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5 Progressive Candidates To Watch As the 2012 Campaign Heats Up

Will Democrats take back Congress? Here are five candidates worth keeping an eye on as we get closer to Election 2012.
 
 
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Watching the news lately, you'd think that Election 2012 was only between Republican candidates for president, each trying to outflank the next to his or her right.

The Republican primaries may be getting lots of attention, but several progressive candidates around the country are gearing up for races that could swing the Congress and put some control back in the hands of progressives.

It can be easy to despair when audiences at GOP debates cheer executions and boo gay soldiers, but the fight is far from over. With Barack Obama striking a new, more populist tone as election season nears, we should all remember that a lot can happen between now and next November. And attention early on for the good candidates can help ensure their success in primaries and general election campaigns alike.

While Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul eat up time on cable news with their latest out-there soundbite, we thought we'd bring you five progressive candidates to keep an eye on. Their message is resonating with people in their districts, and these candidates are ready to steal some of the spotlight back from the ultra-right with policies that would actually improve the lives of working people.

1. Tammy Baldwin—Wisconsin Senate

One of the hardest losses in the 2010 election was Russ Feingold's Senate seat, as conservatives swept Wisconsin's races. Yet just a few months later, Wisconsin was the center of a growing resistance to anti-worker, anti-union, pro-corporate politics, as hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites hit the streets and camped out in the capitol protesting Governor Scott Walker's attempt to strip union workers of their right to collectively bargain.

Walker won't be on the ballot in 2012, but there will be an open Senate seat, as Wisconsin's senior senator, Herb Kohl, is retiring. Tammy Baldwin, the only openly gay woman in the House, where she represents Madison and its surrounding areas, is running to be Wisconsin's next progressive champion.

"I know that, in this campaign, we’ll be up against some powerful special interests. But I've beaten the odds before. All my life, the naysayers have told me that I can't win because I'm a progressive, because I'm a woman, even because I'm a lesbian. And I've proven them wrong because I've had rock-solid supporters like you standing with me," she said when she announced her campaign.

Republicans are going to try to paint Baldwin as too liberal for the state, but as Wisconsinites already held insurgent recall elections this year and removed two Republican state senators from office, Baldwin's early move into the race seems to fit with the mood of her state.

Meredith Clark, a reporter and Wisconsin political watcher, said, “Baldwin has enough character and charisma to get votes from UW-Madison students and their farm-dwelling grandparents as an openly gay woman. She supports policies that are good for all of her constituents, and her constituents care more about that than right-wing moral panic.”

2. Eric Griego—New Mexico House District 1

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee's made its first endorsement for a 2012 Congressional race, and it's Eric Griego, currently a state senator and running for New Mexico's 1st district House seat, as Democrat Rep. Martin Heinrich is vacating the seat to run for Senate.

The PCCC's email called Griego “one of the most progressive members of the New Mexico Senate,” and pointed out that he challenged a more conservative Democrat for his state senate seat. They jumped into the race to try to raise funds for Griego early and warn off more conservative Dems, saying that Griego will “vote to bring our troops home, tax big corporations and the rich, and protect Social Security and Medicare from benefit cuts proposed by either party."

The 1st district,in central New Mexico, in and around Albuquerque, is considered pretty safe, so it's a move by the PCCC and others to get a fierce candidate who will actually fight into the Congress rather than have another Blue Dog in the spot.

And Griego seems to be up for the challenge--"The last thing we need to send to Washington is a Democrat who is a kinder, gentler version of the Republicans, frankly,” his campaign video says.

3. Chris Murphy—Connecticut Senate

At long last, Joe Lieberman is retiring from the Senate. The Connecticut Democrat-turned-Independent was almost driven out back in 2006 due to a primary challenge from Ned Lamont, but managed to remain in his seat as an Independent and seems to have dedicated the last six years of his career to thumbing his nose at those progressive voters.

With Lieberman leaving, it's possible to put a real Democrat back in that seat, and Chris Murphy looks like a good chance to do just that. He's currently leading in the polls against both Republican and former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon, and another Democrat, Susan Bysiewicz.

As the representative from Connecticut's 5th district, Murphy is the founder of the Buy American caucus, a group dedicated to bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US, and has advocated for the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. Recently, as several Supreme Court justices were accused of possible unethical conduct regarding fundraising, Murphy introduced a bill that would end the Court's immunity to federal ethics law—making such fundraising explicitly illegal.  

Connecticut has been one of the few bright spots for progressives since 2010's election, becoming the first state in the country to mandate paid sick days for its workers, and leaning blue in a very red year.

It's too soon to tell what a general election campaign from Murphy might look like, but if his Twitter account is any indication, he's willing to pick a fight. This week, as the House debated continuing to fund the government and John Boehner was grandstanding about government spending, Murphy tweeted: “Question for @SpeakerBoehner: if now isn't a good time to rebuild roads, bridges, etc...when is? Just wondering.”

4. John Waltz—Michigan House District 6

Blue America wrote, endorsing John Waltz in his challenge of Republican—and budget supercommittee member—Fred Upton:

“I want to introduce you to Democrat John Waltz, a movement progressive, who's taking on cartoonish plutocrat, Fred Upton, the Whirlpool heir who has always treated the district as though it were a feudal fiefdom. Upton, by inheritance one of the richest members of the House, was appointed to the SuperCommittee by his crony John Boehner because Republicans know he will never agree to anything sensible that can in any way help dig the middle class out of the economic mess the modern day Robber Barons, in their unparalleled greed, have created for the rest of us.”

Waltz, an Iraq veteran, appears ready for a fight. He's hitting Upton for his family's outsourcing of manufacturing jobs as well as his votes on the issues, and hashtags his Tweets #FedUpton. And just this week, he responded to the booing of a gay soldier at the latest Republican debate this way

"Not one presidential candidate uttered a peep about the hateful and homophobic booing of a gay soldier in Iraq. I challenge any Republican or Tealiban member to sign up for the military and get shipped over there and see if they have any complaint when a gay or lesbian soldier is protecting their lives.

"I know during my time in the service we had a massive fire and several of us were pulled out by a lesbian and not one of us stopped her to ask if she was sleeping with a man or woman that night. This behavior is despicable and should never be tolerated. The repeal of DADT was a major step forward in civil rights for our nation and anyone that is willing to serve our nation to protect our freedoms should never be discriminated against." 

Michigan is one of the states with a widely hated new Republican governor, attacks on workers, as well as a long-standing jobs crisis. Michigan residents have known for years what most Americans have just begun to realize; that big business doesn't have working people's interests at heart.

A populist Democrat running against the heir to a manufacturing fortune whose idea of job creation is the Keystone XL pipeline? In a district, in southwestern Michigan including Kalamazoo, that voted for Obama in 2008, that's already seen protests against that business scion, including a giant puppet?

That sounds like a race worth watching.

5. Elizabeth Warren—Massachusetts Senate

The death of Ted Kennedy was always going to be a blow to supporters of universal health care and the rights of working people. But when his seat went to Tea Party Republican Scott Brown in the special election, progressives felt punched in the gut. A Tea Partier in the Liberal Lion's seat?

Now Elizabeth Warren is stepping into the fray—and doing so in a big way. The plain-spoken Harvard law professor has the banksters and Congressional Republicans terrified, and with good reason.

The Washington Post said of Warren, “She came to keep banks honest; she stayed to keep consumers safe.” She first came to national prominence as the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, keeping an eye on the bank bailouts. From there, she was able to get her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created, though Republican opposition kept her from being named to lead it. Instead of simply returning to teaching bankruptcy law, Warren decided to challenge Brown for Kennedy's former seat.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has reportedly raised $300,000 for her campaign already--$100,000 of it before she even declared she'd run.

Republicans might try to paint her as an out-of-touch elitist, but Warren's got working-class roots, and her work over the course of her career has been solidly on the side of the people and against the big banks. She's just the kind of person, in other words, that Democrats need to strike back at those “elitist” arguments.

A video of Warren doing what she does best—explaining deficits and progressive taxation, not normally sexy subjects, in a way that both makes them clear and rallies the crowd to fight with her—has gone viral, and it's easy to see why:

She gets a laugh or two, just to get the crowd firmly on her side, and then she gets to her real point:

“I hear all this, you know, 'Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.' No! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea—God bless. Keep a big hunk of it.  But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post noted, “A Warren candidacy could test the electoral limits of true populism in a way that few other Dems have been willing to venture.”

We've seen right-wing populism over the last four years as the Tea Party rose to power. One of the first places it demonstrated that power was putting a Republican in a Massachusetts Senate seat. If Warren can take it back—and take it back as a progressive populist—she'll not only help put another nail in the coffin of the Tea Party movement, but she might inspire other candidates around the country to get a little bit fiercer on the campaign trail.   

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.