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.
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.
The decision of several states to hold local elections on the same day as front-loaded national contests has created a Congressional primary timeline that, in states like Illinois, Maryland and Ohio, parallels the fight for the presidential nomination. On February 5, the same day that Illinois and a score of other states will select convention delegates, Chicago-area Congressman Daniel Lipinski, whose votes with the Bush Administration have earned him the derisive label "Democrat in Name Only," faces a determined challenge from Mark Pera, a progressive who breaks with Lipinski to support a woman's right to choose and who opposes the Iraq War. Pera has secured solid support from liberal groups and a local daily that identifies the challenger as "the type of candidate who will spur party leadership."
The same goes for John Laesch, a Navy veteran and former intelligence analyst, who two years ago won 40 percent of the vote against House Speaker Dennis Hastert. He is now campaigning to fill the seat vacated by a spooked Hastert, who has announced his retirement. With endorsements from progressive groups and liberal luminaries like author Studs Terkel, Laesch is running two races on February 5: one for the Democratic nod to compete in the March 8 special election and one to be the party's November nominee. In neighboring Indiana, where a March 11 special election will replace the late Indianapolis Democrat Julia Carson, the liberal Congresswoman's grandson, Andre Carson, has secured the Democratic nomination and is campaigning to end the war and fund urban needs. If the onetime rapper wins, he'll be the second Muslim member of the House, joining Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison.
A House primary on the day of Ohio's March 4 presidential primary will see Cleveland-area voters decide whether Dennis Kucinich, an outspoken critic of Pelosi's cautious approach to cutting Iraq occupation funding and impeaching members of the Bush Administration, will remain a thorn in the leadership's side. Despite his national profile--or perhaps because of it--Kucinich could be outspent by a challenger who has already raised $225,000 from donors who disapprove of the Congressman's positions on various issues, including his strong support for a Palestinian state. "Visualize millions of dollars pouring in to try to squash our efforts," says Kucinich, who seeks votes for re-election and for the Democratic presidential nomination on primary day.
As the presidential race settles, the Congressional primary season will ramp up with contests like former Iowa legislator Ed Fallon's June challenge to House Democrat Leonard Boswell. Fallon faults Boswell's support of war funding, warrantless wiretapping and free trade, and he's being taken seriously. As a low-budget insurgent candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nod in 2006, Fallon carried Boswell's district. It's not just Boswell who gets low marks from Fallon. "Like most people in Iowa, I'm pretty unimpressed," he says of Congressional Democrats.
The notion that a Democratic Congress can and should be more progressive is part of what drew Donna Edwards out of the public-interest community--where she directed the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Center for a New Democracy before leading the progressive Arca Foundation--and into the political fray. "No matter what, there's going to be a Democrat representing this district," she says of her race with incumbent Wynn in an area that rarely votes Republican. "It's up to the people of the 4th District to decide what kind of Democrat they want representing them."
Edwards's candidacy is part of a trend that has seen veteran social activists drawn into politics by their frustration with extreme Republicans and cautious Democrats. In 2006 longtime Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy president Mark Ritchie, angered by Republican moves to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, challenged and beat Minnesota's Republican Secretary of State, while constitutional scholar (and Nation contributor) Jamie Raskin upset a Democratic state senator in Maryland. This year, former Common Cause chief Chellie Pingree is running for an open House seat representing Maine.
Edwards, who narrowly lost a late-starting 2006 race against Wynn, is back this year with much more support, from key labor unions as well as EMILY's List. And she has a more nuanced message. Edwards is not just running against the conservative agenda and a Democrat who embraces parts of it; she wants to "push the limits" of the Democratic Party and American politics. "As Democrats, we've been too timid in terms of what our expectations are. You only have to look at the year since Democrats took over in January" 2007, says Edwards. "I think a lot of us have come to realize that it's important to be on the inside. Years ago, Paul Wellstone used to ask me to work in his Senate office. I would say, 'No, no, I'm much more comfortable on the outside.' Now, like a lot of progressives, I've realized that Paul was right. The work progressives do on the outside is essential, but more of us have to be on the inside if we're going to make the Democratic Party the ally we need to change the Congress and the country."