The 1980 election that brought Ronald Reagan to power also swept out a bloc of liberal champions -- George McGovern, Birch Bayh, Frank Church, Warren Magnuson, Gaylord Nelson, Jacob Javits -- who had spent a generation or more advancing progressive causes. The washout swept the ground from under the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, planting the seed that would grow into the idea that Democrats' path to power lies through the center. A generation of New Democratic centrism would follow, personified by Birch's son, Evan, who took the lesson to heart and ran far from his father's liberal legacy when he entered politics.
In 2010, a handful of House Democrats have an opportunity to prove that maxim wrong and to demonstrate that even in a tough year, by standing up for core progressive values, a Democrat can win a tough race.
Tom Perriello in Virginia, Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire, Alan Grayson in Florida, Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio and John Hall in New York all represent swing districts and have cast votes that Washington consultants label "tough." Those tough votes, though, are paying off in unexpected ways: By bucking the conventional wisdom, the progressive Democrats have locked down support among their base and are winning over independents, while Blue Dogs face a dispirited electorate unsure what they stand for.
Having solid progressives in Congress does far more than give the party an extra vote. The effect they have on other members is hard to quantify but can have real results. Without Grayson, for instance, it's virtually certain that Congress wouldn't have approved a broad audit of the Federal Reserve -- over the objections of the administration.
If Grayson and other progressives are defeated in November, it sends a signal that standing up for progressive values is at best politically useless and at worst costs a politician at the polls. But if progressives survive, while Blue Dogs are wiped out, the opposite message will be sent: The path to victory requires standing for something.
Progressive groups have seized on the symbolic importance of these races. "As progressives, it's our job to show political incentive and genuine support for the folks who have not just led on the issues that matter to most Americans, but who have stood up to the corporate elites and their lobbyists who all too often run the show in Washington," said Ilyse Hogue of MoveOn.org, which is raising money to support Democrats it calls "progressive heroes." "If we don't, we'll lose more than just some races; we'll lose the core principle that democracy works best when elected representatives respond to the needs of their constituents and that organizing power can actually restore some balance to our corporate-tilted government."
MoveOn's effort to raise money for its progressive heroes pulled in pledges of a million dollars and 100,000 hours of volunteer time over a single day this week. Democracy for America, a progressive group whose roots stretch back to the Dean campaign, allowed million-plus members to vote on which candidates deserve the honor of full DFA support: Grayson and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California won.
"There's no 'enthusiasm gap' for Democrats who stand up and lead," said Jim Dean, chair of DFA. "That's why Alan Grayson and Barbara Boxer earned DFA's support. These Democrats don't back down when pressured by corporate lobbyists or attacked by Tea Party Republicans."
Darcy Burner, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, said that "the backlash this year hasn't been against incumbents, and it hasn't been against Democrats: it's been against corporate sell-outs. Voters want representatives with actual values... But too many people in DC haven't gotten the message -- so we need to send it again."
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, whose acronym PCCC sets it up as a liberal version of the DCCC, is raising money and providing infrastructure for progressive candidates. The PCCC and its lobbying arm the P Street Project work closely with progressive House members, using its donor base to encourage other Democrats in Congress to move in a progressive direction.
"The pundits will try to say that Democrats lost this year because they fought too hard for progressive policies, but the truth is Democrats focused too much on bipartisanship and were willing to water down reform so much that Obama voters aren't enthused to vote. That point will be proven if corporate-backed Blue Dogs lose but progressives can keep champions from swing districts like Alan Grayson in Congress," said Adam Green, a PCCC cofounder.
The GOP sees the symbolism, too. "When someone is seen as a progressive hero, it certainly makes victory especially sweet for conservatives," said Andy Sere, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
The labor movement is sending a clear message this election cycle to the lawmakers who have fought for its priorities -- and those who have abandoned them. The AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and SEIU are all mobilizing their members on behalf of progressive candidates, through direct mail, worksite targeting, and ads. "We think it's very important to stand up for who your friends are, which is the corollary with us holding people accountable," said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale. "So the same way that Blanche Lincoln sold out working families, and we would not support her. The flip side of that is that, if you're a progressive who stands up on the issues that are important to working families, we're going to go all out and make sure you're getting our support. Because you were there for us, we're going to be there for you."
The Republican approach to knocking out progressives is to make the case that they march in lockstep with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Knocking off partisans like Kilroy and Shea-Porter remains a top priority not only because they are puppets for a Democratic leadership taking our country sharply left, but also because they represent areas that strongly oppose this reckless agenda. They don't realize that they aren't representing San Francisco, even though their voting records would suggest that, and that's why they're in trouble this fall," said NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola.
But dubbing them puppets misses the fact that progressives are often a thorn in the leadership's side. They they have been far more independent than a standard Democrat, often pushing a more progressive agenda than the president. Perriello, for instance, voted against Wall Street reform, not because he's in the pockets of the bankers but because he argued it wasn't tough enough.
"To me, part of the reason not to play into the media's sense of right versus left is that it's just full of crap," said Perriello. "The real position in this country is really not even Republican versus Democratic, but corporate-backed politics versus people-backed politics. And to me, I'd much rather be trying to solve problems standing with the people than being just another person who's just playing along for the power... I think what you're seeing in the Democratic caucus is the push back against the Summers-Geithner consensus and say, 'You know what? This whole idea of everything being about Wall Street is missing significant parts of the economy."
Alan Grayson has wasted no time. The freshman representative from Orlando has quickly become one of the GOP’s most despised Democrats and, not coincidentally, built a national base of progressive supporters that have his campaign coffers bursting at the seams. Grayson glories in the attack, whether it’s dubbing Republicans “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals” or announcing from the House floor that their health care plan amounts to “die quickly” -- a flamboyant charge that had the effect of putting Republicans on the defensive after a summer of angry anti-health care town hall gatherings. Grayson’s amendment to audit the Fed, which passed the House with the co-sponsorship of Ron Paul (R-Texas) and became law in a weakened form, could end up being one of the signature achievements of the 111th Congress, depending on how well it's carried out. He pushed the amendment through against the opposition of the White House, Treasury Department and Federal Reserve. Grayson shares the Orlando media market with freshman Suzanne Kosmas, a Democrat who has followed the Washington-consultant playbook and behaved as a centrist. For her trouble, she was rewarded by the local AFL-CIO by being shunned for her first vote against health care and by voters with distrust for her second vote in favor of it. Florida Blue Dog Allen Boyd also initially opposed health care reform and ultimately voted in favor of it; a GOP aide who has seen internal polls said that the flip-flop cost the pair dearly among Democrats and independents, many of whom say they can’t trust them. “I think all three of those guys are gonna lose, but ironically enough, Grayson has the best chance of winning,” said the aide, citing Grayson’s feverish backing among supporters and his national fundraising base. But Grayson’s outspokenness comes at a cost. “There is serious, serious vitriol among everyone who is not a fan of Alan Grayson,” said the GOP aide, saying that more than 50 percent of those surveyed have a negative impression of Grayson, a number that is difficult to reach and makes winning a majority of voters a function of inspiring high turnout among supporters. Grayson is also up against a hostile local media. The Orlando Sentinel appears to be among that 50-plus percent with a negative opinion of the congressman. And with Grayson and Kosmas sharing a media market, opponents of both can get two for the price of one when investing in attack ads. The NRCC has reserved a million dollars of air time in Orlando targeting both Grayson and Kosmas, a person familiar with the ad buy told HuffPost. The good news for Grayson is that his negatives can hardly go much higher, no matter how much money is dumped into the district. And there will be plenty more: a political operation with ties to Mitt Romney, who is flush with corporate cash, called 60 Plus, is out with ads hitting Grayson and Kosmas on health care. The Koch brothers, through Americans For Prosperity, have also spent at least $200,000 in the district and will likely come in with much more. Grayson's support from individual donors is buttressed by MoveOn.org and Democracy For America. Grayson won a recent DFA online survey and was chosen by the group's million-plus members as the House incumbent most worthy of support. Money and volunteer work will flow from the victory. Grayson recently released a poll showing him up by 13 among registered voters, but the composition of the electorate will likely be skewed Republican, so the race is much tighter than that. The NRCC recently released a poll showing Kosmas trailing, but didn’t release a Grayson poll. The Grayson campaign thinks that a poll was done, because several voters contacted the campaign to report that they’d been surveyed. That the poll wasn’t released buyoed the hopes of the Grayson camp that it showed bad news for their opponent Daniel Webster. Both Democratic and Republican sources say internal polling shows a very close race. Andy Sere, a spokesman for the NRCC, said that it would be a special treat to knock off Grayson. “We’re eager to defeat liberal Democrats and liberal Democrats pretending to be conservative Democrats alike, but when someone is seen as a progressive hero, it certainly makes victory especially sweet for conservatives,” he said. "Alan Grayson is going to win because he tells the truth and fights for his constituents. Voters in Central Florida know that Alan Grayson is working for them, not corporate special interests. Thanks to People Power, Alan Grayson owes nothing to anyone but the voters," said his spokesman, Sam Drzymalas. A wild card for Grayson, and one the GOP is watching closely, is a Tea Party challenger running as a third party. While Grayson may not be able to win GOP votes, he may be able to elevate the Tea Party candidate enough to drain votes away from Webster.
John Hall is now known for being the Democratic congressman in New York's Republican-leaning 19th district, but at one time he was famous for being the front man for the group Orleans. He is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and came out strongly against the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, supporting the Fair Elections Now Act and introducing the Freedom From Foreign-Based Manipulation in American Elections Act. Hall and his challenger are relatively even, with the congressman reporting $504,100 cash on hand in the last quarterly filing and Hayworth reporting $562,555. He has backed raising the minimum wage, clean energy legislation, federal funding for stem cell research, and health care reform with a public option. So far, the race isn’t attracting significant attention from outside groups. “There have been no independent expenditures to my knowledge, on either side,” Hall Campaign Manager Patrick McGarrity told the Huffington Post. “It’s certainly possible there will be some.” The DCCC confirmed that it has paid media in this race. A GOP aide watching the race said that Hall seemed to be “asleep at the wheel” and the seat is a “great pick-up opportunity.” It would seem hard to miss the drumbeat of warning signs that the seat is at risk, but, said the aide, “no one hears him knocking on doors, building a team, raising money.” Hall’s opponent Nan Hayworth, meanwhile, is a sophisticated campaigner whose fundraising abilities can be matched by her personal wealth. Her background as a doctor makes her a credible critic of health care reform. Unlike other GOP challengers, she has consolidated her base and is running on not just the GOP line, but the Conservative Party and Independence party lines as well, a huge boon in New York. Hall is also running on the Working Families Party line. The Cook Political Reporter recently moved the race to the “toss up” column, citing his lackluster fundraising and Hayworth’s strong backing from the GOP base.
Mary Jo Kilroy is running for re-election in Ohio's 15th district, one of the most competitive districts in the country. Her opponent is Steve Stivers, a former bank lobbyist who is now raising a significant amount of money from the financial industry. The Columbis Dispatch calls it a "classic left-vs.-right fight," with Kilroy one of the few members in swing districts who "did not shy away from taking liberal positions on issues." She beat Stivers in 2008 by 2,311 votes (out of more than 300,000 cast), and this time, Stivers has "adopted a notably more conservative profile." Pelosi put Kilroy on the Financial Services Committee and despite the temptation to vote with banks on what’s known as a “money committee,” Kilroy was key to making financial reform legislation more progressive, pushing to rein in credit rating agencies and give institutional investors more say on executive compensation. She was one of two freshmen to win a spot on the influential Wall Street reform conference committee, where she often voted to toughen the package -- but she did cave at least once, casting the tie-breaking vote to exempt autodealers from oversight by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She also backed the stimulus, climate change legislation, and health care reform, and was a strong supporter of the public option. Just days after Scott Brown won his Senate race in Massachusetts, throwing health care passage into doubt, Kilroy made the case for pressing forward. “I don't think health care is dead," Kilroy said. "If you can't go this way and that way, you need to find a third way to go.’" Kilroy pushed the Senate to use the reconciliation process to finish the job, which it ultimately did. "It's majority rule," she said. "It's a basic, small 'd' democratic principle. Reconciliation will help move a bill forward that will help improve health care for the maximum number of people possible. At the end of the day, we need to have a bill that will help lower the cost of health care, make it affordable and make it accessible." In the last quarterly filing, Kilroy reported $933,626 cash on hand. Stivers had $1.2 million. A Democratic strategist tells the Huffington Post that the DCCC is “completely engaged” in the race, despite a recent New York Times story stating the contrary. “They’ve reserved the last four weeks of TV time in this race, and they’ve already bought one of those weeks,” he said. “So they’re not leaving.” On Sept. 7, DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sent out a fundraising solicitation for Kilroy. On the left, EMILY’s List spokesperson Jess McIntosh said the race is a "major" priority, and the labor union AFSCME has invested about $150,000 over the coming week in TV ads. On the right, Americans for Prosperity reserved ad time for two weeks in August. The NRCC is also strongly committed to winning the seat, seeing it as a prime pick up opportunity, and has reserved air time. “She’s an unabashed progressive,” said one GOP aide working against her, saying that she “doesn’t have a leg to stand on” when it comes to voters’ deficit concerns. He said that while her strong progressivism may have ability to increase turnout among supporters, he guess that disenchantment with Obama among liberals may outweigh their support for Kilroy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Stivers, saying he is "an invaluable leader on important business issues." Internal polling by the Kilroy campaign show that it’s a dead heat, with both Kilroy and Stivers at 41 percent. A poll by the conservative American Action Forum shows Kilroy within five points of her Republican opponent. A Democratic source who has seen a variety of internal polls says they have all either been within the margin of error or have Kilroy within five. A GOP source said the party’s internal numbers have shown Kilroy trailing by between five and 10 points.
Tom Perriello represents the fifth district of Virginia, which covers Charlottesville and rural parts south. By rights, it’s a Republican district, but Perriello snatched it in 2008 thanks to a tireless progressive-populist campaign and with the help of first-time Obama voters. The test for Perriello this time is to see if he can do it on his own. His strategy has been to vote his conscience and explain clearly why did so, face-to-face with every single constituent, if he has to. Perriello’s known for his long hours and frequent town hall gatherings that last until every question has been answered, hoping that voters who disagree with him on politics will respect his principled stands. Perriello is trying to define the campaign not as Democrat versus Republican, or left versus right, but corporate establishment versus the people. Republicans, meanwhile, are slamming him for supporting the stimulus, health care reform and the House cap-and-trade bill. “If you see the primary votes as being health care and energy, you're going to define this election one way. If you see it as who stood with the Paulson-Geithner consensus versus who's been challenging it, there are pretty much no Republicans who have and a small number of Democrats who have,” he said, referring to Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Obama’s Tim Geithner. Perriello has called for Geithner’s resignation. “So I think that people that now kme in my district, even conservatives and libertarians, see me as standing against the system itself. But you have to remember that these interest groups started spending well over a million dollars two weeks after I got sworn in.” The Chamber of Commerce has been running ads against Perriello since 2009, as has the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. Several negative ads have been taken off the air for pushing false information. The bright spot for Perriello is that additional negative ads at this point would be hard pressed to move attitudes further negative than they already are, and Perriello has a deep war chest, sitting on $1.7 million compared to Bob Hurt’s $200,00, according to the latest filings. (Hurt had to spend to win a June primary and his next FEC report will no doubt show a significant boost in funds. The district is a cheap one to run in, and Hurt will have plenty of independent corporate money backing his candidacy.) SurveyUSA has published polls showing Perriello down by insane amounts, but both Democrats and Republicans watching the race dismiss the numbers. After a New York Times story suggested the DCCC might cut Perriello off, he and Chairman Chris Van Hollen spoke and the DCCC released an internal survey showing him within two. A GOP source says their internal polls are much closer to the DCCC’s than SurveyUSA’s. “A good chunk of the district likes him and he gets credit for working hard...He’d be down by further if he didn’t work as hard as he did,” said one GOP operative, who thinks Perriello will still be overwhelmed by anger at the president, the economy and his progressive voting record. If Perriello survives this term, he could prove to be dangerous. “If we didn’t beat him this cycle, depending on how it looks after redistricting, it’d be tough [to beat him in the future]. You’re always most vulnerable after your first election,” said the GOP aide. “This is bad timing for him.” The only thing making the race close is Perriello’s ability to inspire support among the progressives in his district, where a strong volunteer army is knocking on doors throughout the 22 counties he represents. “I’ve seen worse numbers for Democrats,” said the aide. “Allen Boyd and Suzanne Kosmas, there is a lot of crossover hatred of them--a significant chunk of Democrats are upset with them. At least with Perriello, he holds his base and left-leaning independents.” Perriello said that’s because he stands for something. “There's a whole clan of hide-and-seek Republicans who are hiding from any positions or interviews and seeking higher office, and [State] Senator Hurt is certainly one of those. To me it's a cowardly strategy. It may be a smart strategy, but it's certainly spineless,” he said.
In 2006, Carol Shea-Porter upset Republican incumbent Jeb Bradley without a nickel from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the Democratic National Committee. Her surprise victory made her the first congresswoman from New Hampshire. She fought off Bradley in a rematch in 2008. Elected and re-elected in progressive election cycles, Shea-Porter hasn’t succumbed to pressure to move to the center, focusing intensely on constituent service and articulating the principles that underlie her votes. Shea-Porter is known as one of the hardest workers in the House, a thread that connects her to Grayson and Perriello, who also work overtime to respond to constituent requests, a key to winning support from voters who may disagree politically. "I have told people who have criticized my votes that, while I respect our differences, I didn't come to Washington to just warm a seat," Shea-Porter told the Huffington Post. "And I believe they understand that. They know that even if they disagree with me, I am voting that way because I believe it's the right vote." Bradley isn’t making another run this time, but Tuesday’s GOP primary will be critical. A Democratic source who’s seen internal polls says that Shea-Porter is leading slightly against both leading Republican candidates, Sean Mahoney and Frank Guinta, but has a bigger lead over Guinta. Mahoney, an attractive, rational-sounding conservative businessman would likely present a larger challenge. And with Guinta, there’s that whole bar-room brawl thing. A GOP source said that Republicans are waiting until a victor emerges from the race to begin polling. EMILY’s List spokeswoman Jess McIntosh says that Kilroy and Shea-Porter are “both major priorities for us.” Look for the well-funded Democratic advocacy group to swing hard for Shea-Porter. Democrats expect corporate money to flow into her race, which is being run in the expensive Boston TV market. That makes the decision of how strongly to back Shea-Porter a difficult one for national Democrats, considering the expense. She has raised roughly a million dollars so far this cycle and is sitting on more than half a million. She’ll need several times that to combat the corporate and national money that’ll be targeting her. The NRCC has reserved air time to oppose her. Mahoney and Guinta have both raised and spent roughly a million dollars so far. Like in all swing districts, much will depend on turnout. “They are unabashed progressives,” said a GOP operative of Shea-Porter and Kilroy. “Do they get points for it? The only way to measure it is if turnout’s a fraction or two higher in Ohio or [New Hampshire’s] Sea Coast, but to be honest, I don’t think that’s going to be there. I think their base is so frustrated with Obama they may not come out.”
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