Progressive Democratic Challengers | The Nation


Progressive Democratic Challengers

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Maryland Congressional candidate Donna Edwards did not need a memo from a pollster to tell her the subprime mortgage crisis would be an issue in her 2008 race. Campaigning on the doorsteps and at Metro stops of her racially and economically diverse suburban Washington district, she heard women talking last summer about how a credit crunch might cost them their homes. Edwards, one of a new breed of savvy policy wonks and strategists who are leaving the public-interest community to bid for major elected office, knew how to respond. Months before Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama began promising to fight to keep middle-class families in their homes--and with an urgency that is still missing from the response of House and Senate Democratic leaders--Edwards called for radically revising the 2005 bankruptcy bill as part of a plan to protect homeowners from financial ruin.

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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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It didn't hurt that the incumbent Democrat she's challenging in Maryland's February 12 primary, eight-term Congressman Albert Wynn, voted for the bankruptcy bill, favored by commercial banks, which have contributed $185,917 to his campaign. But for Edwards, this was about more than political positioning. "Prince Georges County has the highest rate of foreclosures in Maryland, and my ZIP code has the highest rate of foreclosures in the county," says Edwards, a veteran activist on issues of concern to women and working families. "When I talk about why we need a different kind of Democrat in Congress--someone who sides with consumers, not corporate interests--people understand exactly what I'm talking about."

Score another point for Edwards. With support from the Service Employees International Union and other key unions, environmental groups and liberal activists with Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America, she is given a fair chance of upsetting Wynn, a corporate-friendly Democrat who voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq, pass Vice President Cheney's energy bill and protect pharmaceutical companies from consumer-friendly reforms.

The Edwards-Wynn race is a bellwether contest in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. That fight is at least as likely to be determined in this year's Congressional primaries as in a stilted race for the presidency, where both Clinton and Obama are eyeing the middle ground they expect to occupy in the fall. These local primaries have national importance, as they could answer an essential question: will a Democratic Party that muddled its message after gaining control of Congress in 2006 advance a progressive brief in the post-Bush era?

No matter what happens in the presidential race, Democrats are likely to finish 2008 in a stronger position than they started. Acknowledging the inevitable at the start of an election season in which their President's approval ratings are in the dumps and a nasty recession is taking shape, House and Senate Republicans are retiring at dramatically high rates. Open-seat contests across the country are ripe for partisan shifts in a year when voters tell pollsters they're inclined toward candidates with a D after their name. In addition, vulnerable Republican incumbents face stiff challenges. So it is that Democrats, who now hold a bare 51-to-49 majority in the Senate--relying uncomfortably on Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman's tenuous allegiance to their causes--speak of picking up open Republican seats in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia and of defeating Republican incumbents such as Minnesota's Norm Coleman and New Hampshire's John Sununu. And so House Democrats look to pad their thirty-one-seat majority, with good prospects of gaining seats GOP incumbents have abandoned in the recession-wary states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

But what will Democrats in power do in 2009? Will they be as disappointingly cautious and unfocused as the Democrats of the 2007 Congress, who frustrated not just the party's base but a broader electorate that gives the Democratic Congress lower ratings than the Republican White House? Or will they develop the progressive agenda and display the strategic sense needed to give meaning to all this year's talk of "change"?

That question is in play as Democrats struggle to identify a presidential nominee. But it could be answered in Congressional primaries that are fought beyond the national spotlight. Historically, Democratic Congresses have tended to pull Democratic Presidents to the left. But Presidents rarely go willingly. "If there is a Democratic President, there will be an enormous effort to get everyone on the same page, and it will not be so progressive a page as some of us would like," says Institute for Policy Studies president John Cavanagh. "Who is in Congress, how they got there and how committed they are to a progressive agenda will matter as regards the direction of the Democratic Party in power."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's allies excuse her caution by saying she's been hamstrung by the conservative, centrist, corporate Democrats she must satisfy to keep the caucus united. While Pelosi's critics see this as a convenient out for a leader who has not hesitated to raise campaign money from the same interests that funded Republican campaigns, veteran House liberals--many of whom maintain close relations with the Speaker--quietly suggest that the best way to push Pelosi in a progressive direction is to give her a more progressive caucus. Where will the new progressives come from? Some Democrats who beat Republicans in swing districts will join the seventy-two-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, but if the chamber is to change cautious Democrats who represent safely blue districts must be replaced with aggressive progressives. The amiable way to do this is when a Democratic member retires, as is likely to happen when San Francisco-area Representative Tom Lantos, who disappointed antiwar activists when he voted to authorize President Bush's war against Iraq, is replaced this year by a Democrat with a more steadily progressive take on international affairs--probably former State Senator Jackie Speier.

The more contentious route involves primary challenges to disappointing incumbents. And if the pattern that has developed in early primary states is any indication, this year will see more than its share of serious ones.

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