from 8000 members to more than 45,000 since Trump’s election. Founded in 1982, the DSA is not a political party so much as an organisation for leftists who don’t see their ideas reflected by mainstream Democrats. Few Americans had even heard of them until the 2016 Democratic primary, when they took up the enthusiasm of the Bernie Sanders campaign in a renewed push for membership. Local branches have appeared in more than 180 cities, spanning 47 states as well as Washington, DC, most of them focusing on state and local elections. The DSA has become a thorn in the side of the establishment Democratic Party, on guard against a left wing that it believes threatens its electability in Middle America. This year’s midterms will be the first real test of the group’s newfound strength.

The DSA has yet to endorse Nixon, but she won early endorsements from such high-profile DSA candidates as Julia Salazar, who is running for a New York State Senate seat representing District 18 in North Brooklyn, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in June won a surprise primary victory in the race for New York’s 14th congressional district, spanning parts of the Bronx and Queens. Both women are in their late twenties. Salazar, whose campaign has gained unheard-of attention for a state senate race, is running on a platform that combines key DSA demands, notably universal healthcare, with local concerns such as rising rents and the undue influence of real-estate developers in her rapidly gentrifying district. This strategy may offer DSA candidates their best chance of success: Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez highlight national issues, such as income inequality, in order to harness anti-Trump sentiment, while energising voters around school funding and other local policy issues.

Their approach is very different from that of the national Democratic Party, which has shifted to the right over the past thirty years. From Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 to Obama’s hawkish approach to immigration and the war on terror, the Democratic Party has tried to shape itself into an institution with broad electoral appeal, the assumption being that voters are disdainful of social spending, and that the conservatism of white working-class voters, in particular, cannot be underestimated. This may have been what Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House, meant when she dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as a phenomenon unique to ‘one district’: just because a DSA-endorsed candidate could win in New York, that didn’t mean that she could win anywhere else. It’s true that the Democrats have been able to flip once-reliable Republican seats by throwing resources behind men like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania and Doug Jones in Alabama. But these efforts to accommodate moderate and right-of-centre candidates have made the Democratic Party seem milquetoast and ill-defined. What do they believe in?

The rise of the DSA and such avowedly left-wing candidates as Nixon, Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar in New York is beginning to change this. They speak in terms that are clear, ideologically coherent and policy-based. They call for explicit initiatives such as abortion rights guarantees, universal healthcare and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They defend these policies on ethical grounds. We’re not used to candidates saying, as Salazar does, that the profit-driven healthcare system means that many Americans can’t grow old with dignity; Nixon decries the culture of bribery and cronyism in the New York State legislature. Ocasio-Cortez says that her Catholic faith brought her to seek an end to mass incarceration; she won her primary in the wake of outrage against the Trump administration’s policy of taking migrant children away from their parents at the US-Mexico border. When a reporter asked her on election night to respond to critics who called her too radical, she fired back: ‘There is nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018.’

Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic establishment may see the DSA and the activism that it reflects as an irritating political trend confined to the urban coasts, but it’s not clear that they are right to. It’s true that Nixon, Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar are more viable candidates in New York than they could ever be in Ohio, but their policy proposals have the approval of many voters across the country. One recent poll showed that nearly 60 per cent of Americans favour a single-payer healthcare system in the form of Medicare for All, and the DSA has found support in unexpected places. Last year, the group placed members on city councils in Republican strongholds including Billings, Montana; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Duluth, Minnesota. The electorate may not be as conservative as the Democratic Party establishment assumes it is. It may simply be that they haven’t before had the opportunity – or felt such urgency – to vote for a different sort of candidate.