This is an essay to determine what is the condition of the progressive movement and where it is going. I define the progressive movement as the broad, loosely related coalitions, groups, organizations and peope working for social justice in the realm of politics. From the peace community to labor to child advocates to environmentalists, we are united in our goals of attaining social justice.
It's more than 6 months after our resounding electoral victories in November 2006. Amy Klobuchar won with a mandate to keep the Senate seat in DFL hands. Tim Walz won an unprecedented victory over an incumbent Republican in CD-1 (the far south of the state). There is now a DFL (MN-version of Democrat) majority in the State House and a larger majority in the Senate. DFLers were elected to Secretary of State, Auditor and Attorney General. In traditionally Republican strongholds of the western suburbs and Rochester (SE corner of MN), progressive candidates won and these areas are no longer Republican strongholds.
Unfortunately, Republican Tim Pawlenty beat outgoing Attorney General Mike Hatch by a hair to retain the governorship. And Republican Michele Bachmann beat child advocate Patty Wetterling. We came 5 seats in the House and 1 in the Senate from veto-proof majorities. I will analyze these crucial losses later.
What opportunities, challenges and trials does the future hold? Will the progressive movement have a champion in the US Senate race? Can we increase our majorities at the State Capitol? What impact will the Presidential campaigns have on the progressive movement?
Who helped win 2006 elections
First off, who contributed to the 2006 electoral victories. A whole lot of people and organizations is the flippant answer. Generally, we've never been better organized. And that's saying alot because the progressive movement is usually not very well organized.
Brian Melendez became party Chair and immediately began reorganizing. After electoral losses and legislative defeats under previous Chair Mike Erlandson, Melendez's most important contribution (among many) was hiring Jaime Tincher to revamp the DFL voter file. We now have a very thorough, very effective, cutting-edge tool for building solid GOTV (get out the vote) efforts.
Howard Dean and the DNC
Howard Dean sent an organizer for each congressional district in the country. They spent all of 2006 organizing and it paid off. He significantly strengthened the democratic wing of the Democratic Party at the expense of the insider, DC consultants and especially at the expense of the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council). The DLC is responsible for the Republican-Lite, fear of being progressive campaigns. The DLC is especially infamous for encouraging candidates to triangulate the most inoffensive position rather than taking stands on the important issues. Howard Dean has done more than anyone to gut their power.
Wellstone Action's training of candidates and campaign managers cannot be praised enough. They provide the basic understanding of how grassroots campaigning works and the campaigns that implement what they've learned at a Wellstone Camp invariably win.
The national netroots
DailyKos, MyDD and the rest of the netroots did everything they could to pump up the Walz and Wetterling campaigns. They will once again get involved in the CD6 battle to defeat Michele Bachmann as well as defeat Norm Coleman.
The local netroots
In particular Ollie Ox at Blue Stem Prairie exemplified what a local blog could and should be. She covered absolutely everything that went on in Tim Walz's race in CD-1. In the Twin Cities, a bunch of blogs like MN Publius, City Page's Blotter, MN Campaign Report, mnblue and several other that are now defunct covered (and in my case volunteered on) the Keith Ellison race. Keith faced many hurdles including a moribund campaign until August, controversy after controversy and racist innuendo. He won the primary handily and swept to victory in November. The tireless folks at Dump Michele Bachmann did everything humanly possible via the keyboard, camera and videocamera to defeat Bachmann, but Wetterling couldn't do it.
Take Action Minnesota
In January of 2006, Progressive MN (PM) and MAPA (MN Alliance for Progressive Action) merged. The new organization combines PM's electoral expertise with MAPA's issue campaign and lobbying power. They expanded the races in which they worked and made a difference in suburban and exurban races around the Twin Cities metro. They provide candidates (particularly first-timers) with support and guidance in endorsement campaigns, primaries and general elections. Personally, I'm a member and a huge fan of them.
The Labor movement can still turn out large numbers of volunteers for candidates. They are still good at GOTV and their support is still critical for progressive candidates.
When the peace community gets behind a candidate, the candidate gets a huge cadre of hard-working and passionate volunteers. The peace community seems to be the conscience of the progressive movement (especially lately). They demand the most of their candidates and expect their candidates to deliver on their promises.
Clean Water Action of Minnesota and Sierra Club are the largest and best organized groups in the environmental movement. CWA is likely the most powerful due to their GOTV efforts. They will endorse a candidate, doorknock and phone throughout the candidate's district and then make sure that the people that support environmental issues know that they should vote for their candidate. Sierra Club is higher national profile and every candidate wants the SC stamp of approval.
Weaknesses in 2006
I will highlight three races that point out weaknesses in the progressive movement that need to be addressed: Mike Hatch; Patty Wetterling; Andy Luger.
The governor's race was tough. The progressives were split between Steve Kelly and Becky Lourey. I believe this allowed Hatch to prevail at the state convention. Hatch then ran the prototypical old-school DFL campaign that hasn't won a race since Rudy Perpich. Big media buys, sound bites and minimal voter contact. Hatch wasn't the candidate to run a grassroots campaign possibly because Hatch never excited the progressive base. This allowed the race to remain close when other DFLers were pulling away and longshots were making races closer than expected. The E85 gaffe and the Republican Hack/Whore incident lost the race.
Consider this ... what if Amy Klobuchar, who ran an exemplary grassroots campaign, would've made the E85 gaffe and then cursed out the reporter. She might've won by only 10% instead of 20%. Furthermore, once she established her large lead in August, the pressure switched off her and onto her foundering opponent who only made things worse for himself with desperate attempts to attack Amy.
Patty Wetterling had the progressive community on her side. It helped that she was running against a right-wing lunatic. Unfortunately, her consultants had her run a DLC-style campaign. DLC is the Democratic Leadership Council. They are centrist Democrats who have advocate running to the middle, hiding any liberal tendencies in an attempt to not scare independent voters and hoping Republicans will switch. Typically, DLC candidates don't take positions and rarely answer questions directly. Parsing spinning and obfuscating seems to be the norm.
After the page scandal broke in DC, Patty was given the opportunity to give the Dem weekly address. She did an awesome job. Soon after polls showed she had a slight lead. She definitely had momentum on her side. Under the sway of her DLC consultants, Patty grasped defeat from the jaws of victory by foolishly attacking Bachmann on taxes when all she had to do was say 'I'm not Michele Bachmann' to win.
Andy Luger is a great guy and a solid progressive. He attended Wellstone Camp, recruited a solid team to run a grassroots campaign and did everything humanly possible to win the Hennepin County Attorney's race. Unfortunately, I and many others were shocked when he lost by around 20% to Mike Freeman (solid, old school liberal and former Henn. Co. Attorney). What happened? Well, first of all, we couldn't vilify Freeman like we could Bachmann. Secondly, the Attorney race is a non-partisan race and both Freeman and Luger are DFLers. Finally, we all thought Andy was doing so well. Which was exactly the problem.
How should the progressive movement support the bottom of the ballot candidates when there are so many important races to get involved in? I'm not sure I have an answer to that. Personally, I have no excuses, I could've done more. But I'm talking about the movement as a whole. We need to do a better job of linking bottom of the ballot tickets with the top. We need to do a better job of spreading the love around.
Paul Wellstone used to say that "when we all do better, we all do better." This motto applies to electoral campaigns as well. When the bigger campaigns work hard to help the little campaigns, I believe its a win-win situation. When the gubernatorial candidate helps out a State Senate candidate, when a congressional candidate helps State House candidate, I believe that the bigger campaign can excite the DFL base while at the same time helping float the smaller candidate's boat. Currently, the DFL has a coordinated campaign which focuses on helping the larger campaigns often causing confusion and frustration for the local campaigns. What if the focus was different?
What if the goal of the coordinated campaign was to first and foremost help the little campaigns first? What if the campaign staffers on the bigger campaigns were always looking for opportunities for smaller campaigns to jump onto coattails? What if the coordinated campaigns selected a slate of candidates who were likely to need help and then worked to make sure that the statewide and congressional candidates (where applicable) were pumping up the local campaigns?
The Coordinated Campaign is a DFL thing. How can the progressive movement do something like this? Is it even possible?
I believe that it is. More progressives need to move up in the hierarchy of the DFL. We need to make sure that the democratic wing of the Democratic Party is running the show at Plato Ave (the street where DFL HQ is located in St. Paul). Of the people I know who have recently worked there or are currently working there, most are progressives. But we need to get on the Board and Committees, too.
The Progressive Movements biggest challenge
The movement's biggest challenge are campaigns for statewide office. We haven't done well lately. Roger Moe and Mike Hatch didn't excite the progressive base and we lost the governorship by slim margins in the last two elections. I'm not even going to comment on the Ventura victory. Why is it that a progressive candidate can never mount a challenge to the old school DFL candidates?
I believe its a combination of factors.
- The progressive is not as well known as the old school candidate they often challenge.
- Its easier for the old school candidate to raise money.
- The progressive movement doesn't move rapidly to get behind a candidate.
The easiest way to overcome name recognition is to start campaigning earlier. Paul Wellstone worked hard in building his name recognition among party insiders then even harder with the delegates he needed to convince. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer's hard charge against Marty Sabo positioned him really well once Sabo announced he was retiring. The bottom line is that we progressives need more time to build a grassroots campaign which will build the name recognition necessary to win an election.
While progressive candidates run cheaper campaigns, we still need to raise some money. All progressive know that a grassroots campaign takes less money. The question to ask is do we have a network of progressive donors so we can raise enough to run a good grassroots campaign? The answer is maybe.
The progressives who first worked for Wellstone have gained TONS of contacts. They know who to get their candidates in front of. The trick is to find the right candidate who will motivate progressive donors. Furthermore, Howard Dean showed that a grassroots candidate can gain legitimacy quickly if they represent the democractic wing of the Democratic Party. Both Keith Ellison and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer showed that you can run successful US House campaigns on pretty limited budgets.
Are we progressives organized enough?
This is the billion dollar question. Yes we're the motivated volunteers for political campaigns. Why is it that we're often split between two or more candidates giving the old school or moderate candidate the opportunity to capitalize on our splintering?
First of all, we're not tied to a party, we're tied to the issues. Its the issues that matter not the party. While progressives are predominantly DFLers, greens are progressives as are a decent to even solid minority in the Independent crowd. We don't have a structure to our movement that allows us to winnow the field and coalesce behind a single candidate. More often than not, we hold our nose and vote for the less obnoxious.
I would argue that this is slowly changing. Take Action Minnesota (TAM) endorsements are a pretty good barometer. In my experience, the members of TAM have done a good job of endorsing solid progressive candidates. But TAM sticks to local races where they can make the biggest difference.
Maybe the answer is through the MN DFL Progressive Caucus. Maybe this should be the next step for the progressive movement.