11/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the Battle for a Progressive Congress

At this point, many journalists are speculating about the number of congressional
seats that Republicans will lose on Election Day. But a boost in the size of the
Democratic majority might not count for much if a blue wave simply makes it possible
for conservative and centrist "blue dogs" to end up doggie-paddling into the House.

Less than two weeks before Election Day, the scent of red blood is in the water.
"A big wave for Obama might be too much of a burden for Republican congressional
candidates to bear," says the Rothenberg Political Report, "at a time when they
are already saddled with an unpopular Republican president and an unpopular Republican
brand." On Nov. 4, dozens of GOP candidates are likely to lose contests for House
seats deemed "safe" just months ago.

But moving a progressive agenda on Capitol Hill will require more than defeating
Republicans. It will require electing strong progressives. And the most meaningful
shifts will come with genuine progressive candidates who actually take seats away
from right-wing Republicans.

That's why Bill Durston's campaign against a very conservative incumbent, the
notably arrogant Rep. Dan Lungren, has symbolic and substantive potential for helping
to change the direction of Congress.

In late winter, I visited Durston as he was launching his long-shot campaign
to unseat Lungren in a far-flung congressional district that extends from the Sacramento
area all the way to the Nevada border. The conventional wisdom was that Lungren
couldn't be beat. So, Bill Durston had the Democratic primary all to himself.

Congressman Lungren -- whose latest rating from the League of Conservation
Voters gives him a score of 0 percent -- went into this election year with a mainstream
aura of invincibility. The national Democratic Party apparatus showed no tangible
sign of interest in ousting him.

But after a long grassroots campaign against the odds, polling now says that
Bill Durston is in a statistical dead heat with Rep. Lungren.

If Durston wins, he'll be one of the most progressive members of Congress. I'm sure of that -- not just because of his background but also because this year I talked with him a lot and watched him in action many times. It's fitting to say that Durston is a former Marine who fought in Vietnam and is now strongly anti-war; that he's an emergency-room physician who is adamantly in favor of single-payer healthcare for all; that he's a genuine progressive on every issue under the sun. All true enough. But I've also learned, firsthand, about his resolute integrity and determined humility -- qualities that no piece of campaign literature is quite able to convey.

It doesn't surprise me that even now, as far as the Democratic Congressional
Campaign Committee is concerned, Durston scarcely exists. While pouring large amounts
of money into dozens of other congressional races, the DCCC has done nothing for
his campaign. Durston is not a "moderate," and he doesn't trim his sails for prevailing

Thanks to grassroots volunteers and groups like Take Back Red California, Democracy
For America and Progressive Democrats of America, the hold that Lungren had on his
seat is now so shaky that Politico recently included him in a list of several Republicans
now "fighting for their political lives, a reversal of fortunes that has caught
even the most astute campaign observers by surprise."

A defeat of Lungren would be something of a political earthquake in Northern
California. Similarly, a few hundred miles to the south, in Orange County, the luck
of fellow right-wing incumbent zealot Rep. Dana Rohrabacher may be about to run
out as he tries to fend off a strong grassroots challenge from progressive Democratic
candidate Debbie Cook.

Understandably, this year the presidential campaign has largely overshadowed
congressional races. But as a blue wave appears to be swelling across the country,
it's a good sign that progressives are becoming more focused on what they can do
to carry like-minded candidates into Congress.