The Battle for a Progressive Congress

At this point, many journalists are speculating about the number of congressional seats that Republicans will lose on Election Day. But a boost in the size of the Democratic majority might not count for much if a blue wave simply makes it possible for conservative and centrist "blue dogs" to end up doggie-paddling into the House.

Less than two weeks before Election Day, the scent of red blood is in the water. "A big wave for Obama might be too much of a burden for Republican congressional candidates to bear," the Rothenberg Political Report says, "at a time when they are already saddled with an unpopular Republican president and an unpopular Republican brand." On Nov. 4, dozens of GOP candidates are likely to lose contests for House seats deemed "safe" just months ago.

But moving a progressive agenda on Capitol Hill will require more than defeating Republicans. It will require electing strong progressives. And the most meaningful shifts will come with genuine progressive candidates who actually take seats away from right-wing Republicans.

That's why Bill Durston's campaign against a very conservative incumbent, the notably arrogant Rep. Dan Lungren, has symbolic and substantive potential for helping to change the direction of Congress.

In late winter, I visited Durston as he was launching his long-shot campaign to unseat Lungren in a far-flung congressional district that extends from the Sacramento area all the way to the Nevada border. The conventional wisdom was that Lungren couldn't be beat. So, Bill Durston had the Democratic primary all to himself.

Congressman Lungren -- whose latest rating from the League of Conservation Voters gives him a score of 0 percent -- went into this election year with a mainstream aura of invincibility. The national Democratic Party apparatus showed no tangible sign of interest in ousting him.

But after a long grassroots campaign against the odds, polling now says that Bill Durston is in a statistical dead heat with Rep. Lungren.

If Durston wins, he'll be one of the most progressive members of Congress. I'm sure of that -- not just because of his background but also because this year I talked with him a lot and watched him in action many times. It's fitting to say that Durston is a former Marine who fought in Vietnam and is now strongly anti-war; that he's an emergency-room physician who is adamantly in favor of single-payer healthcare for all; that he's a genuine progressive on every issue under the sun. All true enough. But I've also learned, firsthand, about his resolute integrity and determined humility -- qualities that no piece of campaign literature is quite able to convey.

It doesn't surprise me that even now, as far as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is concerned, Durston scarcely exists. While pouring large amounts of money into dozens of other congressional races, the DCCC has done nothing for his campaign. Durston is not a "moderate," and he doesn't trim his sails for prevailing winds.

Thanks to grassroots volunteers and groups like Take Back Red California, Democracy For America and Progressive Democrats of America, the hold that Lungren had on his seat is now so shaky that Politico recently included him in a list of several Republicans now "fighting for their political lives, a reversal of fortunes that has caught even the most astute campaign observers by surprise."

A defeat of Lungren would be something of a political earthquake in Northern California. Similarly, a few hundred miles to the south, in Orange County, the luck of fellow right-wing incumbent zealot Rep. Dana Rohrabacher may be about to run out as he tries to fend off a strong grassroots challenge from progressive Democratic candidate Debbie Cook.

Understandably, this year the presidential campaign has largely overshadowed congressional races. But as a blue wave appears to be swelling across the country, it's a good sign that progressives are becoming more focused on what they can do to carry like-minded candidates into Congress.


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