11/17/2010 05:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Exclusive Interview With Populist Caucus Chairman Bruce Braley

Representative Bruce Braley, from Iowa's First District, returned to the House of Representatives this week, after surviving a very brutal reelection campaign in which millions of dollars of outside money from anonymous right-wing donors were spent against him. His campaign was an interesting one, because rather than try to distance himself from his own party or from what Democrats have accomplished in the past few years, Braley instead embraced his own record, and proudly defended it to his voters.

Braley's victory was a narrow one -- 49.5 percent to 47.5 percent -- but this didn't make it any less satisfying for Democratic election-watchers looking for trends during this year's midterms. Braley holds the district in Iowa that stretches north and west from the "Quad Cities" area, which he won as part of the Democratic takeover in 2006. In 2008, he won his first reelection fight with a whopping 65 percent of the vote. But this year, the headwind of the Republican resurgence was a tough obstacle to overcome for any Democrat elected to the House in the past four years. Braley's victory certainly gives hope to those in the Democratic Party who have been calling on Democrats to refuse to apologize for who they are and what their party stands for.

Braley's opponent was an enormous beneficiary of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, as a conservative group from outside the district pumped an enormous amount of money into the race, most of it spent on advertisements attacking Braley. Here's how Braley describes the campaign strategy he used to fight back:

When I first ran for Congress, we talked about bringing the troops home from Iraq, which we're now doing. We talked about raising the minimum wage. We did that. We talked about making sure men and women had equity in the workplace. We did that with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. We talked about lowering taxes for middle class families. We did that. We talked about improving access to health care for the 47 million Americans without health insurance. We did that.

Bruce Braley will continue as the chairman of the recently revived Populist Caucus in the House. He founded the caucus a few years ago with like-minded Democrats who wanted a group to focus solely on the American middle class. So far, they have supported many common-sense bills that address middle-class concerns in various ways. The most recent bill Braley wrote that made it to President Obama's desk for signature, for example, was the "Plain Writing Act," which now requires the federal government to write all its documents (tax forms, aid applications, etc.) in "simple, easy-to-understand language." While not a high-profile sort of idea, it will be much appreciated by millions of Americans who are tired of digging through and trying to decipher the typical bureaucrat-ese used in the past on such documents.

The Populist Caucus did lose some members in the midterm election, but (because of the smaller number of Democrats overall), actually increased its proportional membership within the House Democratic Caucus, from roughly 13 percent of the outgoing House Democrats to around 14.5 percent of the incoming group. The Populist Caucus did better than the Blue Dogs in retaining membership in the recent election, but not quite as good as the progressives did. In the next Congress, the Populist Caucus will start with 28 members.

We caught up with Braley this week, and had the chance to ask him a few questions about his recent campaign, and about how he sees House Democrats moving forward in the next few years. The full transcript of this interview follows.

Populist Caucus Chairman Bruce Braley

Photo credit: Office of Rep. Bruce Braley

Let me begin by congratulating you on your recent reelection, against some very tough odds. How was 2010 different from other campaigns you've been in?

The biggest difference between 2010 and other years was the sheer amount of secret donors dumping money into my district to help my opponent. Obviously, it was a bad year for many Democrats across the country and that kind of environment, coupled with a $2 million smear campaign that was funded entirely by secret donors, made my race closer than I would have liked. But Iowa's First District is 40 percent Independent, and then almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Every year I have to go out and earn every single vote, so I feel very honored that the people of Iowa's First District reelected me to continue fighting for middle class families.

During the campaign, it was reported that the conservative group "American Future Fund" had donated $800,000 to your Republican opponent's campaign. The Sunlight Foundation now reports that a total of over $2.2 million of outside money was spent on your opponent's campaign. How did you effectively manage to counter so much money spent against you in your district, which is a fairly inexpensive media market to begin with?

One of the biggest factors was that I've always been honest with my constituents. Whether they agree with me on an issue or not, I've always told them where I stand and why. When secret donors started dumping money into my race, we responded to every attack forcefully and honestly, telling them why I took the difficult votes I took. Iowans are smart people who take our electoral process very seriously. So when these ads went up on the air, we knew voters would take a look at who was trying to get rid of me and why. Throughout all of this, we tried to make clear the choice voters had: they could vote for a candidate supported by secret donors and corporate interest groups, or they could vote for someone who would stand up and fight every day for middle class families.

Did you feel your House seat had been targeted by the national Republicans as a winnable seat for them? How did that make you feel?

No. The National Republican Campaign Committee never invested in my race. Instead, secret corporate donors targeted me, because the actions I've taken to hold corporations accountable posed a clear threat to their interests. I consider it a badge of honor that these reckless corporations saw me as such a threat, that they would waste more than $2 million trying to take me out. I've spent my life fighting to help middle class families, and I plan to continue fighting for values that strengthen and expand the middle class. I think the questions voters have to ask themselves as we move forward is: "Why did these secret donors spend this much money, and why are they so afraid to tell us who they are?"

You ran a campaign that Politico described before the election as an "unapologetically Democratic campaign." Your opponent tried his best to tie you to Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, and -- unlike many Democrats this year -- you did not run away from them, or the Democratic record. Do you think this is why you won?

I think I won because I spent a lot of time talking to voters about the important votes I took to help people in my district, why those votes were necessary, and why I was proud of them. When I first ran for Congress, we talked about bringing the troops home from Iraq, which we're now doing. We talked about raising the minimum wage. We did that. We talked about making sure men and women had equity in the workplace. We did that with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. We talked about lowering taxes for middle class families. We did that. We talked about improving access to health care for the 47 million Americans without health insurance. We did that.

In the last two years, we've been working hard to get our economy back on track after reckless Wall Street speculators nearly drove it off a cliff. It took eight years of failed Bush economic policies to get us into that mess, and it's going to take a while for us to fully recover, but we've made progress.

I believe every elected official has a responsibility to explain their votes to the people who elected them. I believe that even those who disagree with me will respect the fact that I stand by the things I've done and fight for the values so many Iowans cherish.

Do you think there are any lessons from your campaign that other Democrats should learn, for the future? Or do you think the circumstances you faced were unique and wouldn't necessarily work in other districts or other states, or even other years?

Even though every district and state is unique, I believe voters in every district are looking for similar attributes in the people they elect to represent them. I believe our constituents are looking for leaders with integrity and principle who will listen, work hard and get things done. Not every single person is going to agree with every single vote we take. One lesson I think some of my colleagues learned was that you're going to get attacked for the votes you take, so there's no point trying to run away from them when campaign season rolls around. If you're not willing to stand up and explain why you voted for a certain bill, you shouldn't vote for that bill in the first place.

We weren't elected to solve little problems. We were elected to solve big problems. Some of my colleagues took courageous votes to solve the big problems we face and they lost their jobs as a result. But the people who sleep well at night are the ones who did what they thought was right and had the courage to stand by their records.

At the end of the day, people want to vote for someone they like, someone they trust, and someone who's not afraid to fight for them.

You are chairman of the Populist Caucus in the House. How did the Caucus do in the midterms? How many members will not be coming back in the 112th Congress?

The Populist Caucus lost five members in the midterm elections. Even though many of our members were listed as some of the most vulnerable Democrats, many members were reelected because of the work we've done to fight for middle class families, create jobs and get our economy back on track.

We're saddened to lose these great members of our caucus and wish them well in the future.

Some in the media have slapped the "populist" label on the Tea Party movement. While this may not be very accurate on their part, do you see any sort of common ground whatsoever on any economic issues where the Populist Caucus -- made up entirely of Democrats so far -- could work together with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party?

We have common ground in our shared frustration that more has been done to help Wall Street than to help Main Street. In the Populist Caucus, we've been advocating legislation and policies that give middle class families the chance to make it in America again. We have clear differences as to how we go about achieving those goals. Too frequently over the past two years, there has been a complete lack of bipartisanship. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, Iowa, if someone needed help or had a good idea, you didn't ask whether they were Republican or Democrat. I'm hopeful we can reduce the partisanship and get back to common sense in the next few years.

Do Democrats expect much out of the upcoming "lame-duck" session of Congress, before the end of the year? Are any jobs measures ready to go, or any other bills we should hope to see passed before the end of the 111th Congress?

It's still unclear what we'll be able to accomplish in the final months of the 111th Congress. I know there has been a lot of discussion about the Bush tax cuts -- whether to permanently or temporarily extend the tax cuts for middle class families, and whether to let the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire. And, as always, the biggest question mark is whether the Senate will be able to get anything done.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next two years, and what do you think will be possible for Democrats in the House to achieve over this period, given the minority you're going to have to work with?

My top priority is continuing to create jobs and getting our economy back on track for middle class families. After that, we need to take a hard look at our current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll also need to look at our education policy and what we can do to make sure our kids are getting the education they deserve and need in a competitive global economy.

Regardless of whether I'm serving in the majority or the minority, my most important responsibility is helping people in Iowa's First District. I hope to continue providing a consistently high level of constituent service through my great staff in Iowa and Washington, D.C. Helping people is the most rewarding part of this challenging job and my life has been enriched by the people I've helped who inspire me with their courage and perseverance.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant