Prospects look grim for congressional Democrats this fall. Political forecasters are predicting that the party will fail to wrest control of the House from the GOP and will lose its majority in the Senate.
A number of forces are working against the Democrats: Obama’s low approval ratings, the failure of segments within the Democratic base — young people and people of color — to turn out in midterm elections, lingering weakness in job markets and income growth, and the abundance of money for right-wing “independent expenditures.”
Most frustratingly, Democrats must win a supermajority of the popular vote to gain a majority in the House, thanks to a combination of Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 census and the greater concentration of Democratic voters in urban America. Until 2020, when the next round of redistricting takes effect, Democrats will need about 55 percent of the popular vote in elections to win a majority of House seats. In 2012, Republican House candidates lost the national popular vote by 1.12 percentage points but won 33 more seats than the Democrats.
The gloomy federal outlook is prompting groups that support progressive Democrats — labor unions, community organizations and online political mobilizers — to turn their attention to state and local elections, especially gubernatorial races.
“Make no mistake about it; our priorities are going to be the state and local government races across the country,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chair of the AFL-CIO political committee, told reporters in February.
Progressive organizers are increasingly conscious of how state governments, once heralded by Justice Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” have today become, under Republican control, laboratories of plutocracy.
The “shellacking” Democrats experienced in the 2010 elections extended beyond Congress to the governor’s mansions. The number of Democratic governors dropped from 26 to 20, with Lincoln Chafee, an Independent, winning Rhode Island and Republican governors taking the remaining 29 states. Eight of the newly elected Republican governors were far-right ideologues with ties to the Tea Party: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Rick Scott of Florida, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Paul LePage of Maine.
Those governors promptly initiated policies that accelerated the downward spiral for workers and the upward spiral for the richest 1%. They share a common playbook, thanks to the influence of the right-wing, corporate-oriented American Legislative Exchange Council, which provides model legislation to conservative state executives and lawmakers. That playbook includes breaking public employee unions and their contracts; shredding or eliminating social safety nets; shrinking government spending (including long-term investment in research and infrastructure); and imposing voting restrictions that target the poor, young, black and Latino — all heavily Democratic blocs.
In the past four years, for example, Pennsylvania’s Corbett has slashed state education spending, Michigan’s Snyder has cut the duration of state unemployment compensation during a deep recession, Ohio’s Kasich and Wisconsin’s Walker have restricted voting, and Maine’s LePage has reduced state Medicaid coverage. But their biggest preoccupation is to court the corporate interests that fund their campaigns— by cutting taxes on business and the wealthy, undermining unions, privatizing government services and education, and weakening environmental regulations. Although these measures were undertaken in the name of boosting economic activity, they have actually eroded working-class living standards and indulged the rich.
This silent, one-sided class war is a threat to the American economy and the quality of our social relations.
The actions of these governors, as much as those of congressional leaders,set the political agenda for the GOP— because so many of these governors are angling to run for president, but also because they set the terms of political debate in each state. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party often tries to position itself close to Republican positions on many economic issues — privatization, corporate tax incentives and minimization of business taxes overall. (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel typifies this wing of the party.)
The new Republican cohort, now up for reelection, won in 2010 for a variety of reasons: high unemployment, a demoralized Democratic base, an activist Tea Party, and, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision earlier that year, big bucks from oligarchs like the Koch brothers. Although employment has improved slightly, the other advantages hold true today, and Republicans are hoping to gain further leverage by attacking Obamacare.
In 2014, however, the class of 2010 will have gubernatorial records to defend. Some relied on bait-and-switch deception to gain office. In his 2010 campaign, Walker ran on a conventionally conservative, anti-government platform, but said nothing of a radical plan to destroy public-sector unions. A few months after taking office, he proposed a “budget repair bill” that cut state workers’ retirement and health benefits deeply and, more ominously, eliminated or rendered meaningless the rights of state employees to bargain collectively. Hundreds of thousands of people protested at the Capitol and around the state, then tried — but failed — to recall Walker in 2012.
Along with the surprises came broken promises, especially around job creation. Though Walker pleased Big Money with new tax cuts for the wealthy, he almost certainly won’t deliver on his pledge of 250,000 new private-sector jobs by the end of his first terms. PolitiFact estimates that Wisconsin has added just over 100,000 jobs under Walker as of April 1. The state now ranks 35th in job creation.
The story is much the same for the other new conservative Republican governors. Kasich privatized Ohio’s business development agencies and enabled tax breaks for business owners, promising economic miracles, but the state’s private-sector job growth dropped from 26th to 34th in the nation.
In Florida, Scott promised 700,000 more new jobs in seven years than the state legislature’s non-partisan economists were projecting — a goal that would require about 20,000 new jobs each month. Scott has implemented much of his stated agenda: cutting government spending and public-sector jobs, privatizing many government functions, and deregulating business. But since he took office, the state has generated only about 12,000 jobs per month.
Corbett promised job growth in Pennsylvania as well, but during his term, the state ran well below average nearly every month, ranking 46th in the rate of job growth from January 2011 to December 2013. Unemployment did fall, but mostly due to workers dropping out of the job market. Corbett added insult to injury when he implied at a press conference in 2013 that the unemployed couldn’t find jobs because of their drug use: “Many employers … say, ‘We’re looking for people but we can’t find anybody that has passed a drug [test].’ ”
Claiming he would be the “comeback kid” for the Michigan economy, Snyder cut state business taxes and signed an anti-union right-to-work law, but in February of this year, 7.7 percent of the workforce was unemployed, putting the state in 46th place in employment — the same as when he took office.
Republican governors will also have to face the music for rejecting Medicaid funds under the Affordable Care Act, depriving populations that most need healthcare of coverage that is almost totally federally financed. The Medicaid rejections in the South and Great Plains states were outrageous, but they fit a historical pattern of anti-government ideology, political hostility toward Obama, and longstanding, structural neglect of the poor and people of color. But Republican governors in some northern states also decided not to expand Medicaid — Walker in Wisconsin and LePage in Maine — while Mike Pence in Indiana and Corbett in Pennsylvania continued to attempt to substitute an inferior alternative. Their choices broke radically with past state traditions under past governors from both parties.
Their states will suffer as a result. For example, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a statewide, community-based advocacy group, calculates that Walker’s rejection of millions of federal dollars in Medicaid coverage will not only deprive 84,700 low-income Wisconsinites of free health insurance, but also cost the state more than 16,600 new jobs, many in healthcare. Because Walker rejected ACA regulatory requirements, Wisconsin residents may also pay insurance exchange rates nearly twice as high as those in neighboring Minnesota.
Their economic records alone should make the new class of Republican governors vulnerable to challengers. That is clearly true in Maine and Pennsylvania, where LePage and Corbett’s far-right policies have not gone over well with the electorate, but the races look much closer in some states. Walker demonstrated his resilience by winning a recall with a moderate Democrat, Tom Barrett, in 2012. Analysts believe many voters were unhappy with Walker but thought that recalls should be reserved for moral failings. However, some also blamed Democrats for failing to choose a more aggressive candidate.
It’s unclear whether Walker’s new Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, will fare better. Although an early March Rasmussen poll of Wisconsin voters showed a 45 – to – 45 tie, a poll by Marquette University Law School a few weeks later found that Walker was leading Burke 48 to 41. Political prognosticators, such as University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato, call the race as “likely Republican.”
Little-known and an inexperienced campaigner, Burke seems more the earnest corporate liberal administrator than a razor-sharp populist fighter for the common man; more ready to seek cooperation from Republicans than carve up Walker’s record to reveal its hollow core. Burke is a businesswoman — she worked to expand foreign markets at her father’s bicycle company, Trek — as well as a former state commerce secretary. Her website touts her “private sector approach” to job creation and “fiscal responsibility,” but does not directly address the nation’s growing inequality — hardly the program of a contemporary “Fighting Bob” (or Roberta) LaFollette to rally working people to vote against Walker. However, unlike Walker, Burke supports private and public-sector unions, accepting the ACA’s expanded Medicaid, halting expansion of school vouchers and raising the state minimum wage to $10.10.
Wisconsin is usually “evenly divided” between parties, with Madison and Milwaukee Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee suburbs and exurbs solidly Republican, and many small cities from Janesville to Superior providing the swing votes, says Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Defeating Walker, especially if there is a national “surge” of support for Republicans, will depend greatly on the work of unions, community-based groups such as Citizen Action, and labor-community coalitions like We Are Wisconsin. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Wisconsin Vice-President Bruce Colburn says that Burke’s supporters will have to work to “tie the issues [of inequality] to the election” in order for working-class voters to appreciate the stakes.
Prospects look rosier for Democrats in Maine, where challenger Rep. Mike Michaud is running ahead of both incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and Independent Eliot Cutler. Michaud, a longtime paper mill worker and union member, has already established himself as “the champion of the working man,” according to Mike Tipping, communications director of the Maine People’s Alliance. More liberal than his past caucusing with the Blue Dogs would suggest, he is a leading critic of conventional trade deals. By contrast, LePage’s decision to remove a state labor history mural from the Maine Labor Department because the depictions of workers were “anti-business” symbolized for many his flamboyant Tea Party politics. Cutler, a wealthy lawyer at a powerful D.C. law firm, split the Democratic vote four years ago. LePage’s embodiment of Tea Party style and ideology is also unlikely to go over well with Maine’s moderate Republicans and large independent bloc.
In some of the other hotly contested gubernatorial races, such as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, the prospects remain mixed but encouraging for Democrats. Either of the frontrunners in the upcoming Pennsylvania Democratic primary, businessman Tom Wolf and centrist U.S. Rep. Alyson Schwartz, should be able to beat incumbent Tom Corbett. In Florida, Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor, leads ultra-conservative incumbent Republican Rick Scott, partly because of Scott’s failure to get his party’s legislators to support expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. In Ohio, voters rebuffed Republican Gov. John Kasich when they rejected his anti-union law by a 62 – 38 margin in a 2011 referendum. While the Democratic challenger, Cuyahoga
County executive Ed FitzGerald, trails in the polls, Ohio AFL-CIO political director Jason Perlman thinks that blue-collar FitzGerald will pick up both undecided voters and soft Kasich supporters as they get to know him.
Seizing the terms of the debate
One important element of the gubernatorial elections involves challenging the anti-government Tea Party ideology with a compelling vision of how working people can make government work for them. In many ways, each battle over minimum wage or the right-wing attacks on Obamacare is also a fight over the role of government in the economy.
“This is about more than the minimum wage,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten at a February press conference. “What kind of economy do we need in the richest country in the world to raise living standards?”
Polls indicate that a conversation about the economy could allow Democrats to gain traction, even with Republican voters. A February poll by Hart Research Associates of voters in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — five states with Republican governors from the 2010 Tea Party cohort — found that three-fifths are dissatisfied with the economy and feel they are falling behind financially. This discontent is especially pronounced among families earning $50,000 or less, including lower-income Republicans, and it is hurting governors’ approval ratings.
The Hart survey indicates that any candidate will gain significant support if he or she promises to crack down on wage theft, proposes paid family and sick leave, and requires that companies doing business with the state pay a “living wage” and not violate labor law.
“Raising wages for Americans, for all workers, is the issue of our time and, hopefully, the issue of this election,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters at the federation’s February executive council meeting, adding that it would be the framework for political action by the federation.
Despite its well-publicized decline, the labor movement is probably the largest grassroots political organization in the country. The AFL-CIO can muster its 56 affiliated unions, plus its 3 million-member community affiliate, Working America, and its Super PAC, Workers’ Voice. Unions reach not only their 14.5 million members, but also those members’ families and neighbors — at work, at home, by mail, print and phone, online, and on the air. Unions both give money directly to candidates and, increasingly, run their own campaigns for candidates, picking messages they think are both effective in the short run and will contribute to labor’s long-term goals. Some local labor federations even offer classes to candidates.
Labor’s campaigning appears to have an impact: In 2012, 65 percent of union members voted for Obama, while 33 percent voted for Romney. The union effect is even clearer within a narrower demographic: In 2008, white people who had not graduated from college favored McCain by 18 percentage points, but of that group, those who were union members favored Obama by 23 points.
This time around, the army of union campaigners will not rely solely on the conventional political work of distributing leaflets, making phone calls and knocking on doors of union members. The AFL-CIO, its affiliates and the independent, 1.8 million-member SEIU have all said they will also take direct action to support ongoing labor and community campaigns for higher wages, including referenda that are expected in many places around the country. By doing so, they will reinforce their plan to make income and inequality the focus of the election, and boost the appeal of progressive candidates running on these themes. Republican leaders oppose such initiatives as a higher minimum wage, but they are winners with the majority of Americans. In a January 2014 Pew poll, 73 percent of people favored a $10.10 federal minimum wage.
While community groups traditionally focused narrowly on local issue-based campaigns, they are increasingly wading into the electoral fray. National People’s Action (NPA), an umbrella organization of more than 30 community organizing groups with some 90,000 total members, recently launched a 501©4 arm, the National People’s Action Campaign (NPAC). NPAC and its affiliates are working to secure the reelection of progressive governors such as Mark Dayton of Minnesota. They’ve also set their sights on removing right-wingers like Sam Brownback in Kansas. They are attacking Brownback by highlighting the actions of his extremely anti-immigrant secretary of state, Kris Kobach, who established a strict voter-ID law and wants to require that all voters demonstrate proficiency in written English. Already, officials have used the voter-ID provision to remove about 20,000 voters, predominately poor, from the rolls, says NPAC Director of Movement Politics Ryan Greenwood. To fight back, Kansas People’s Action plans to educate and turn out many of the 100,000 voters who supported Obama in 2012 but did not vote in 2010.
NPAC’s ultimate goal is not just to stop the pain being inflicted by right-wing governors, but to usher in candidates who will make real progressive strides. Michaud, for example, has expressed support for a state single payer insurance plan and is likely to be sympathetic to Maine People’s Alliance’s plan to roll back LePage’s tax cuts and raise taxes on the wealthy. And besides campaigning for candidates, union and community groups often “bird-dog” candidates they oppose at the opposition rallies, raising criticisms and questioning their positions on issues (as Maine People’s Alliance is doing against LePage). Many of these gubernatorial battles will indirectly be referenda on the Tea Party faction in the Republican Party. They will also be tests of how well the combined efforts of labor and community groups, operating
through their separate political organizations, can educate and turn out their members and other voters. But first they will have to teach candidates for governor that challenging the inequality and unfairness of today’s American economy — and the abuse of power by corporations and the very rich — is not only the right thing to do. It’s also, pragmatically, the way to win.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.