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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News
By Andrew Rafferty

CHICAGO -- Progressive mayoral candidate Jesus Garcia had a tough time getting his message out on Thursday when a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the city's southeast corner kept interrupting his speech by chanting his nickname, "Chuy."

And if you didn’t look at the polling, the enthusiasm might make you think Garcia is ahead in his runoff election against Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Garcia’s race is in many ways emblematic of where the progressive movement is nationally. They have celebrated a string of recent victories, including Garcia’s dark horse candidacy, but have so far fallen short on some of their most sought after goals. The influence of progressives and where they fit with moderate Democrats is a key question for the party heading into the 2016 presidential election and beyond.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has become a face of economic populism for liberals, will not run for president in 2016 despite the public push from activists to get her in the race. She has also said she will not look to succeed outgoing Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid.

Garcia, a relatively unknown candidate, forced the well-funded Emanuel into a runoff, a first for Chicago mayoral elections. But Garcia’s prospects for knocking off President Obama’s former chief of staff during next week’s election looked bleak after a Chicago Tribune poll showed him in a double-digit hole.

Still, those in the trenches of the progressive cause feel they are winning, and though Garcia’s success may not result in a new mayor in the Windy City, it could be a sign of bigger things to come.

“I see the Democratic party more and more embracing the politics and rhetoric and positions of the progressive movement,” said Matt Blizek, electoral field director of MoveOn. “You’ve seen that here in Chicago, you’ve seen it with Bill de Blasio in New York City, you’ve seen it in the outpouring of support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the fact that Democratic party leadership put her into leadership in the Senate.”

It’s all part of the “rising populist tide,” said Adam Green, founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

And if progressives can’t have their candidate in 2016, they are still hoping to have their policies. The PCCC recently launched the “Ready for Boldness” campaign, a play on the “Ready for Hillary” efforts that were launched to encourage the former Secretary of State to enter the presidential contest. Key activists in early voting states have signed on to support issues like Wall Street reform and better pay for low-income workers.

"What we are trying to do is create a bunch of incentives so that she and others feel comfortable proposing big, bold, progressive populist ideas,” said Green.

Chicago Mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia waves while walking during the St. Patrick's Day parade in Chicago, Saturday, March 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)PAUL BEATY / AP

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who came here to enordse Garcia and is considering a presidential run, has long embraced those ideals. And activists point another potential Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, as an example of their influence. He has begun to pitch economic populism in visits to key presidential states and released videos railing on Wall Street bonuses, hoping to attract the same liberal base pushing Warren to run.

But centrist Democrats caution that progressive rhetoric can come at a price. Gabe Horwitz, director of the economic program at the center-left think tank Third Way, said a focus on liberal policies that forgot the middle class cost the party in 2014.

“Democrats had an economic message in the midterms that focused on things like giving everyone a fair shot, income inequality, and you saw what happened,” Horwitz said. “They need to move the needle on the middle class.”

Third Way founder Jon Cowan and colleague Jim Kessler authored a Wall Street Journal op/ed in late 2013 that bore the title: “Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats.” They argued that Elizabeth Warren wing of the party could cost Democrats elections for “fantasy” thinking on how to pay for progressive goals like expanding some entitlement programs.

Horwitz said he has seen the progressive wing of the party focus more on the middle class after last year’s losses. And aside from the backlash following the op/ed, the Democratic party as a whole has done a much better job than its Republican counterparts have in remaining united.

But as the 2016 presidential race takes shapes, more rifts may become apparent as the left wing of the party, void of their candidate of choice, attempts to pressure Clinton to embrace their ideals. Many of the activists are the same ones who supported Obama in his 2008 primary battle against Clinton.

Jim Dean, chair of the progressive group Democracy for America, said the mayoral race here mirrors “a national conflict that is taking place within the party.”

“Are we going to be the party that we’ve always been, which is to stand up for rank and file Americans, or are we going to be just another pro-business, pro-investment banking industry party with just, you know, a little bit of wrinkles on social issues?” he said.

But that does not mean the battle for control of the Democratic policy agenda will result in the type of inter-party feuds that establishment Republicans have had with the tea party.

“You’re going to see that play out in primaries and leadership contests at the local level,” he added. “But I also frankly think that we are pretty darned discipled about what needs to be done at election time.”