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.

Ohio

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.

Massachusetts

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.

Wisconsin

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.