Toppling the Tea Party

In 2014, progressives hope to take down the GOP gubernatorial class of 2010

David Moberg

Protesters hold signs depicting Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as the devil after he authorized Detroit’s bankruptcy filing. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

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.

Those governors accelerated the downward spiral for workers and the upward spiral for the richest 1%.

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.

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