News & Politics

Dems Take a Pounding in the Mid-Terms: Progressives Not Bold Enough, Says Caucus Leader

The final results of the 2010 mid-term elections have only just been tallied, but progressives have already begun their soul-searching.

It's official: John Boehner, R-Ohio, is the new speaker of the House of Representatives.

Now that Democrats have lost the House -- by at least 60 seats -- pundits will likely declare a mandate for a right-wing agenda. Don't believe a word of it. What we witnessed tonight was a protest vote by an angry sector of the electorate, encouraged by hundreds of millions in spending by corporate-funded groups, that has attributed its falling fortunes to a cultural change in Washington. People who are not like them are running things in Washington, and everything really sucks.

In an emotional victory address, Boehner promised an agenda of cost-cutting and "reducing the size of government." Then, dissolving into tears, Boehner seemed to put forward his own experience as a prescription for Americans suffering in the struggling economy, recounting how he "worked every rotten job that was out there" in order to put himself through college, and using his current success as an example of "chasing the American dream."

The final results of the 2010 mid-term elections have yet to be tallied, but progressives have already begun their soul-searching.

Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Lynn Woolsey, congresswoman from California, told Pacifica News Radio that the Democrats lost the House because "we weren't bold enough." If they had started off with a jobs bill, Woolsey said, their position would be different tonight. And, Woolsey said, "We could have done a much better job of letting people know what we had accomplished." As of Nov. 3, the caucus's other co-chair, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, was still fighting for his House seat in close race against Republican Ruth McClung.

At an election-night event broadcast by Free Speech TV at Busboys and Poets, a progressive gathering-place in Washington, D.C., longtime labor activist Bill Fletcher, field director for the American Federation of Government Employees, complained that progressives left the right a wide opening when, after the election, the leaders who had put together the coalition that elected President Barack Obama sent those activists "back to the barracks."

The Tea Party Agenda Comes to Congress

So, now that the Republicans have the House, what will they do? Beholden to the special corporate interests who poured millions into races across the country, they are pledging to shrink the size of government and cut spending. But more than that, their mandate is to stop Obama from doing anything.

At a Washington, D.C., conference sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation in August, foundation President Tim Phillips told a room full of activists that job one was the repeal of "Obamacare". It's not a goal they are likely to achieve in the next congressional session, Phillips said, but they can pass it in the House, attach repeal amendments to Senate bills, and force Obama to veto the repeal of health-care reform "two or three times" before the session concludes. The Americans for Prosperity Foundation was founded and is chaired by David Koch, heir to the fortunes of Koch Industries.

The Republicans did not win the Senate, but if enough Tea Party-branded candidates are seated -- especially those indebted to the Senate Conservatives Fund PAC led by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina -- the Senate will likely devolve to a state of complete gridlock, making it impossible to get anything done. Heck, given the message sent to the leadership of the G.O.P. establishment with the spate of primary challenges its candidates faces at the hands of DeMint and his allies, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might just opt for DeMint's gridlock agenda whether or not the South Carolinian gets to seat the majority of his Tea Party team. After all, two new senators have won tonight whose candidacies were launched in direct challenge to McConnell's leadership.

Marco Rubio's win in Florida, and Rand Paul's in McConnell's home state of Kentucky stand as repudiations of McConnell's control of the Senate agenda. In both states, McConnell had endorsed other candidates -- and Rubio's challenge forced Gov. Charlie Crist, McConnell's pick, right out of the Republican Party. In Wisconsin, DeMint's candidate, millionaire Rob Johnson, vanquished three-term Sen. Russell Feingold, with the help of ferocious organizing by Americans For Prosperity, which also sponsored a mailing to Wisconsin voters in Democratic districts that was part of a voter-suppression scheme.

Paul, who ran from the Tea Party once he won his nomination (the better to get campaign money from the party establishment), promptly declared his election evidence of a "Tea Party mandate" in his victory speech.

But not all on DeMint's team won. He threw in with Sharron Angle in Nevada -- but not until she won her primary against a G.O.P. establishment candidate -- for the potential prize of defeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who ultimately prevailed in a hotly contested race that was flooded with money from outside groups. And Christine O'Donnell, the colorful Tea Party candidate in Delaware, went down to defeat, as expected. Former Rep. Pat Toomey, another member of the Tea Party team, appears to have defeated Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania in an extremely tight race. But as late as the morning after, three major races between Democrats and candidates supported by DeMint have yet to be decided: Colorado, where Republican Ken Buck faces Democrat Michael Bennet; Washington, where Democrat Patty Murray faced an unexpectedly difficult challenge from Republican Dino Rossi; and Alaska, where the Tea Party-branded Joe Miller, who defeated sitting Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the G.O.P. primary, may yet lose to Murkowski via her write-in bid. UPDATE:The Denver Post called the Colorado Senate race for Democrat Michael Bennet at 11:03 EDT. Outside groups spent $31 million in that race.

Some are saying that after a couple of years of gridlock, the American people will tire of the G.O.P., just as they did when Newt Gingrich shut down the government after his party's 1994 rout of congressional Democrats in those mid-term races.

But things are different now, thanks to Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allows outside groups to spend unlimited amounts of cash to influence the outcomes of elections. That's a wall of fire for community organizers to walk through.

Bright Spot in the Golden State

California is often ahead of the curve in political trends, so if there is, perhaps, hope to be had for progressives in the results of California's races for Senate and the governor's mansion: Barbara Boxer held off Republican Carly Fiorina's bid for her Senate seat, and former Gov. Jerry Brown reclaimed his former place in Sacramento, both despite a flood of corporate dollars arrayed against them. In the governor's race, former E-Bay chief Meg Whitman poured an estimated $119 million of her own money into the race, and outside, corporate-funded groups poured in millions more. Brown raised more than $33 million, much of it from labor unions, according to the Associated Press.

In his typically eccentric style, Brown made his victory speech at Oakland's recently renovated Fox Theater against a backdrop of students from two academies he helped found in the city, where he served as mayor from 1999-2007. One is a military academy, the other a school for the arts housed at the theater. Students from both institutions, Brown said, exemplified what was necessary to move California forward: Discipline and love of country, matched with creativity.

Gubernatorial Races - GOP Will Control Redistricting

But Brown's win was the exception. While pundits wax on about how this election season was just another swing cycle -- implying that the pendulum could easily swing the other way in the 2012 elections, the Republican sweep of governors' mansions throughout the country, picking up control of an additional 10 states from the Democrats. Because 2010 is a census year, a redistricting of the electoral map will take place in state legislatures; with Republicans at the helm of state houses, those districts will be redrawn to favor G.O.P. candidates.

Two governors' races for seats already held by Republicans may even determine the kind of Republicans favored in those districts: Tea Party Republicans. In Florida, the Tea Party-branded Rick Scott, the former CEO of a hospital chain involved in Medicare fraud, defeated Democrat Alex Sink. (As Tristram Korten reported for AlterNet, the Florida race was something of a smackdown between Tea Party groups.)  And in South Carolina, Tea Party favorite Nikki Haley won the day.

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Related story: It's Not the End of the World -- 7 Things Progressives Need to Keep in Mind About Last Night's GOP 'Wave,' by Joshua Holland

For more of AlterNet's reporting on the Tea Party movement, check out our new anthology,Dangerous Brew: Exposing the Tea Party's Agenda to Take Over America, edited by Don Hazen and Adele M. Stan.