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The Battle for Congress | The Nation

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The Battle for Congress

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(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The presidency is not enough.

If the polling from battleground states is to be believed, President Obama’s re-election chances are now better than even his most enthusiastic backers anticipated just a few months ago. Yet this year’s campaign is about a lot more than an increasingly confident Barack Obama versus a bumbling Mitt Romney. Races for control of the House and Senate will determine the character of the next presidency—no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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“Even if you’re focused on getting the president re-elected, you can’t take your eyes off the congressional races; not if you’re serious about what happens after the election,” says Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison. “If Obama wins but gets a Republican House and Senate, which is possible, he could be less able to govern than he is now, with a divided Congress.” Indeed, argues Michael Lighty, public policy director for National Nurses United, a GOP Congress could pressure Obama to accept destructive “reforms” of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “It’s not as if the Republicans would respect the fact that Obama’s been re-elected and suddenly become supportive,” says Lighty. “They’d push even harder.”

That’s right. Progressives who want Obama to move left in a second term have to recognize that this will never happen if Congress moves right. Is the best we can hope for more of the same—an Obama administration with a narrowly Democratic Senate and a Republican House bent on thwarting the president for the next two years? Or might the shifting electoral dynamics give us the more genuinely progressive Congress that’s needed to prod Obama in a bolder direction during debates about entitlement programs and implementation of the Affordable Care Act? And what are the chances for reforms that have gained little traction in a dysfunctional Washington, like a financial transactions tax, or amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United? Is it possible to get a Congress that would actually lead a cautious Democratic president to the left?

That prospect was nearly unimaginable at the start of the 2012 election cycle,w when Democrats were still reeling from the 2010 tsunami that shifted control of the House to Republicans and weakened the hand of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his caucus.

The fact that most of the senators now up for re-election are Democrats, and that many of them represent swing states that tipped Democratic in the progressive wave of 2006, had many observers at the start of the current cycle writing off Democratic prospects even for retaining their narrow 53-47 majority. The post–Citizens United money machine of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers made that task even more daunting. But the hubris of a GOP that nominated as its vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan—Congress’s most prominent proponent of assaults on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—combined with the energetic grassroots campaigns of progressives in unexpected districts and states, has given Democrats a real shot at retaining their advantage in the Senate. They’ve gotten breaks no one expected. Savvy analysts were writing political obituaries for Senator Claire McCaskill, who seemed unlikely to retain her seat in a Missouri that’s been trending rightward. Then came Todd Akin. The GOP candidate’s “legitimate rape” talk didn’t just move that race from “likely R” to “likely D”; it boosted Democratic contenders like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, who were suddenly able to remind voters that—even if their Republican foes made moderate noises—the GOP establishment (including Paul Ryan) is so obsessed with denying women the right to choose that it would narrow the definition of rape.

Even with Rove and his allies steering money originally intended for the presidential race into Senate races, it’s no longer beyond the realm of possibility that the Romney campaign, which former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan has dubbed a “rolling calamity,” could crash. That prospect has Democrats talking about grabbing seats from Republicans like Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Elizabeth Warren’s challenge to Brown, which has excited progressives who came to know her as the nation’s leading advocate for financial services reforms, was slow to take off. Through the summer she trailed him in the polls. But after she delivered a dose of economic populism at the Democratic National Convention and after Romney’s dismissal of 47 percent of Americans as a dependent class—which effectively confirmed the need for that populism—Warren opened a lead in most polls.

The House is a tougher nut to crack for Democrats. They need a net gain of twenty-five seats to regain control, and at least some of those seats will have to be won in states where Republican governors and legislators gamed the post-2010 redistricting process. But Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi argues that the chamber can be retaken, declaring that, with the Ryan pick, “Medicare is on the ballot” in every race. Pelosi is onto something. Despite the best efforts of the Romney/Ryan ticket to confuse the debate with false claims regarding the funding of the Affordable Care Act as it relates to Medicare, the Democratic pledge to defend the program appears to be working as a core theme in the most competitive House races.

In northern Wisconsin, where he is mounting an energetic challenge to freshman Republican Sean Duffy, Democrat Pat Kreitlow is focused like a laser on preserving Social Security and Medicare—not just for those already receiving benefits but, as Kreitlow says, for “the coming generation.” Like other smart Democratic challengers, he knows that preserving the safety net doesn’t just appeal to the elderly. “People in their 30s and 40s are worried about how they’re going to get by when they retire,” says Kreitlow, who notes that tough economic times have made it harder for young families to bank retirement savings. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its allies have begun to exploit that with ads pointing out the support that vulnerable GOP incumbents have given to Ryan’s austerity agenda. (Needless to say, Ryan’s scrappy challenger, Rob Zerban, has had a field day with the issue as he asks Wisconsin voters to reject the vice presidential nominee—who is also seeking to retain his House seat—twice in this election.)

Democrats have also started linking their candidates with a president whose approval ratings and poll numbers have surged after a successful convention and a series of bizarre missteps by Romney. A new “Have Obama’s Back” campaign is promoting straight-ticket voting by minorities and the young with the message: “For the president to succeed, we also need to elect Democrats who will stand with him.”

That’s a classic campaign argument, and if Obama’s on a roll come November 6, it could help swing some House seats. But after the election, when the fight over “fiscal cliff” budget cuts begins, what will be needed most are stalwarts in Congress who will check and balance not just Republicans, but any tendency toward regressive compromise by the White House and congressional leaders. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent who caucuses with Democrats, is on track to win re-election by a margin that will confirm the popular appeal of an anti-austerity message. But he has been blunt about his concern that a re-elected Obama might accept a “grand bargain” that cuts entitlement programs. “I do not believe that we should cut Social Security,” Sanders said in a July Senate speech. “I would like to know, and I think the American people would like to know, if President Obama feels the same way. It is past time that the president told the American people in no uncertain terms that he will not cut Social Security on his watch.” Along with twenty-eight other senators, he pressed the point in September in a letter opposing any such cuts as part of a deal.

One of the best ways to establish a bulwark against compromise is by electing members of Congress who are as committed as Sanders. Some Democratic newcomers are sending the right signals. In Columbus, Ohio, for instance, Joyce Beatty says, ”I will stand up to anyone who attempts to cut funding to Medicare and Social Security.” That’s the clarity we need from Congress, no matter who wins the presidency.

* * *

In addition to candidates like Sanders and Beatty, here are ten contenders for the House and Senate who would pump up the progressive volume in the next Congress:

SHERROD BROWN: When Ohio Governor John Kasich attacked the collective bargaining rights of public employees last year, Brown shifted his re-election campaign to full-force advocacy of the efforts to overturn Kasich’s law. That’s vintage Brown. He’s passionately pro-union and pro–civil rights, and as a former Ohio secretary of state, he’s a fierce defender of voting rights. That’s made Brown a top target of national conservatives, who are pouring money into Ohio to beat him. Progressives are fighting to keep him because Brown is ready to take on the big fights. With Sanders, he’s become a leading Senate backer of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

TAMMY BALDWIN: When Russ Feingold lost his Senate seat in 2010, it was easy to imagine that his maverick progressivism would never be replaced. But Feingold says Baldwin can fill the bill. A House member, she voted with Feingold against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, and she has championed the same labor rights and human rights agenda as the former senator. Now Baldwin is locked in a tight race with Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and Bush/Cheney secretary of health and human services. If elected, Baldwin would be the first openly lesbian or gay senator and the first female senator from Wisconsin. And her campaign’s emphasis on protecting the rights of workers, renewing American manufacturing and bringing the troops home from Afghanistan confirms that she’s ready to renew the progressive-populist politics of Feingold and Paul Wellstone.

HEIDI HEITKAMP: In North Dakota, a state Obama will lose this year, and where the Affordable Care Act has taken a pounding from right-wing talkers, Republicans thought they could finish off former State Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp’s Senate campaign by linking her to the law. Heitkamp didn’t blink. “Twelve years ago, I beat breast cancer. When you live through that, political attack ads seem silly,” she explained in one of the most effective TV ads of the 2012 campaign. “There’s good and bad in the healthcare law, and it needs to be fixed. But Rick Berg voted to go back to letting insurance companies deny coverage to kids or for pre-existing conditions. I approve this message because I don’t ever want to go back to those days.” If Heitkamp wins her open-seat race, as now seems possible, she’ll give Democrats a win no one was expecting and very possibly save the Senate for her party. More important, she’ll provide Democrats with something they could use a lot more of: a rural populism that wins in farm country and small-town America.

VAL DEMINGS: Jen Bluestein of EMILY’s List calls Florida congressional candidate Val Demings “an actual superhero.” The daughter of a housekeeper and a janitor who started her career as a social worker, became a cop and worked her way up the ranks to become Orlando’s police chief, Demings now wants to crack down on corporate wrongdoing. “We can’t keep rewarding the same Wall Street executives who drove our economy off a cliff,” says the challenger to GOP freshman Daniel Webster, a social conservative blowhard who’s in hot water after being videotaped yachting with lobbyists. “We need to keep the pressure on to make sure Wall Street can’t hurt Main Street again.” Like Elizabeth Warren, Demings focuses on issues that affect real people, like “ending predatory lending practices by credit card companies and banks.” And Demings wants to break the DC consensus that lets corporations dictate trade policy by “opening up our trade agreements to renegotiation to ensure that our workers and companies are competing on a level playing field.”

DR. DAVID GILL: Most redistricting news was bad for Democrats, as Republicans used dominance of state capitols to draw lines favoring their candidates. But in Illinois, a Democratic governor and legislature made districts better for progressives. That means the university towns of Champaign and Urbana might actually elect a Democrat this year. Dr. David Gill, an emergency room physician and campaigner for single-payer healthcare, was not the first choice of party insiders. But he won a tough primary by running as an uncompromising progressive who declared, “I won’t take a penny from Wall Street or corporate interests.” He’s campaigning on a message of taxing “the wealthiest few [who] have rigged the system,” attacking healthcare “profiteering” and proposing “Medicare for All.” And against the counsel of those who say candidates in swing districts should go soft on social issues, Gill proudly defends reproductive rights and calls for marriage equality.

ALAN GRAYSON: Progressives miss former Congressman Grayson, who during his one term in the House emerged as the Democrat willing to say that the GOP healthcare plan was “Don’t get sick! And if you do get sick, die quickly!” Grayson was so good at stirring things up that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin agreed: “It’s OK if the Republicans lose every seat in the Senate and the House except for one. As long as that one is Alan Grayson losing.” Overwhelming spending by conservative and corporate interests defeated Grayson’s 2010 re-election in his old GOP-leaning district. But he’s back in a new, more Democratic district and says he wants to fight even harder (in conjunction with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Progressive Democrats of America) in the next Congress—not just against conservative Republicans but against the worst instincts of Democrats who are so prone to compromise that they lose sight of principle.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: No one is going to hit Washington faster than the new congressman from the Texas district once held by Henry Gonzalez, who rose to become the Wall Street–bashing chair of the House Banking Committee. Joaquin Castro, twin brother of Democratic convention keynoter Julián, is all but certain to win the San Antonio seat once held by Gonzalez, who fifty years ago ushered in a new era of Latino politics. Castro will arrive in Washington with political skills learned from his mother, a barrio activist with La Raza Unida and other civil rights groups. Castro is a superb communicator, and every Democrat should learn his rap about the need to expand the “Infrastructure of Opportunity—great public schools and universities, well-paying jobs and a sound healthcare system—that enables Americans to pursue their American Dream.”

ANN McLANE KUSTER: One of the last of the great liberal Republicans was Susan McLane of New Hampshire, who championed reproductive rights, promoted fair taxation and led a path-breaking fight to require insurance companies to pay for mental healthcare. Today’s GOP has no room for that kind of politics, and McLane’s daughter, Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, could well be elected to Congress this November because of the shift. Kuster’s a progressive lawyer and activist who has earned backing from unions, Feminist Majority, the Human Rights Campaign and JStreetPAC—yet she’s viable in a historically Republican district. There’s a lesson here for Democrats: You don’t have to run as a murky centrist to win over disappointed Republicans; instead, you need to emphasize social and economic ideas that Republicans once accepted as common sense.

NATE SHINAGAWA: Democrats achieved their strongest position in the House in recent decades by winning 2006 and ‘08 victories in rural and small-city manufacturing districts, from upstate New York along the Great Lakes to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In 2010 they lost a lot of those seats, often to Tea Party conservatives. One of the new Republicans is Tom Reed, a gimmick-obsessed conservative representing the newly formed Twenty-third District in New York’s Southern Tier. Reed proposed installing a national debt clock in the House chamber. His Democratic (and Working Families Party) opponent, local legislator Nate Shinagawa, has challenged not just the gimmicks but the underlying premises of austerity politics. A fair-trade advocate whose local-government experience has made him a passionate advocate for infrastructure and education investment, Shinagawa is also a savvy supporter of sustainable energy and one of the country’s most outspoken critics of fracking.

KYRSTEN SINEMA: Few races present so stark a choice as the one in Arizona’s newly created Ninth District. On the right is Tea Party favorite Vernon Parker, a former Bush administration aide backed by immigrant-bashing Sheriff Joe Arpaio. On the left is veteran activist and legislator Kyrsten Sinema, who once sued Arpaio, defended immigrant rights during the bitter debate over the AB1070 law, and helped lead coalitions to defeat a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions and to defend affirmative action and equal opportunity programs. Sinema is running an in-your-face campaign that features images of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh as she says: “These guys don’t get it. They’re more focused on dictating women’s personal healthcare decisions, like birth control, than getting our economy back on track.” Sinema says she’ll get things done in Washington “without sacrificing my progressive values”—which, of course, should be the point of running for Congress.

Also in this week’s issue, Steven Hill explains how Democrats have a rich opportunity to push electoral reform at the state levels.

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