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Dems Are Feeling It: The GOP Machine Can Be Beaten

Next Tuesday's midterms could be just another election or they could mark a major electoral shift. Grassroots progressives could have an enormous impact on the outcome.
 
 
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In less than a week, Americans will go to the polls. It could be like other recent elections -- votes that recalled Shakespeare's line about a lot of "sound and fury, signifying nothing" -- or it could be an immense, cleansing wave washing away the worst period of one-party rule in American history.

The two parties will do what they will, but ordinary citizens -- the grass roots -- will largely determine which scenario will play out.

It may well be a historic moment. Next week has the potential to usher in a rare electoral realignment -- the kind of political shift that comes about once in a generation. The administration's disastrous consistency in everything it touches, from Iraq to Katrina to Terri Schiavo, could do for the progressive movement what Reagan's "revolution" did for the New Right -- move a whole generation of voters.

Analysts from across the spectrum agree that the Republican coalition is facing a perfect storm; it's not just the meat grinder Iraq has become and the boondoggle that's plagued its reconstruction. It's not just a host of scandals -- sexual, financial and electoral. It's not just an economy that's growing in aggregate but hasn't put more money into most people's pockets. It's not just the four million Americans who have fallen below the poverty line or the five million more Americans who lack health insurance since Bush was sworn in six years ago. It's all of those things combined with a profound sense of insecurity as health care and tuition costs skyrocket, jobs are shed overseas, Americans are neck-deep in debt, and the country's global leadership is being challenged even by staunch allies.

The reality is that these things are by no means all the Republicans' fault. But reality is less important than perception, and people tend to blame the party in power. This year, after four years of unchecked Republican dominance in D.C., people know which party holds the strings. That isn't always the case; in 2002, fewer than 30 percent of voters surveyed knew which party controlled the House of Representatives. As blogger Chris Bowers pointed out:

In 1980, 1994, and 2002, most voters (over 65 percent) thought Democrats were in charge of the House, and Democrats suffered real losses as a result. In 1982, 1986, 1996, and 1998, most voters (over 65 percent) thought Republicans were in charge of the House, and Republicans suffered real losses as a result.

For all of these reasons, the environment is ripe for a rare shift in the fundamental balance of partisan power. Congressional Quarterly calls the environment "toxic" for Republicans, and the Democrats, smelling blood, have fielded more credible challengers this year than in any cycle in recent memory.

RealClear Politics projects that Democrats -- who need 15 seats to take the House (but more than that to do what many progressives hope they will) -- will pick up 10-24 seats; Congressional Quarterly projects 8-26 pick-ups ( PDF), and Pollster.com is looking at between 16 and 40.

Those are the conservative estimates. Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report, says that "dangerously big waves can be very strong and very unpredictable" and, this year, "national numbers suggest a truly historic tidal wave."

With the national environment being as it is -- and given the last round of redistricting, which limits possible Democratic gains -- Republicans probably are at risk to lose as few as 45 seats and as many as 60 seats, based on historical results. Given how the national mood compares to previous wave years and to the GOP's 15-seat House majority, Democratic gains almost certainly would fall to the upper end of that range.

At this writing, there are 60 races that are separated by single digits in the polls, including some in deeply "red" states and others in districts that have been so gerrymandered that they wouldn't be in play during a normal election year.

But the situation is extraordinarily fluid. As of the last FEC filing (Oct. 18), the Republicans still held a $17 million cash-on-hand advantage, despite a surge in contributions to the Dems. The Los Angeles Times reported that Karl Rove has an "11th-hour plan" to announce millions of dollars in new pork projects for districts with vulnerable Republicans. And the GOP has had enormous success with its sophisticated and pin-point accurate get-out-the-vote infrastructure.

Ultimately, like all elections in recent years, getting the right voters to the polls will be the difference between Republicans holding on to the House (and/or the Senate), Democrats taking a slim majority or Dems building a coalition large enough to get things done. Just a few points at the ballot box could make all the difference. In 1994, Republicans came away with a 54-seat swing in an epic blow-out, but they did it with just 51.5 percent of the popular vote. 25 seats were determined by less than 10,000 votes, and 15 seats -- enough to give them the majority -- were decided by just 52,000 votes combined.

That's why organizers are stressing how important it is for the grass roots to give everything they can in this final week. Yesterday, Adam Ruben from MoveOn.org wrote: "Forget the laundry. Let the dirty dishes pile up in the sink. Break out the TV dinners, and tell the kids to do their own homework … We've got seven days -- that's 168 hours -- to make our mark on this election. And for everything we care about -- our kids, our Constitution, our world -- we've got to make it huge."

Doing so is easier than ever because of the emergence of a nascent but growing liberal infrastructure organized via the internet -- the "netroots," ActBlue, MediaMatters, MoveOn, Progressive Majority, Drinking Liberally and a long list of others are all starting -- starting -- to have a real impact by giving average people the tools they need to share ideas, pool resources and influence the media's narratives. Each cycle they've grown a little bit in sophistication, and each cycle they've had just a little bit more influence than they did in the previous one.

Organizers are calling for people to do more than vote. MoveOn needs volunteers to Call for Change, a project that's enabled its members to call 85,000 Democrats who voted in the presidential elections but not in past midterms. A coalition including the Progressive Majority is organizing a grass-roots get-out-the-vote effort and needs volunteers.

In a turn-out election, just getting friends to the polls can make a huge difference. Before the 2004 elections, AlterNet suggested its readers make a list of friends and loved ones and take personal responsibility for getting them to the polls.

Clearly, a Democratic win is not a magic bullet that will solve America's problems -- the hole dug in recent years is far too deep, and much work will remain, whatever the result next Tuesday. But the Democrats have promised that in their first four days in control of Congress they'll introduce new lobbying rules, raise the minimum wage by more than 40 percent and broaden the types of stem-cell research that are eligible for federal funding. They'll move to put the 9/11 Commission's recommendations in place, cut interest rates on student loans in half, allow the government to negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices and bring back the pay-as-you-go budgeting rules that helped turn around the deficit in the 1990s.

According to Gallup, Americans expect all of these efforts from Democrats and overwhelmingly approve of them. According to Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the would-be speaker of the House, they'll pay for the agenda by rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts for those above "a certain level" -- she mentioned annual incomes of $250,000 or $300,000 to the Washington Post -- and ending subsidies to "Big Oil."

And more than specific promises, it's simply a different Congress with John Conyers, D-Mich., chairing the Judiciary Committee than it is with James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and it's a different Congress with Henry Waxman, D-Calif., heading the Committee on Government Reform than it is with rubber-stamper Tom Davis, R-Va. Federal priorities in terms of budgets, taxes and social spending will shift dramatically with Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., displacing Bill Thomas, R-Calif. -- a champion of privatizing Social Security -- as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and the House will function very differently with Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., holding the gavel in the Rules Committee. It's a different government with an opposition party that has a seat at the table. Bush's first six years with a compliant Congress have made the prospect of his last two mired in gridlock and investigations look incredibly appealing.

Even more importantly, perhaps, are the psychological stakes; Democrats and progressives need a win, and they need it badly. They need to know that funky voting machines and gay marriage amendments and Karl Rove's supposed "genius" are not infallible -- that the GOP machine can be beaten.

What will you be doing in the next week to prove it?

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

 
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