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12 Key Progressive Politicians to Watch in the 2014 Elections

Populist politics is making a comeback in the midterms.
 
 
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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.”       

 
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