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How to Win Elections from the Ground Up

Focusing on the top line—gubernatorial, Senate and House races—misses the critical story of the 2018 primaries: progressive populists are beginning to build for real power, starting from the ground up.

Ilhan Omar won her primary race this week, setting her up to become the first Somali-American woman to win a seat in the U.S. House. (Photo: @politico/Twitter)

Mainstream media has settled into conventional themes about this year’s primary elections. After Tuesday’s voting in Wisconsin, Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut, the press trotted out the expected conclusions: “Democrats go for diversity; Republicans pick pro Trump candidates” trumpeted one headline from Salon.

Midwest Democrats’ answer to Trump, Politico declared, is “white, conventional and boring.” According to analysts at 585, these primaries told us what we already knew – Democratic turnout is up, Trump is remaking the Republican Party, and control of the House is still in play.

Here’s the big story the mainstream media missed. Focusing solely on the top line – gubernatorial, Senate and House races – misses the critical story of these primaries: Progressive populists are beginning to build for real power, starting from the ground up.

Diversity Counts

Observers are right to highlight the growing diversity evident in the current crop of Democratic candidates, and that it contributes to their success. Vermont Democrats nominated Christine Hallquist, the first transgender candidate to run for governor. The upset victory of Jahana Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, in Connecticut’s fifth congressional district, could result in the first African American to represent her state in Congress.

The victory of Ilhan Omar in Minnesota’s fifth district sets her up to be the first Somali American in Congress, joining Rashida Tlaib from Michigan as the first Muslim women in Congress.

This headline emphasis on diversity, however, ignores the substance of these candidates. They not only represent a new diversity, for the most part they ran championing a bold progressive reform agenda. Salon noted that Hallquist ran on what was described as the “standard fare” for Democrats: $15.00 minimum wage, Medicare for All, Tuition Free Higher Education, public investment in high end broadband and renewable energy.

Hayes upset the favored candidate by running on a progressive agenda including moving to a single-payer health care system, a living wage for all workers, public education and strong gun reform. Ilhan Omar calls for Medicare for All, the $15.00 minimum wage and empowering workers.

That these issues are now “standard fare” for Democratic candidates represents the remarkable impact the Bernie Sanders agenda has made on the debate. Every congressional candidate endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus won their primaries on Tuesday.

Look Down the Ballot

The media’s understandable focus on the top of the ticket – congressional and gubernatorial races – slights the sea change that is taking place down the ballot. The media does report on the remarkable surge of women running and winning across the ticket, but too often ignores the fact that it is in down-ballot races that the new progressive insurgency is making its greatest headway.

As Robert Kraig, director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, an affiliate of the national People’s Action, points out, progressives won remarkable victories on Tuesday all across his state. This is evidence of Citizen Action’s deep and grounded commitment to recruiting and running credible progressives at every level of state government.

Mandela Barnes, a board member of Citizen Action and member of one of its organizing “co-ops,” is poised to become the first African-American Lieutenant Governor, after capturing more than two-thirds of the vote. Marisabel Cabrera, an immigration attorney and member of the CAWI Acción Ciudadana Coop, upset an entrenched incumbent in a working-class district on the southside of Milwaukee, to move towards becoming the second Latina and an outspoken LGBTQ member the Democratic state assembly caucus. Jeff Smith, a rural populist taking on Big Ag, beat the Democratic establishment’s candidate to win the nomination for the state senate.

In all, 16 members of Wisconsin Citizen Action co-ops are on the ballot for the state legislature in November, and Citizen Action Co-op member Randy “Iron Stache” Bryce is running for Paul Ryan’s seat in the House.

This comes after 49 members were elected in the spring to a range of county and local offices – mayors, city and county councils. And given what Kraig calls the “endless levels of local government” stemming from Wisconsin’s progressive history, “we’re just getting started.”

The emphasis on local offices reflects a strategic choice, the fruit of Citizen Action Wisconsin’s long game: an eight-year strategy to take back power in the state. In Wisconsin – as is true across the country – Democratic routs left the party without a deep bench, a farm system of elected officials who were prepared to run for higher office.

As progressives now move to fill this void, they face “huge capacity questions.” They have no choice but to choose leverage points. Winning the nomination for Governor this time, for example, was, Kraig believes, “a bridge too far,” but Mandela Barnes’ run for Lt. Governor not only drives the challenge to notorious Governor Scott Walker, but could set this young, dynamic true progressive up to lead the state in the future.

Ground Game

Electoral politics aren’t easy. Big money dominates both parties. Hit-and-run campaigns are the norm, with campaign operations built on the run and then packed up after the campaign, whether successful or not. Consultant gunslingers define message and strategy. The main thing candidates are expected to do is to raise the necessary dough. Even when candidates are aided by progressive movements or organization, they seldom feel or remain accountable once elected.

This is where the ground game of Citizen Action Wisconsin, TakeAction Minnesota, Rights and Democracy in Vermont and other People’s Action affiliates truly shines.

In Walker’s Wisconsin, this corruption of democracy has reached new extremes. Deregulation of campaign finance allows deep pockets and corporations to dominate funding. Independent expenditure groups can work directly with campaigns. The Koch network made Walker and Wisconsin the test case of its big money right-wing clout. Worse, after the recall election against Walker failed, less outside money came in on the liberal side.

Wisconsin Citizen Action and its peers are challenging this entire electoral mockery. It supports organizers to create membership organizations – “co-ops” – particularly in key rural and small city areas outside of deep blue Madison. The co-ops sustain permanent organizers on the ground, building a cadre of volunteers.

This permanent presence makes it easier to identify and recruit true progressive champions, often from their own membership. The co-op then helps run true grassroots campaigns. The impact of door-to-door canvassing, Kraig notes, is entirely different when it is done by local volunteers rather than by paid canvassers hastily assembled for an election. The relationships formed in the election help build the coop which stays in place not only to build greater power, but to keep the officials they help to elect accountable.

To hold candidates accountable, Citizen Action WI went through an arduous – sometimes painful –process of creating a detailed eight-year reform agenda – The Rise Up Platform, From Protest to Power, inspired by the People’s Action national platform which was introduced at the group’s founding convention in Washington, D.C. in April of 2016.

Key reform areas include education (free public education from preschool through college or advanced training), health care (moving to Medicare for All), a just sustainable economy (including a $15 minimum wage, worker empowerment, investment in areas vital to workers from day care to mass transit, and the transition to a “low carbon economy), criminal justice reform (an end to mass incarceration, focus on restorative justice). The platform lays out broad goals and specific bold reforms in each area.

Citizen Action WI grills all perspective candidates on their commitment to this platform. The detailed reforms make it harder for candidates simply to nod and move on. The process helps identify true progressive champions ready to make the case in their campaigns.

Democracy Is Tough

Different state affiliates of People’s Action are experimenting with versions of this same model. Wisconsin is the most advanced, but Kraig is a realist. “Democracy is tough,” he noted in an interview. Developing a sustainable model for low-dollar politics that can win at state and local levels isn’t easy.

Bernie Sanders showed it could be done at the national level, but that model – a charismatic candidate gaining national attention and fueling a campaign on small donations – isn’t available for city council or state senate races.

Worse, liberal donors tend to pile into high visibility races, and are often reluctant to invest in building permanent capacity on the ground. “We’ve proven that you can create co-ops that are almost – but not completely –self-sustaining,” Kraig says.

The permanent capacity is far more effective in recruiting candidates and building true grassroots campaigns. Kraig now looks to see if the co-ops can capture some of the money and the “flex capacity” that gets build during campaigns, so the campaigns expand the membership and volunteers that stay active after the election is over.

A New Progressive Populism

A new progressive populism is moving in Wisconsin and other states – but it has only just begun. Kraig thinks there is a decent chance to take the state senate this year, even though that requires victories in some very conservative districts. Governor Walker is vulnerable, although the establishment candidate who won the Democratic nomination for Governor, the former education commissioner, will need some urging to adopt the progressive positions that many voters in his state now demand.

This is what is missing in national reporting on primaries, with its focus on congressional and gubernatorial races. What’s going on in Wisconsin exemplifies the stirring that is taking place at the local and state level across the country.

Populist progressives are slowly remaking the Democratic Party. They are driving the agenda nationally. They are electing true champions in blue districts at the national level, and, importantly, beginning to run and win at the state and local level, building the movement for local reform and a deep bench for change in the future.

 

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Robert Borosage

Robert Borosage

Robert Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future.

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