Two years ago, Republicans took advantage of liberal disappointment that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats were not more aggressive in addressing economic troubles, health care and reckless Wall Street bankers.
In 2010, backed by the Tea Party irregulars on the far right, Republicans gained control of statehouses in two dozen states. Republican legislatures, spurred by the right-wing industrialist-dominated American Legislative Exchange Council, passed bills targeting public-employee unions and gutted programs to help the working poor in order to pay for corporate tax breaks. In a dozen states the GOP also passed “Voter ID” bills that require people to show a driver’s license to vote, which places a hardship on working people, the elderly and the disabled who don’t have a car or the resources to get the paperwork and take the day off to stand in line at the driver’s license office to get their state-issued IDs.
(If Republicans really had been concerned about in-person voting fraud — which is virtually non-existent — they could have implemented an ID card system without disrupting voting rights for an estimated 5 million citizens. Implementing the rule in a few months without a massive outreach effort to help citizens get their IDs so they can vote in the presidential election was not a good-faith effort.)
Meanwhile, with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that allowed corporations to participate in political campaigns, Republicans have rushed to organize “super PACs” to raise money anonymously from wealthy individuals and corporations, including corporations controlled by foreign interests, to run attack ads. It is legal as long as they operate independently from the candidates — although in some cases the independence appears to be little more than a cubicle partition on K Street in Washington. Republican super PACs expect to raise more than $800 million for this election cycle and they probably will outspend Democrats by more than 8 to 1.
Even under the more straightforward fundraising regime, Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee outraised President Obama and the Democratic National Committee for the third straight month in July, this time by more than $25 milion. In June the margin was $35 million and in May is was $16 million. It looks almost certain that the incumbent president will be outspent by the challenger. And when you factor in the advantage Republicans enjoy in super PAC money, Democrats are right to be concerned. In the first week of August, $50 million was spent by the campaigns and outside groups, virtually all of it in a small number of swing states, and not all the ads were truthful.
In the House, when Republicans took control in 2011, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the 20 standing committee chairs — of which at least 10 were members of the 75-member Progressive Caucus — were replaced with John Boehner and the Tea-Party-tempered hardliners of the GOP. Republicans now have a 49-seat majority, which seems like a lot, but with only 12% public approval an electoral tide could wash the teabaggers out and Dems back in.
In the Senate, where Democrats currently hold a 53-47 majority, 16 Dems can be categorized as progressive populists, plus independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, based on their votes on key amendments to the financial reform bill in 2010. They include Mark Begich of Alaska, Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Al Franken of Minnesota, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Pat Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Harry Reid of Nevada, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jim Webb of Virginia, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Another two dozen Democrats can be persuaded to vote populist. That is short of a Senate majority, which is why we ended up with a health reform that relies on an individual mandate instead of expansion of Medicare to cover everybody and the Dodd-Franks bill tinkering with regulation of the financial industry instead of the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act. But allowing Republicans to keep control of the House and/or gain control of the Senate does not do working people any good.
This year Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats. They must replace seven retiring senators, including Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (no great loss, and likely to be replaced by a progressive Dem, Rep. Chris Murphy); Daniel Akaka of Hawaii (for whose seat the winner of the Aug. 11 Democratic primary between US Reps. Mazie Hirono, the more progressive candidate, and Ed Case, the more conservative Dem, likely will face Republican former Gov. Linda Lingle); Ben Nelson of Nebraska (probably the most endangered seat, but Democrat Bob Kerrey is the candidate most likely to throw Social Security under the bus in pursuit of a bipartisan budget deal); Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico (where Rep. Martin Heinrich is a progressive Dem candidate), Kent Conrad of North Dakota (where former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is running a strong campaign as a prairie progressive), Webb of Virginia (where former Gov. Tim Kaine, a moderate Dem, stands a good chance of beating Republican former Sen. George “Macaca” Allen Jr.) and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin (where Rep. Tammy Baldwin is a strong progressive candidate).
Among the 15 incumbent Dems (and one progressive independent) seeking re-election are Brown, Cardin, Casey, Sanders and Whitehouse as well as occasional populists Bill Nelson of Florida, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Maria Cantwell of Washington and centrists Dianne Feinstein of California, Tom Carper of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The best Democratic pickup opportunities are in Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren is a progressive populist Democrat challenging banking industry cutout Sen. Scott Brown (R); in Nevada, where interim Sen. Dean Heller (R) faces Rep. Shelley Berkely, a progressive Dem from Las Vegas; and lndiana, where the Tea Party ouster of veteran Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in favor of right-winger Richard Mourdock, with support from the anti-government Club for Growth, gives Rep. Joe Donnelly, a moderate Democrat, an opportunity to court centrist independents. Republicans likely will lose a vote with the retirement of Olympia Snowe in Maine, but Angus King, the moderate independent former governor who is the odds-on favorite to succeed Snowe, has sent mixed signals as to which side he would caucus with.
It’s hard to predict how the big money enabled by the Citizens United ruling will affect the presidential race, but it might have a more pronounced effect down the ballot.
The New York Times reported that while three Republicans were vying for the honor of challenging Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), pro-GOP super PACs have hammered McCaskill with $15 million of negative ads. “Not surprisingly, McCaskill is probably the most endangered Democratic Senate incumbent right now, trailing all three Republicans in polls in a state that is friendly to the GOP but hardly unwinnable for a Democrat (at least under normal circumstances),” Steve Kornacki noted at Salon.com.
In Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown is better-positioned than McCaskill to survive. But Newsweek’s Andrew Romano reports that GOP-aligned outside groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS have invested $11.5 million in attack ads against Brown. As a result, Romano writes, “Brown’s average polling lead over his Republican opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel, has been cut in half.”
Races like these have the potential to be the real campaign money stories of the year, Kornacki noted. “Voters know far less about the average Senate candidate than they do about Obama and Romney ... The same is even more true when you get farther down the ballot to contests for the US House and state and local offices. This is where the Republican super PAC advantage could really be felt in November ...”
Democrats, particularly progressive Dems, will be outspent this fall. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our democracy. That means democracy has to outwork the corporatists on the ground.