Democratic Senate: Progressives, Populists Win

It’s worth taking a moment to make sure Tuesday night’s Senate victories sink in. First, the big three.


Sherrod Brown (D) – 50%
Josh Mandel (R) – 45%

Sherrod Brown is a tenacious, strongly pro-labor, staunch defender of Social Security and Medicare who introduced and pushed legislation to break up the “Too Big To Fail” megabanks (twice!). He’s pro-choice, pro-marriage equality and a key progressive force in the Senate. He also represents the most fiercely contested swing state in the nation. From the get-go, Brown’s re-election campaign was the top target of Karl Rove and corporate interests. They threw everything at him: $40 million worth of gold-plated kitchen sinks. Sherrod Brown, as the saying goes, has all of the right enemies. He also has all of the right friends and a willingness to fight for his core values and the interests of regular working people in Ohio. That combination helped him carry the day.


Elizabeth Warren (D) 54%
Sen. Scott Brown (R) – 46%

Be afraid Wall Street, be very afraid. Elizabeth Warren just defeated your favorite Senator in her very first campaign.


Tammy Baldwin (D) – 51%
Tommy Thompson (R) – 46%

Tammy Baldwin proudly self-identifies as a Wisconsin progressives and she happens to be openly gay. Tommy Thompson is a former four-term Governor who the Republican establishment was thrilled to get as their party’s nominee. Tammy beat Tommy by 6 points.

A similar story played out across the country. New Mexico, which up until recently was considered a swing state, is now represented by two progressive populist Democrats as Martin Heinrich joins Tom Udall in the Senate. Progressive Democrats Chris Murphy (Connecticut), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Ben Cardin (Maryland), among others, all won big.

This brings me to the widely and deservedly mocked pre-election piece by Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, which claimed that the make-up of the Democratic coalition means that Democrats have a progressive problem.

The pressure on Obama to deliver for this liberal base will be powerful. Already, top left-wing groups are pressuring him not to buckle on a grand bargain that includes any entitlement cuts.

The Senate races offer the perfect cautionary tale to this impulse. Democrats have a good shot in Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and Indiana because they have moderate Democratic candidates and incumbents who often see the president — and the party back in Washington — as out of tune with a center-right country.

Set aside for the moment that this isn’t a “center-right country” (the Democratic presidential candidate has won the popular vote in 5 out of the last 6 elections). Bob Kerrey, who embraced everything Beltway “centrists” have ever called for and then some, still lost in Nebraska by 16 points. Tim Kaine won in Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp won in North Dakota after running as mainstream Democrats on a lot of things, including the very popular earned benefit programs out of touch inhabitants of the Beltway bubble would just love to hack away at. Kaine did an event with Social Security Works. When asked at a debate whether he would vote for the Bowles-Simpson co-chairmen proposal as it is, he said that he wouldn’t while rightly pointing out that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. Heitkamp talked about the budget deficit a lot but explicitly opposed “putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block.” She also ran on the Buffett Rule and the ACA. “Be a ‘moderate’ and cut Social Security and Medicare!” is a nonsensical statement. It’s not just progressives and virtually the entire Democratic voting coalition that oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It’s a clear majority of the country as a whole.

Democrats don’t have a progressive problem. Progressive Democrats win on the West coast and East coast. Progressive/populist Democrats win in the Midwest, specifically “blue collar blue” states Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mainstream Democrats can win in the Southwest and New South. Going forward, Democrats won’t need conservaDems to build a durable Senate majority like we used to. They weigh us down (see: recovery efforts in 2009) and increase the chances that all kinds of Democrats will lose their seats, they drain resources that could go to other races and they still lose despite all of their playing to DC’s warped idea of what constitutes the “center.” Getting policy results matters. Turning out your coalition matters. Beltway positioning games? Not so much.

Of course, running progressive/populist Dems doesn’t mean we can always overcome bad fundamentals, like the awful economy and vastly different midterm electorate that defeated Democrats in 2010. Joe Sestak, for example, lost in Pennsylvania — but just barely. And he was just one of many cases of progressive/populist/mainstream Democrats outperforming conservaDems in similar races.

Every cycle I choose four of five Senate campaigns early on that I see as especially important to focus on. I’ve focused on winners before: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) and Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island) in 2006; Jeff Merkley (Oregon), Tom Udall (New Mexico) and Al Franken (Minnesota) in 2008. Tuesday night was the first time all of my picks — Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich and Mazie Hirono — were victorious. This does not make me, or any of the many others who advocated for these candidates geniuses. But it does help show why the timidity lobby should be largely ignored. Their model is fatally flawed.

How can Democrats keep the momentum going?

John Kerry and Dick Durbin may be headed for cabinet positions in President Obama’s second term, which would mean opportunities to elect new Senators in Massachusetts and Illinois.

2014 priorities include re-electing Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Tom Udall in New Mexico, Al Franken in Minnesota and Tom Harkin in Iowa. In 2016, a presidential year, Republicans will be defending freshmen Senators in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.


Rick Tyler Needs A History Lesson on the African American Vote

This clip of Rick Tyler of the Gingrich campaign on MSNBC after the Florida GOP primary has been making the rounds. During his appearance, Tyler made outright false claims about the usage of food stamps, giving the impression that President Obama has set some kind of food stamp record and is unnecessarily increasing them. Neither suggestion is true. Not only was Tyler simply wrong on the facts, his entire premise is wrong. A broad range of economists will testify that, along with unemployment insurance, food stamps are the most effective recovery spending. They assist struggling Americans who, being people, need to eat, and the money goes right back into the economy. There’s a reason why farm belt politicians from both parties have championed food stamps: they’re good for rural America on a number of levels.

The story Rush Limbaugh and company like to tell about the president spending lavishly on supposedly African American-centric measures is baseless. According to Census data 49% of food stamp recipients are white, 26% are African American, and 20% are Latino. If there’s any record that it’s in the process of being set here it’s the one for right-wing mendacity.

The food stamps falsehood isn’t the only deceptive part of Tyler’s pitch that shouldn’t go unchecked. Tyler repeated the movement conservative line about the African American vote, a profile in strategic clock starting that, to those who aren’t aware of its complete lack of context, may seem vaguely troubling.

Tyler asserted that 98% of African American vote for Democrats. According to CNN’s 2008 exit poll, 95% of African Americans who voted cast their vote for Barack Obama. Limbaugh-type conservatives use this number to argue that the main driver of African American support for Obama in 2008 was his race. It’s probably not uncommon for a more casual observer to hear the 95% number and think the movement conservatives who echo this line are on to something. 95% may seem high, but when you know the full story it’s actually not surprising or troubling in the least.

Tyler started his clock on election night in 2008. The honest place to start is 1965. That’s the year the Civil Rights Act passed, thanks in large part to the bravery of the civil rights leaders and activists whose work pressured national Democrats to do the right thing. In the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the more progressive Republicans starting becoming Democrats while conservative Southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, started becoming Republicans. In the following decades the GOP turned to the infamous Southern strategy, which the party, through then-Chairman Ken Mehlman, ended up having to apologize for in July of 2005.

You can draw a straight line from the Civil Rights Act to the present. Few people of any background would support a party or ideology that for decades was explicitly and often virulently opposed to their civil rights; for decades after that fomented a backlash against their civil rights; and in the present day regularly insinuates that the first president who shares their background is inherently less American than his predecessors.

Note that Al Gore and John Kerry also got most of the African American vote. According to exit polls, Gore received 90% of the AA vote in 2000 and John Kerry received 88% of the AA vote in 2004. I guess someone could try to argue that the relatively small increase from around 90% to around 95% is somehow telling, but it really isn’t. 2008 was a great election night for Democrats across the board. After eight years of George W. Bush practically any Democratic candidate had a very good chance of winning the presidency. The Crash of ’08 ensured that the Democratic nominee would win. Run any competent Democrat in that election and they’re going to win and win big among groups that make up the backbone of the Democratic coalition, African Americans being one of them.

On top of all of that was Barack Obama immense political talent and John McCain’s “game change” vice-presidential pick. Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention, though widely seen as well-executed, derided community organizers. The McCain campaign’s rile up the base strategy was predictably going to push African American undecideds toward Obama. Think back to the McCain-Palin rallies of October, at which McCain stood in the middle of the proverbial fevered swamps of Wingnutia. Can anyone claim with a straight face that Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign was surprised that 95% of African Americans voted for Obama-Biden?

It’s certainly true that our country was long overdue for a minority president. We’re still long overdue for more African American Senators (we currently have none) and Governors (we currently have only one: Democrat Deval Patrick in Massachusetts). The same is true of Latinos and women. If we take more strides toward electoral meritocracy, we’ll see more African Americans, Latinos, and women running for and winning statewide and national office. And yes, the history-making nature of the Obama campaign is part of what made it so inspiring. But the suggestion that his share of the African American vote was significantly more than what you would expect with any capable national Democrat, let alone one with Obama’s skill, isn’t accurate.

And for the record, most Democrats get that slavery, segregation, and discrimination have profound, long-lasting consequences. We’re at our best as the party of a broad working middle class and opportunity for all; a party that celebrates diverse backgrounds. This proud tradition is one of our key strengths, not something to be ashamed of.