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10 Under-the-Radar Congressional Races to Watch

There are plenty of Democrats out there running on actual progressive issues, yet going all but unnoticed nationally. Here are a few worth watching.
 
 
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President Obama is riding high on a post-Democratic National Convention bounce in the polls, and high-profile candidates like Elizabeth Warren made an impact with speeches drawing a clear line between them and the Republicans.

There's still a long way to go before the elections, though, and while the glitz and glamour happened at Bank of America stadium, there were plenty of Democrats not invited to speak but doing their best to win office and help push Congress in a genuinely progressive direction. They might not be getting attention, but several of them are in winnable races against truly regressive—or just plain weird—Republicans.

Here are ten Congressional races, flying under the radar, where you just might see an upset.

1. CA-25: Democrat Lee Rogers vs Republican Buck McKeon

Buck McKeon is a trifecta of loathsome: a Republican in a district that Obama won in 2008 who got preferential treatmentfrom housing-bubble blowers Countrywide, and who, as the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, refused to hold hearings on sexual assault at the Air Force's training facility at Lackland. He was also one of the forces behind California's anti-gay Proposition 8, and is the co-chair of the House drone caucus (for real).

So why aren't we hearing more about his opponent, surgeon Lee Rogers? As could be expected, Rogers is running heavy on health care, leaning on his experience with the system—he says that 75 percent of his patients (he's a podiatrist) are on Medicare--and calling for improvements to the Affordable Care Act. He's called for keeping drug addicts out of prison, getting out of Afghanistan, and investing in infrastructure. As Blue America's Howie Klein notes, McKeon hasn't had real competition in a while, so this race could get interesting.

2. NY-23: Democrat Nate Shinagawa vs Republican Tom Reed

Nate Shinagawa is running as both the Democratic and Working Families Party candidate in upstate New York's 23rd district against Republican Tom Reed. He is one of the youngest candidates for Congress this year (just 28 years old) and a former student labor activist. He's already spent six years in the Tompkins County legislature, and has been an outspoken critic of fracking -- a practice his opponent is all for—which New York Governor Cuomo would like to open up in his district.

In addition to welcoming fracking in his backyard, Reed was one of the GOP members of Congress on an infamous trip to Israel, where in addition to enjoying the hospitality of AIPAC's nonprofit offshoot the American Israel Education Foundation, at least one legislator copped to going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee. (Reed says that he and his wife were “appropriately clothed.”) He's been cited as a possible future GOP “star” from New York, and he's a big fan of Paul Ryan and his (wildly unpopular, especially in New York) budget.

3. PA-16: Democrat Aryanna Strader vs Republican Joe Pitts

Joe Pitts's name is familiar to anyone who cares about reproductive justice—along with Democrat Bart Stupak, the Pennsylvania Republican was the author of the infamous Stupak-Pitts amendment to the health care reform bill—a sneak attack on abortion rights that would've restricted access to abortion coverage in private health insurance plans.

Pitts should be a huge target for Democrats, but despite a leftward trend in his district and a bit of redistricting that might make it even more likely to swing Democratic, they're not pushing very hard. But Aryanna Strader is. She's a 29-year-old veteran, a mom, and a small business owner, and she leaves no question where she stands on reproductive freedoms—she argues that Pitts “started the war on women's health.”

There are two independents running in the 16th as well—Jim Bednarski, a former Republican who apparently wants to win the seat without fundraising, and John A. Murphy, who called Strader the Democrats' Sarah Palin. Pitts is smoking his competition when it comes to fundraising, though—which might make one wonder about the Democrats' commitment to electing pro-choice politicians, since there's plenty of money being funneled into other Pennsylvania races, including Mark Critz's race at the other end of Pennsylvania -- despite his support for Pitts' H.R. 358, dubbed the “Let Women Die Act” because it would, well, let women die if their doctors were opposed to abortion.

4. MI-11: Democrat Syed Taj vs Republican Kerry Bentivolio

If this district sounds familiar, it's because Thaddeus McCotter resigned from it earlier this year after a chunk of the signatures qualifying him for the primary ballot were found to be fraudulent. (Four of his staffers were charged with violating election law.) Dr. Syed Taj is one of several M.D.'s running for Congress this year on their practical health care experience. He's skipping the special election for the remaining weeks of McCotter's term (really, weeks), choosing to focus on the general, where he's facing a Tea Party candidate, Kerry Bentivolio, who's well, unique—Mother Jones describes him as “a reindeer rancher, Santa impersonator, and political novice who once starred in a low-budget movie suggesting that 9/11 was an inside job.” A former teacher, he's facing questions about his treatment of students, and he got a chunk of funding for his campaign from a 21-year-old Ron Paul fanboy.

Taj has spent over 40 years as a doctor, including a stint as Chief of Medicine at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn. He's been endorsed by the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, Representative Keith Ellison, Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Nurses Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

5. WV-01: Democrat Sue Thorn vs Republican David McKinley

West Virginia is coal country, and any political battle in the state is likely to have Big Coal's dirty fingers all over the race. Sue Thorn's challenge to David McKinley is no exception. Multimillionaire McKinley (what is it with these rich members of Congress in some of the poorest districts?) has gotten a good chunk of his campaign cash from Murray Energy, the company whose Utah mine at Crandall Canyon collapsed and killed nine people—and which got slapped with the largest fines ever from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (until the 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch mine right in West Virginia, that is).

McKinley tries to claim that Thorn doesn't support coal mining and works under a big picture of a miner—but Jack Spadaro, former head of the National Mine Safety and Health Academy, doesn't buy that:

There's no question about that, he's a hypocrite. He may say that and have that poster in his office, but he hasn't done anything to further the interests of miners and to make their workplace safe.

Meanwhile, Thorn has pointed out that McKinley's voted against stronger protections against black lung (which is having a resurgence) and better safety regulations. And she spent her Labor Day at events with actual workers, not just pictures of them.

6. WI-01: Democrat Rob Zerban vs Republican Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan's busy running for Veep, of course—but just in case, he's also running for reelection in his House district. And Rob Zerban would like to take that job from him as well. Zerban's probably the first serious challenge Ryan has faced in Wisconsin since his election; he's raised over $1.4 million for his race so far, and points out that Obama carried the district in 2008 (and still would have even after redistricting). He told AlterNet's Joshua Holland:

I’ve lived my version of the American dream. I was only able to do that because our government was there when I needed help. I realize that being a successful small business owner -- someone who employed 45 people, providing excellent wages and benefits -- I realize that this isn’t something I accomplished all on my own. Our government helped me get an education on Pell Grants and loans, I was able to go on and start these small businesses. I want to make sure economic opportunity exists for everybody in this country, not just the wealthy and the well-connected.

Zerban's wife is a teacher and they were both part of the Capitol protests against Scott Walker's anti-union bill. He endorses a “Medicare for All” single-payer system, noting that people don't start small businesses, in part, because of the sky-high costs of health insurance.

Ryan's selection to the presidential ticket may have helped put other Congressional races in play for the Democrats—it'd be pretty funny if he managed to lose his own, too.

7. NC-10: Democrat Patsy Keever vs Republican Patrick McHenry

North Carolina redistricted notorious Blue Dog Heath Shuler out of Congress(Shuler decided to step down after some of the more Democratic-leaning parts of his 11th district were sliced out and dropped into the neighboring 10th). But that might wind up helping Patsy Keever, who's facing off in the 10th against Patrick McHenry, described by Alex Pareene at Salon as “born to be cheerfully corrupt: He’s a product of the College Republicans, an organization that trains little Lee Atwaters, Karl Roves and Grover Norquists in the arts of scorched-earth campaigning and wholly irresponsible 'governing' on behalf of the monied interests that bought you your job.”

Keever, on the other hand, won a primary over more conservative Asheville mayor Terry Bellamy (who had the backing of the national party). The former schoolteacher is a sharp critic of the corporate education reform policy currently being celebrated at both party conventions, writing recently:

Vouchers and charter schools are not the answer. Defunding good programs and instituting unfunded mandates are not the answer. Adding more students to each classroom while decreasing support systems for teachers is not the answer.

Howie Klein notesthat unlike Hayden Rogers, the anti-gay, anti-choice candidate (and Shuler's Chief of Staff) now running in the 11th district, Keever's getting little support from the Democratic party in the 10th. This, even though she strongly opposed North Carolina's anti-gay marriage Amendment One and was endorsed as pro-choice by NARAL. Interestingly, the DCCC named Rogers a “Red to Blue” candidate, which gives him additional funding even though he's running to replace his old boss, a theoretical Democrat, while Keever's running against an honest-to-goodness Republican.

8. CA-39: Democrat Jay Chen vs Republican Ed Royce

Ed Royce is a longtime incumbent who's gotten more money from the financial sector than any other member of the California delegation; he's one of the few senior Republicans to actually join the Tea Party Caucus, has said that Arizona's “Papers, Please” anti-immigrant law should be the national standard, railed against multi-language ballots, and voted against extending the Voting Rights Act. But he's in a new district this time, and this one is 30 percent Asian-American and 30 percent Latino—creating a perfect opening for Jay Chen to take a crack at defeating him.

Chen still faces an uphill battle, but the school board member and Navy Reservist is running on the issues that matter—making education more accessible, better health care (he's ultimately a single-payer supporter) and financial regulation. He recorded Mandarin-language ads to urge the Chinese-American community to vote against Proposition 8, and even though the DCCC doesn't see fit to spend money on his race, he's determined to keep fighting.

9. PA-03: Democrat Missa Eaton vs Republican Mike Kelly

Missa Eaton is one of many educators running as a Democrat in a time of reduced funding for schools and universities. The daughter of a union bus driver, the assistant professor of psychology is challenging super-rich incumbent Mike Kelly and mentions the student debt crisis as one of her issues to tackle. She's also no slouch on trade policy, an issue that might not be sexy but is deeply important in the era of outsourcing.

Eaton's gettingunion support in her blue-collar western Pennsylvania district (represented, before Kelly, by Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper) and won the “Keystone Challenge” from the state Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Mike Kelly compared the health insurance mandate to cover contraception to Pearl Harbor and September 11. No, really.

10. TX-16: Democrat Beto O'Rourke vs Republican Barbara Carrasco

Beto O'Rourke's already won one rough race this year—his primary, where he knocked off conservative Democrat Silvestre Reyes, in part in a battle over drug policy. O'Rourke favors marijuana legalization and bluntly calls the drug war a “failure.” The El Paso city representative argued that marijuana prohibition only fuels the cartels and stokes violence just over the border. It didn't hurt that Reyes had other problems--$600,000 in campaign funds steered to himself and family members, say, or a vote to defund Planned Parenthood. Tim Murphy at Mother Jones notes that try as Reyes might have to make drugs an issue in the campaign, the race was really won on the economy.

O'Rourke's also pushed for benefits for same-sex partners and is pro-choice, pro-contraception, and pro-health care. The district remains largely Democratic even after redistricting, but O'Rourke still has to go through Barbara Carrasco, a Republican whose website pledges that she'll “FIGHT for America's Free-Market Economy” and “PROTECT our Children – Born and Unborn.”

 

 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.