Who would have guessed that the hopes of both major parties in the midterm elections would hinge on one man: Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota? Wellstone, who is generally viewed by the Washington establishment as an outré 60s-radical type, is in the race of his life for reelection this fall. The most liberal member of the Senate, where the Democrats hold a one-seat majority, is in a neck-and-neck contest with President Bush's hand-picked candidate, Norm Coleman, the party-switching former mayor of St. Paul. Bush and Vice President Cheney intervened to make sure Coleman would not face a primary challenge, and they are now aggressively campaigning to help Coleman push Wellstone out.
To make matters more interesting, the Minnesota Greens have fielded their own candidate in the Senate race, Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa, an author of popular books on Native American spirituality and ecology, and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. More on McGaa and the Greens in a moment.
The Bush vs. Wellstone contest is an interesting turn of events in part because the Democrats have been running away from the liberal politics Wellstone represents ever since Bill Clinton came to power. Talk more about tax cuts and less about the poor, Clinton's old cronies at the Democratic Leadership Council constantly intone.
But in this year's Congressional races, the Democrats seem to be suddenly interested in running as progressives again.
In close House and Senate races around the country, they are emphasizing "old Democrat" issues like clean air and water, better wages and working conditions, and the public interest versus fat cat greed. Why? The polls, of course.
James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Robert Shrum, the founders of Democracy Corps, a liberal political research group, are urging Democrats to be more aggressive on what they call "meat and potatoes" issues. They cite their own survey of likely voters that shows Democrats have an edge when they clearly distinguish themselves from their Republican rivals. "We should attack the rollback of environmental protections and the billions of retroactive corporate tax breaks, including hundreds of millions for Enron," a Democracy Corps memo advises. "Both of these actions reflect the Republicans' unstinting commitment to its corporate donors at the expense of the public. And we should attack the reckless budgets that will bring red ink for a decade and threaten to bankrupt our most important programs."
Better late than never. Three cheers for the progressive comeback!
Jumping on the populist bandwagon, the Democratic National Committee has produced a "message card" for all Democrats running for office this year, outlining key talking points in case the candidates have forgotten what the party is supposed to stand for.
Democrats "created Social Security and will fight to protect it," "will provide real pension protections and impose stiff new criminal penalties for corporate pension fraud," and "will enforce clean air and water laws and ensure that polluters will pay."
Lest you get swept up in the populist fervor, however, the Democratic Leadership Council has released its own polls. The DLC confirms that Democrats are running ahead of Republicans among likely voters on what they call "kitchen-table issues." But it goes on to identify a new group of wishy-washy swing voters even more fuzzy and fickle in their political beliefs than the last election's dithering "soccer moms." "Office Park Dads" the DLC calls them. These are men between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, non-union members, moderate, stockholding suburbanites who comprise about 15 percent of the electorate and voted for Bush at the last minute in the 2000 elections. They generally prefer Republicans, but identify as independents, the DLC reports.
Yes, the guy ahead of you with the Bush bumper sticker on his S.U.V., commuting from Sprawlsville to the suburbs will, if the DLC has its way, determine the outcome of the next election.
But in Minnesota, the Greens might determine the outcome.
Ed McGaa won the Minnesota Green Party endorsement, with a two-thirds majority, despite an effort by their former Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke and others to get the party to forego a Senate race against Wellstone. At the Minnesota Green Party convention, the "none of the above" option for Senate got less than 12 percent of the vote. The Democrats put so much negative pressure on the Greens not to run a candidate in Wellstone's race, says Green spokesperson Holle Brian, that the Greens got mad. "People came to the convention with the goal of endorsing a candidate come hell or high water," she says. There was already a fair amount of progressive grumbling in Minnesota over Wellstone's votes authorizing Bush's military response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, as well as past votes supporting military actions in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq.
"We want to give people in Minnesota the opportunity to vote their conscience . If they're opposed to military actions in the Middle East, the Patriot Act, the sanctions on Iraq," says Brian.
The funny thing is, though, the Green candidate for Senate doesn't seem to share his party's position on those issues.
Ed McGaa takes exception to the part of the Green Party platform that opposes the war on terrorism. As a Korean War vet, he says he believes constructive military intervention is sometimes warranted. He remains proud of his 110 combat missions in Vietnam and is still a staunch anti-communist. Some response was needed to September 11, he adds.
McGaa has also stirred up some controversy for accusing Wellstone of being "more loyal to Israel than he is to the United States"-a statement Wellstone supporters and some Greens view as anti-Semitic.
McGaa takes umbrage at the accusation, insisting that he is "pro-Jewish, if you want to put it that way," and merely thinks the United States should ease up on foreign aid. His comments on Wellstone's disability (the Senator announced this year that he has a mild form of M.S.)-suggesting Wellstone might not survive the election season-didn't go over particularly well, either. A polished politician he is not. But then neither is his role model, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.
As for the possibility that his candidacy might tip the scales in the Senate, McGaa is perhaps the only person involved in the hotly contested Minnesota race who hasn't given it much thought.
"Let's just let the cards fall where they're at," he says. "It will be a shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I'm not enamored by George Bush's policies. I think I may draw a lot of people, though, because I'm uniquely different, and I have a lot of knowledge, and plus I'm a veteran and right now people are very, very patriotic."
With his patriotic, anti-communist, combat vet credentials, McGaa figures he'll draw more votes from conservatives, anyway. "So you Wellstone people can just calm down," he says.
If he's right, it may be a relief to the Wellstone campaign. But it's a bit of a headache for his fellow Greens.
Nationally, the Greens say that the war on terrorism is one of the two defining issues, along with global trade, in their Congressional races. "I can count on one hand the number of Democrats who have spoken out strongly on the question of this war without end" Ben Manski, co-chair of the Green Party of the United States. " So this year you'll find Greens talking about it." The Greens, Manski points out, are part of a global political party, "and we have a responsibility to bring the U.S. into the global community."
But is Ed McGaa the man for that job?
"Unfortunately, we're just now finding out," says Brian, who concedes that the Minnesota Greens didn't know too much about their Senate candidate when he showed up at the nominating convention. (His candidate "screening interview," posted on the Greens' web site, touts McGaa's willingness to learn more about nonviolence, and notes, "Ed used to hunt deer, lasted as a vegetarian for less than a week, but believes animal testing should be highly regulated. He does not believe in animals being used for human amusement and loves the formation of the dog parks.")
"He presented himself well," says Brian. "He's a Native American man, and we wanted a diverse slate. . . . That's what we came a way with. It was a long day."
At the end of the day, somehow the Minnesota Greens fielded a candidate in the most-watched Senate race in the nation whom they aren't sure supports their platform. There is talk of another Green candidate mounting a primary challenge against McGaa in September. "Then there are others of us who want to continue to work with Ed to kind of try to mold him into our kind of candidate," says Brian, adding, "It's been a rough week."
"I'm an American Indian. We're not as analytical as you folks are," McGaa says when pressed on the spoiler issue. "We observe and go forth with our life. I come from a different background. We are more sharing and generous. We're less materialistic. We're more culturally oriented. So I have different values to bring to the table."
Not that he has anything against Wellstone, he says, whom he calls "a nice, nice man" and the candidate he personally would support if he were not in the election. He even hints that he might be willing to strike a deal: "There are all different options. You can run and check the polls and see how they're doing and then think about strategy. If Wellstone is treating me decently and treating me fair, maybe I could sit down and talk. But if he treats me badly and Coleman has been treating me fair I might not be in such a mood."
Meanwhile, the rest of the country is watching. The Bush Administration is focusing its efforts on a too-close-to-call Senate race in South Dakota and a few other races, but Minnesota is the place to play. Groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) are making independent expenditures, paid phone calls, hiring organizers, taking out ads, and conducting get-out-the-vote drives to help Wellstone. Democratic control of the Senate is crucial for pro-choice groups, says Monica Mills, political director of NARAL, because of the possibility of a retirement on the Supreme Court. "That has to be our top, top priority."
Wellstone, who broke a vow to term-limit himself because, he says, the balance of power in the Senate is too close for comfort, has launched a barn-burning populist campaign. He is delighted to run against the Administration. "The President has come," he said in a recent speech, "the President's father has come. The President's mother is going to be coming, and Vice President Cheney has come a couple of times, and he'll be coming back."
"This race is going to be a test case for the Democratic Party nationally of whether you can run as a progressive on a progressive agenda, unabashedly, and win," says Wellstone's campaign manager, Jim Farrell.
If Wellstone wins, it might prompt a bigger progressive revival. Democrats stand a real chance of holding their majority in the Senate and winning the six seats they need to take over the House this year. Ever since Eisenhower, in the first midterm elections after a new President takes office, the party that doesn't control the White House picks up seats.
The big challenge will be taking the next step, not just opposing the worst aspects of the Bush agenda, but pushing forward some progressive ideas of their own. If the Democrats don't manage to do that, look out for those wild card candidates from Minnesota.
Ruth Conniff is the Political Editor of The Progressive.