An Emergent Progressive Majority

Progressives should be optimistic as we look toward the 2006 midterm elections. A recent CNN/ Gallup Poll shows that a record-high 54 percent of Americans believe that the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq. Surging gas prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and struggles to keep up with the cost of living are fueling widespread pessimism about President Bush's handling of the economy. According to recent Associated Press polls, only 28 percent of voters think the country is heading in the right direction. An August Harris poll showed that 58 percent of respondents believe Bush is doing an “only fair or poor” job as president, while several new polls at press time recorded his approval at barely 40 percent -- the lowest in his presidency. And there's blame to spare: Only 37 percent of the public approves of the way the Republican-controlled Congress is doing its job, the worst grade for lawmakers in eight years.

But optimism alone won't regain control of the Congress or the majority of state legislatures in 2006. It won't elect a progressive president in 2008. And it won't reverse decades of conservative ascent.

Conservatives, first working outside the Republican Party and ultimately taking it over, have labored for more than 30 years to get where they are today: in control at all levels. They built powerful media and message enterprises to hone their ideas and make those ideas sound reasonable to mainstream Americans. They recruited “movement conservatives” to run for office, trained them to run effectively on a party-line agenda, and systematically fielded them in key state and local races that would nationalize this agenda and mobilize voters up and down the ticket.

In the late 1970s, when Democrats controlled the majority of elected offices from state legislatures to the presidency, conservatives created GOPAC, their candidate and recruitment operation. It was resurgence on the right, the product of new leadership that was willing to look to the long term to win power. Despite having been in the minority for decades, this new conservative Republican leadership knew it must marry the need for short-term victories with a long-term partisan strategy for taking back power. The leaders developed a 10-year plan. And it worked.

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Progressives have traditionally left candidate recruitment to the official arms of the Democratic Party. But for the last 15 years, the party has engaged in a deliberate strategy to recruit candidates who can largely fund their own campaigns or draw corporate financial support thanks to their conservative fiscal and social positions. The party encouraged candidates to abandon or avoid popular progressive issues in order to try to increase their appeal to swing voters. This has proven to be a failed strategy; Democrats have lost seats in nearly every election. Worse, by trying to moderate their core views and values, Democrats have come to be perceived as weak and indecisive, with no bold ideas of their own.

Consider this from an August Democracy Corps memo by Stan Greenberg and Matt Hogan: “The Democrats are 7 points ahead in the race for Congress and, indeed, have led by an average of 6 points over the last 4 months … . But for all that, the Democrats need to do much more to turn this into a tidal wave. Their own image has not improved and most of the gain in congressional vote margin has come from the Republicans' decline.”

Americans are tired of voting against someone. They are seeking candidates who are willing to stand up for something. If progressives want to win elections, they need to recruit leaders who will speak clearly to people's real needs and problems.

That's the challenge my organization and others with similar vision have set out to address. In 2004, Progressive Majority launched the only exclusive, comprehensive program to recruit and train a “farm team” of progressive candidates to run for state and local office. We piloted the program in Washington state, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in 2004, running 100 candidates -- and winning 41 of our races. Notably, of the 59 candidates who lost, 33 continue in the program and are running again. Even when we lose, we grow.

Ours is a strong and successful model for candidate recruitment. First, we identify every legislative opportunity available in the next election and begin aggressively recruiting progressive leaders to run in those races. Second, we train our candidates and their staff on how to run an effective race. Third, we provide each candidate with myriad political resources, including extensive one-on-one “coaching” on campaign planning, fund raising, message and communications, and more. Finally, we map out the state's political plan through 2008 so the entire progressive community understands where the political opportunities lie.

Our results suggest that we're on to something. In 2004, Progressive Majority was one of only two organizations to provide early support to Brian Weinstein, a candidate for the Washington state Senate. Our work in his race, and our advocacy within the progressive community, encouraged the state's political players to coalesce around Weinstein's candidacy. His victory, along with that of Craig Pridemore, whom we also supported, flipped control of the Senate in Olympia to Democrats, who went on to pass a record number of progressive bills this last legislative session.

In 2005, Progressive Majority expanded the program to two additional states, Arizona and Colorado. By the end of July, our farm team boasted 167 candidates, including 64 running in 2005, 63 in 2006, and 40 in 2007 or later. Twenty-eight percent are people of color, 48 percent are women, and 22 percent are rank-and-file union members.

Our biggest win in this year's municipal elections occurred in Wisconsin in April when Mark Harris defeated the conservative eight-year incumbent for Winnebago County executive. Harris eked out a 51-percent victory in the gop–dominated Fox Valley, where John Kerry received 46 percent last November. A community leader who built a political base while chairing the Oshkosh City Council, Harris ran on a straightforward message of competence and common sense. This was a critical pickup for progressives and demonstrates that we can win in tough districts when we groom leaders from the community.

In keeping with our strategy of identifying true leaders, we recruited Claudia Kauffman, a member of the Nez Perce tribe, to run for state Senate in Washington -- after the Democratic Party establishment had advised Kauffman to delay her decision while encouraging other (read: white) candidates to run. Currently, our staff is working with her to aggressively raise funds to ward off primary opposition. If victorious, she would be the only Native American in the Washington Senate and one of the first ever to serve in that state's Legislature.

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Our work is being done in collaboration with other important endeavors necessary to build a progressive political movement because we understand that, done alone, candidate recruitment and development will not produce concrete progressive policy advancements. In turn, if every other function is performed without sufficient numbers of progressive candidates to carry our messages and engage voters, we will fail to realize genuine and enduring reform. We have formed advisory councils in each of our states -- led by the local heads of the labor, women's, environmental, civil-rights, education, and health-care organizations -- to advise and guide our candidate-recruitment work, thereby ensuring that it is serving the broader progressive movement.

The frustration voters feel is not esoteric. People are struggling to maintain jobs that pay short of a living wage; small-business owners are straining to keep up with rising health-insurance costs; mothers and fathers are losing their sons and daughters in Iraq; those exurban and rural voters that cost Democrats the last presidential election are suffering at the hands of an administration that puts corporations and the wealthy above them.

Real people with real problems -- those are the people whose futures are being sacrificed by the conservatives in power. Isn't it time we gave them leaders they can be proud to support?

Gloria Totten is the executive director of Progressive Majority.