Tuesday's Republican wave of election victories did not reflect public opinion or the public mood. Instead it was the result of the GOP's triumph in changing the rules of democracy to favor big business and conservative interest groups, including the triumphs of corporate money and voter suppression. But while Democrat candidates were going down to defeat, liberals and progressives won some impressive but little-publicized victories on important issues -- including minimum wage hikes -- especially in red and purple states, suggesting that voters are not as conservative as the pundits are pontificating. One of the most significant victories occurred in Richmond, California, where progressives defeated a slate funded by Chevron, the nation's third largest corporation, which poured at least $3 million (about $150 for each likely voter) into this municipal election in this working class Bay Area city of 105,000 people.
Richmond, California. All progressive eyes around the country were focused on this blue-collar city of about 700,000, where Big Oil and Wall Street sought to oust a progressive local government that has been battling big business for the past decade. Instead, the lefties won against overwhelming odds. Under Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and her progressive allies on the City Council, Richmond has challenged Chevron, which owns a huge refinery in the city, to clean up its pollution, pay more taxes into the city coffers, and be a more responsible and accountable corporate citizen. Faced with a decade of predatory lending and an epidemic of foreclosures and "underwater" mortgages, Richmond city officials pushed back against Wall Street banks, demanding that they help troubled homeowners save their homes. In Tuesday's election, community groups, labor unions, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and others mobilized a grassroots campaign to protect their gains and elect a progressive slate against candidates hand-picked and funded by Chevron and the real estate lobby.
The progressives won, despite operating on a shoe-string budget. City Councilman Tom Butt was elected mayor with 51.4 percent of the vote. He defeated Nat Bates, a longtime councilman who was heavily funded by Chevron but only managed to win 35 percent of the vote. The progressive slate of council candidates appears to have swept the four available seats. McLaughlin, the city's termed-out mayor, won her City Council race, as did her allies Jovanka Beckles and Eduardo Martinez. As of early Wednesday morning, progressive-backed incumbent Jal Myrick trounced fellow City Councilman Corky Booze for a two-year seat. If these leads hold, no Chevron-backed candidates will have won, despite dramatically outspending their progressive opponents. The RPA, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and SEIU waged a major grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign that triumphed over the Chevron-funded assault that included an expensive flood of mailers, phone calls and an oil-stained local online "newspaper."
Minimum Wages. Voters in four "red" states -- Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota -- approved measures on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage against the concerted and well-funded opposition of national and local big business groups. In doing so, they raised pay levels for over 1.7 million workers. Even while voters in Arkansas elected a Republican senator and governor, 65 percent of them supported a statewide pay increase to $8.50 (by 2017) for low-wage workers. In Alaska, a gradual wage hike to $9.75/hour by 2016 was winning 69 percent of the vote with 28 percent of precincts reporting. The victory margins, in early returns, were 59 percent in Nebraska ($9 by 2016) and 53 percent in South Dakota ($8.50 in 2015). The victories in Alaska and South Dakota pegged wage hikes to inflation, an important progressive idea. Voters in Illinois supported a non-binding advisory referendum to raise the minimum wage by a margin of 12 points. In San Francisco and Oakland, voters overwhelmingly endorsed citywide minimum wage boosts to $15 and $12.25, respectively.
These victories follow several years of increasing grassroots pressure by low-wage workers around the country -- especially employees of fast-food chains and Wal-Marts -- demanding a living wage so that full-time workers don't remain trapped in poverty. Seattle adopted a $15/hour citywide minimum wage earlier this year. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed a $13.25 municipal minimum while six City Council members countered with a $15 plan. To co-opt pressure to adopt a citywide minimum wage, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered city contractors to pay at least $13 an hour. Many other cities have minimum wage plans on the table. Across the country, 23 states have minimum wages higher than the current federal level of $7.25, and that figure will grow to 26 when minimum wages hikes take effect in West Virginia, Maryland and Hawaii. Sixteen states have enacted minimum wage increases in the past two years -- 10 of them this year alone.
Public opinion polls show that most Americans -- including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans -- support an increase in the federal minimum wage, but President Obama's call to raise it to $10.10/hour has been stymied by Republican opposition.
Other Progressive Triumphs. Below the radar of most national media, progressive wages success campaigns on a variety of other issues.
Paid Sick Leave. Even while voters in Massachusetts elected a Republican governor, about 60 percent of them also passed a ballot measure guaranteeing paid sick days to about million workers. In Montclair and Trenton, New Jersey, voters passed ballot initiatives allowing workers who provide food service, child care or home health care, or who work for companies with 10 or more employees, to earn up to 40 hours of paid sick leave each year. All other employees would have access to up to 24 hours. (Paterson, Irvington, East Orange and Passaic, New Jersey already have similar laws). In Oakland, California, voters adopted a similar measure. These triumphs capped an historic year for advocates of paid sick leave. With Tuesday's victories, three states and sixteen cities have now passed paid sick days legislation -- including two states and 10 cities in 2014 alone. And the momentum is growing, as activists plan campaigns in Chicago, Tacoma, Washington and several other states.
Abortion. Voters in Colorado and North Dakota defeated proposals granting personhood to fetuses at the moment of conception. In North Dakota, 64.3 percent of voters said "no" on Measure 1. Planned Parenthood and its allies played key roles in beating back this assault on women's rights.
Public safety. More than two-thirds of California voters approved the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which will revise some of the lowest-level petty crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and targets the financial savings into crime prevention and school programs. This was a major victory against the prison-industrial complex, especially the growing number of private corporations that now run state prisons and support laws to incarcerate as many people as possible. And in Washington state, voters beat back the National Rifle Association and approved a ballot measure to impose criminal background checks on people who purchase firearms online or at gun shows.
Soda tax. Despite an expensive campaign wage by the soft drink industry, Berkeley, California, became the first city in the country to adopt a tax on soda and sugary drinks to combat diabetes and other illness. About three-quarters of voter supported the measure. As of last week, the American Beverage Association, which includes the three largest soda manufacturers (Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group) had spent $2.1 million to oppose the soda tax through full-page newspaper ads, television and radio spots, and telephone and door-to-door canvassing. The "yes" campaign spend only $273,000, primarily on door-to-door canvassing and phone calls. A similar measure in San Francisco won majority support, but failed to reach a two-thirds vote threshold needed for passage.
Workers rights. Arizona voters defeated Proposition 487, put on the ballot by business and Republican interest groups to undermine public employee pensions.
Pot. In Oregon, voters legalized recreational use of marijuana, joining Washington state and Colorado, who adopted similar measures in 2012. In Washington, DC, voters passed a measure to let residents grow cannabis indoors and possess as much as two ounces.
Plutocratic Political Gains
These progressive victories are impressive, but they don't offset the huge GOP triumphs around the country. Democrats knew they had an uphill fight. Among the 36 Senate races, 21 were seats held by Democrats, including six in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Five factors, in particular, contributed to Tuesday's GOP gains. It was a victory for plutocracy and profit over democracy, a triumph for the super-rich and Republicans who changed the rules to favor their own interests.
Big Money. Donors spent more than $4 billion in this midterm election. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, this was the most expensive midterm election in American history. This was a triumph for the Supreme Court's Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings that permitted unlimited money to buy elections. The biggest donors, billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, poured "dark money" -- hidden from public scrutiny by arcane campaign finance laws -- into key races that certainly helped elect Republicans. Karl Rove's Crossroads organizations and the US Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help elect conservative Republicans in the House, Senate and governors races. We may never know the full extent of the billionaires' bankroll, especially in key battleground Senate races where they targeted much of their war chest.
The Republicans increase in Senate seats -- from 45 to at least 52 -- depended on outspending Democrats by a wide margin in those key races in where Republicans captured seats held by Democrats in Colorado, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Three incumbent Democratic senators -- Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mark Udall of Colorado -- lost their seats.
As the Center for Responsive Politics reported a week before the election, "outside groups, which are overwhelmingly fueled by large donors, are picking up more of the tab" of election costs, increasingly by funding issue ads and funneling money to shadowy so-called "social welfare" organizations that can hide their donations but focus most of their money to help Republican candidates.
Voter Suppression and Low Turnout. Midterm elections always see much lower turnout than in presidential years. On Tuesday, less than 40 percent of American voters went to the polls, and the ones who voted hardly reflected the American people. The midterm electorate was much whiter, wealthier and more elderly than the voters in 2012 or even those in the last midterm election four years ago. As Bloomberg News reported, "Those 65 and older represented a quarter of the national electorate, up from 21 percent four years earlier." This demographic debacle was compounded by Republican efforts to suppress the vote of African-Americans, Latinos, young people and the poor. -- voters who lean heavily toward Democrats when they vote. These groups voted in significantly smaller numbers this year than they did two years ago. This was the first election since the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act and many states - particularly those with a large number of eligible African-American voters -- adopted laws making it more difficult to vote, aimed at reducing turnout by these Democratic constituencies.
Gerrymandering. After the 2010 Census, Republicans succeeded in redrawing House districts to favor their party, creating increasingly "safe" districts for GOP candidates. The GOP's control of the majority of state legislatures and governors's offices gave them an advantage that made it possible to redraw the districts to their liking. In 2012, Democrats won 1.3 million more votes than Republican in all 435 House race - 59.6 million and 58.2 million. In other words, Democrats won 55 percent of the two-party vote but GOP candidates won 54 percent of the 435 House seats. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats won 83,000 more votes than Republicans, but Republicans won 13 seats and Democrats won 5 seats. On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Republicans increased their margin to 14 seats. Nationwide, the GOP widened their congressional majority to by at least another 8 seats to 243. This was more a reflection of partisan mapmaking than voter preferences.
The Obama Factor. According to exit polls 59 percent of all voters said they were frustrated at or angered by Obama's job performance. Some of this anti-Obama sentiment is clearly driven by racism -- a reality that political pundits tend to downplay, despite overwhelming evidence that many white voters still haven't gotten used to having a black president. But there are other factors that have contributed to Obama's falling favorability, especially among the slice of the electorate who voted on Tuesday, and which played an important role in many GOP victories, particularly in the key Senate battleground states, such as Colorado and Iowa. The president has been unable to translate his legislative and executive order victories to his own political advantage. The most obvious example is the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") which has been a policy success and a political liability. Thanks to this law, an additional 10 million Americans have health insurance, and millions more, especially those with pre-existing health conditions, have better coverage. But it is likely that a significant number of those who benefitted from Obamacare didn't vote on Tuesday, and some surely voted for Republican candidates. Obama has been a terrible salesman for his own accomplishments. Few Americans can identify Obama's achievements on women's rights, the environment and especially the economy.
Economic Hard Times. Elections are often a referendum on the economy. The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in Congress during midterm elections and this is particularly the case when the economy is in trouble. Despite strong indicators of persistent economic growth during the Obama years (especially the past two years), that growth has been dangerously uneven, with the wealthiest one-fifth of the population getting most of the gains, and the bottom four-fifths stuck with stagnant incomes. Given the Republicans credit for checkmating almost every Obama effort to reduce inequality and increase wages, including their intransigence on raising the federal minimum wage.
Progressives Ask: What Now?
What should progressives and liberals do in the face of GOP control of both the Senate and House, with the dynamic duo of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner controlling the flow of legislation? The Republicans will certainly seek to weaken environmental laws and to remove the EPA's ability to regulate the coal industry, a major lobby group behind McConnell. Republicans in both houses will try to weaken Obamacare. They will certainly oppose any effort to raise the federal minimum wage. In fact, at a meeting of billionaire GOP funders in June, hosted by the Koch brothers, McConnell promised that if he became Senate majority leader, "we're not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals" like the minimum wage.
The new GOP chairs of key Senate committees, along with their counterparts in the House, will now have the authority to hold hearings designed entirely to attack the Democrats' legislative ideas. For example, Oklahoma Seantor James Inhofe, who denies that climate change is a serious problem, will probably chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (He'll probably want to change the committee's name, since he opposes both the environment and public works). He will certainly be a mouthpiece for the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel fat-cats who want to roll back laws to protect the environmental and public health.
Republicans in both houses will surely pass an immigrant bill that will increase border security but not provide a path to citizenship. The GOP majority in both houses will certainly try to weaken the Dodd-Frank law that imposed tough regulations on banks and credit card companies, whose predatory practices crashed the economy in 2007 and ripped off millions of consumers.
Look for Republicans to try to increase military spending and for John McCain, the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, to rattle sabers for a bigger U.S. presence in Syria and for an attack on Hillary Clinton's actions as secretary of state; in particular, he will try to undermine her presidential ambitions by focusing attention on the attack of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, under her watch. And with at least three right-wing Republican senators - Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio -- vying for the party's presidential nomination, they will attempt to mount a campaign to impeach President Obama. In a post-election tirade Tuesday night, Cruz said he would wage a campaign to challenge Obama's "lawlessness."
In the House, California Republican Darrell Issa will continue to use his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to do the Chamber of Commerce's bidding against all Democratic plans to protect consumers, workers and the environment from corporate abuse.
Obama can still use his executive powers to adopt rules that will help improve the lives of most Americans even in the face of Tuesday's election results. He can cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline. He can reduce deportation of undocumented immigrants who have committed no crimes. He can issue an executive order to require companies with federal contracts to pay a living wage and adhere to workplace health and safety standards or risk losing their government subsidies. He can also raise workers' wages by requiring companies with federal contracts to limit CEO pay to some multiple -- say 30 to 1 -- of average workers' pay. Right now CEOs make about 300 times more than their average workers, the widest gap of any major country.
But come January, the big question for Obama will be whether he is willing to use his veto pen to thwart the GOP's reactionary legislation, or whether he will try to find compromises to provide some semblance of bipartisanship. Liberals and progressives might want to send tens of thousands of veto pens to the White House to remind Obama that he's still the president, even if a weakened one.
Meanwhile, there is much for liberals and progressives to do at the local level, where their allies have in the past year won a growing number of victories by candidates for mayor and City Council in New York City, Minneapolis, Seattle, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and elsewhere. More and more cities will push to adopt minimum wages, paid family leave and other progressive measures.
In addition, the opportunities for Democrats to take back the Senate in 2016 look favorable. More incumbent Republican senators will face re-election in two years than was the situation this year, including a significant number in battleground states. In 2016, 24 Senate republicans will be up for re-election (including five in states that President Obama won twice), while Democrats must defend 10 seats.
If Democrats and their constituencies do their job, minorities, women (particularly single women), young people and low-income workers will turn out in greater numbers. Democratic candidates will be able to focus voters' attention on the Republicans' increasingly conservative agenda, including attacks on immigration; declining incomes and living standards; deepening college student debt; assaults on basic voting rights; efforts to deprive women of access to basic reproductive health care and abortions; and the denial of serious climate change.
If grassroots movements for workers' rights, environmental responsibility (including the growing campaign for divestment of fossil fuels occurring on college campuses and big cities), marriage equality for gays and lesbians, and women's rights, voting rights, and opposition to the gun lobby can expand, they, along with Democrat liberals, can increase voter turnout, elect more Democratic governors, take back the Senate, and elect a Democrat to the White House.
On the presidential front, many liberal and progressives hope that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will make a White House run within Democratic primaries. Although it is unlikely that he can defeat Hillary Clinton, a Sanders campaign would raise issues and mobilize voters to shift the debate around the corporate takeover of politics, widening inequality, declining living standards, consumer and environmental protection and push back on GOP efforts to suppress voting rights.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). This s article originally appeared on BillMoyers.Com.