News & Politics

12 Key Progressive Politicians to Watch in the 2014 Elections

Populist politics is making a comeback in the midterms.

Now that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has granted rich Americans a new constitutional right to spend multi-millions in elections, where are 2014’s populist politicans speaking up for ordinary people and saying no to a new American oligarchy?

One answer is in a dozen congressional races, progressive organizers said, where a mix of incumbents and challengers are staking out varying degrees of populist territory. In South Dakota, there’s Senate candidate, Democrat Rick Weiland, railing so forcefully against big business and big money in politics that the party’s Washington leaders have tried to ignore his campaign. There’s Maine Democrat and Senate challenger Shenna Bellows, who grew up working class, studied economics, became a civil liberties activist, and is running an anti-corporate, class-conscious race, saying that climate change, unequal rights and low-wage work hurt the average Mainers.

Then there are a handful of incumbents running on expanding Social Security by raising contributions from wealthier Americans. Senate Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, all have put Social Security at the center of their re-election messages—especially Begich. It’s also seen as a pivotal issue in Rep. Mike Honda, D-CA’s race, where a younger corporate attorney wants to unseat Honda, a long-time defender of civil rights and federal social insurance programs. 

Populism isn’t “a bashing of the wealthy or a bashing of those that have made it,” retiring Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin told USA Today. “It’s a sense that together we can use the powers of government to make sure that the economy works for all.” Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who’s running to replace Harkin and revived the House Populist Caucus, said that being a populist means ordinary people know that you’re on their side. “At the end of the day, people want to vote for someone they like, someone they trust, and someone who’s not afraid to fight for them,” he told the Huffington Post.

In 2014, there’s a debate about what populism should emphasize. Commentator Thomas Frank, a Kansas native, said that Democrats are losing voters and elections because they don’t forcefully rail against economic elites, but instead push social and cultural issues. But at Democracy for America and Progressive Change Campaign Committee, two more active liberal groups, they believe the issue that best conveys populism today is pushing to expand Social Security and taxing wealthier Americans to pay for it.  

“We are looking at what is a concrete populist goal, what is achieveable? That takes us to Social Security expansion,” said DFA spokesman Neil Sroka. “This is a policy that is tremendously popular with voters. It hits squarely against the Washington conventional wisdom that 'serious' people have to talk about cutting benefits.”

What follows are their lists of congressional candidates running on populist messages so far in 2014. The groups will endorse more candidates this year. Candidates are asked to take positions on every imaginable issue, Sroka said, but those putting populist themes into speeches, messaging and appeals to voters are a smaller circle. If these Democrats succeed, he said that it will send a powerful message to Washington power brokers.

“If we can show Democrats that you can win in a red state when advocating for Social Security expansion, that gives us dividends down the road,” Sroka said.

1. Rick Weiland, South Dakota

Weiland, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Ton Daschle, state AARP director, and businessman, may be the 2014 version of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA; a candidate who unflinchingly tells the truth, starting with the way big money has corrupted the political process and must be stopped. The first bill he wants to introduce is constitutional amendment to give Congress power to regulate campaign finances—not leave it with the Supreme Court. He wants to close corporate tax breaks. He wants to allow anyone to enroll in Medicare, “the most efficient healthcare provider in the country.” As he told the Nation, “Today, our democracy is being bought by big money and turned against us. To feed their profits, we lose our jobs, our homes and our farms, our kid’s education, even our health, and the Congress they have bought looks the other way, or worse.”       

2. Shenna Bellows, Maine

Shenna Bellows’ upbringing in rural Maine was austere. She didn’t have electricity or running water at home until middle school. She studied economics and environmental sustainability and then became a civil liberties organizer, working for the ACLU in Washington and then running Maine’s ACLU chapter for eight years, where she helped create a coalition that passed same-sex marriage. If Weiland echoes old-school prairie populists, Bellows is a Yankee who knows her roots. “I’m running for the U.S. Senate because I believe we need more courage and honesty in Washington,” she told DFA. “We need fresh vision of what’s next for America. People in Maine and across America are struggling. They no longer believe that their children and grandchildren will have more opportunities than they did. They feel that Washington is not listening.”     

The other Senate candidates on these groups’ lists are incumbents seeking re-election. 

3. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI.

Schatz was appointed to Senate in 2012 following the death of longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HI. He faces a Democratic primary opponent, state Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, on August 9. The race has divided Democrats, because Inouye wanted Hanabasa to take his seat. But Gov. Neil Abacrombie appointed Schatz, who has been endorsed by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. During Schatz’s brief Senate tenure, he sponsored legislation to expand Social Security and require wealthier people to pay more into the program to do that. That point is the centerpiece if his first campaign video, also emphasizing that his wife’s parents, recipients, live with his family at their house.

4. Sen. Mark Begich, D-AK.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich isn’t known as being in the same camp as Vermont’s Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts’ Warren. But his race is among a half-dozen nationwide seen as determining which party will control the Senate for Obama’s final years in office. Begich has made increasing Social Security benefits and adopting a new cost-of-living adjustment formula geared to seniors a key part of his campaign, while all the Republicans running favor benefit cuts. The Washington Post called his ideas “far outside the mainstream,” but he’s not backing away. “One in nine Alaskans receives Social Security in one form or another,” Begich replied. ”This is good politics and policy. It puts fairness back into the cost of living adjustments. It says to seniors, ‘We recognize adjustments do not recognize the cost increases that you have had.’ I will talk about it a lot.”        

5. Bruce Braley, D-IO.

Congressman Braley is running to replace Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IO. He was first elected in 2006 and helped revive the House Populist Caucus in 2009. A year later, he was one of a handful of Democrats targeted not by the GOP but by the secretive campaigns that were unleashed by the Supreme Court’sCitizen United ruling. “I consider it a badge of honor that these reckless corporations saw me as such a threat, that they would waste more than $2 million trying to take me out,” he said then. As the frontrunner to replace Harkin, he’s most recently been attacked for candid remarks at a fundraiser in Texas for trial lawyers.

“You may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice, someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years, in a visible and public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Braley said, “Or, you might have a farmer from Iowa, who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, because if Democrats lose the majority Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”    

House Candidates

There are a handful of House challengers and incumbents endorsed by PCCC and DFA.

6. Pat Murphy, Iowa

Murphy, who was Speaker of the Iowa House from 207 to 2011, is running for the seat held by Rep. Braley. In that job, he helped raise the state’s minimum wage and make pre-kindergarten schooling statewide. Murphy supports expanding social security, lowering student loan rates, and holding Wall Street accountable. “The middle class is under attack, our children’s futures are at stake and the ability for Iowa seniors to have secure retirements are in jeopardy,” Murphy said, announcing his candidacy. “I’ve spent my career fighting for those families. I’m running to continue that fight in Congress.”

7. Kelly Westlund, Wisconsin

Westlund, a city councilwoman and small business owner from the small town of Ashland, is running against Rep. Sean Duffy, R-WS, who said that he “struggles” to live on the House’s salary of $174,000 a year. She kicked off her campaign and a “Progress for the People” tour. “I don’t think that Sean Duffy is doing a good job of representing regular, hard-working, everyday people,” she said. “He is constantly in the district saying one thing and then voting against it when he gets back to Washington.”    

8. Daylin Leach, Pennsylvania

State Sen. Daylin Leach is one of four Democrats seeking to replace Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-PA, who is running for governor. While in the Pennsylvania Senate, he introduced the state’s first marriage equality bill, pushed back on the GOP’s attack on voting rights, and is pushing for a higher state minimum wage. He’s been endorsed by Sanders and PCCC, which said the other Democrats are “pro-[private school] voucher, anti-choice, and generally not that inspiring.” At a recent debate before next month’s primary, Leach explained his focus on income inequality. “I have no problem with people making money, but there has to be some balance,” he said. “We can’t have a society where a few people have so much and so many people have absolutely nothing.”   

9. Lee Rogers, California

Lee Rogers, the Simi Valley Democrat and doctor who lost to incumbent Rep. Buck McKeon, R-CA, by less than 10 percent in 2012, is again a candidate this year, only this time McKeon is retiring. “As a doctor, I’m not campaigning just to defend the Affordable Care Act. I’m on the offensive— campaigning to make the ACA better!” he told PCCC.

“I’ll fight to allow people to buy into Medicare. I’ll push for Medicare to negotiate drug prices to lower costs. And I promise to help bring us closer to universal healthcare coverage.” 

10. Bonnie Watson Coleman, New Jersey

Coleman, the former New Jersey Assembly Majority Leader, is running in a competitive Democratic primary for the nomination to replace retiring Rep. Rush Holt, D-NJ. “She helped pass a millionaire’s tax, prison reform, and education bills into law. She is also Gov. Chris Christie’s top critic,” PCCC said, in itsendorsement. “This really is what they’re all about—transactional deals, dismissiveness, remarks that are totally, totally unacceptable in a civilized society,” she told MSNBC about the Christie’s traffic stop scandal. “And you know what? The governor needs to think about resigning, and he needs to take all his friends with him because this is sickening.”

11. Rob Zerban, Wisconsin

In 2012, Rob Zerban came within 5 percent of beating Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WS, who also was the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee. As he explained, “We are seeing an economic recovery that only benefits the very wealthiest among us. The American people are paying the tab for a recession caused by Wall Street greed, and Paul Ryan is the poster boy for economics that hurt the middle class while helping those with the most.” Like other populist Democrats, he said there’s too much needless suffering in America and government can do something about it. “I am tired of seeing so many of my neighbors suffering. Too many children suffer nutrition insecurity, too many young adults aren’t attending college because they can’t afford it, and too many hard-working Americans can’t carve out a decent living.

Of course, there are many incumbents who have been making the same arguments as these candidates for many years—and they too face re-election this year. The PCCC lists Rep. Alan Grayson, D-FL, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN, Rep. Donna Edwards, D-MD, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-AZ, on their list of 2014 endorsed candidates. On DFA’s website, there’s also Rep. Mike Honda, D-CA, who faces a tough fight with a June primary.

12. Rep. Mike Honda, D-CA.

Honda, first elected to Congress in 2000, has been attuned to racial justice issues and defending Social Security. He was born in California before World War II, but was sent with his parents to a Japanese internment camp. After they returned, his family worked as sharecroppers, house cleaners and for the Post Office. Honda was a teacher before he ran for office. He’s being challenged by Ro Khanna, 37, a Silicon Valley lawyer appointed by President Obama to the Commerce Department. He’s attacked Honda as being out of touch with community and business needs. Under California’s new top-two primary system, where the top-two voter getters face off in November, it’s possible Honda and Khanna may be running against each other twice this year. 

Honda, who is courtly and soft-spoken, has campaigned on expanding Social Security and sponsored legislation to do that. “The federal government must fulfill its promise to its people, and that starts by asking all Americans to pay their fair share into a system that benefits everyone,” he said. “The greatest tragedy of all would be allowing our seniors to enter their retirement stripped of dignity and financial safety.”

Is Populism the Ticket in 2014?

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee shares its polling with other well-known groups, including Democracy for America, CREDO Action and Social Security Works. Whether Rick Weiland’s old-school prairie populism, Shenna Bellows’ Yankee candor, Bruce Braley’s outspokenness, or any number of candidates embrace of Social Security expansion will result in Election Day victories will be closely watched.

“When you run, you can have positions on lots of things, but what issues are you really running on?” DFA’s Sroka asked. “We see Social Security as the issue. If you come out for Social Security expansion, that closes off a lot of things on other economic issues. You will not be sucking up to Wall St. It is a great litmus test.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).