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Get Ready for the Shake-Up: Grassroots Candidates Drive Midterm Surge

While Donald Trump rallies the rightwing base with flagrant appeals to fear, anger, and racism, the most diverse slate of candidates in U.S. history is poised to change the direction of the nation’s politics for a long time to come

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)

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)

While Donald Trump rallies the rightwing base with attacks on immigrants and flagrant appeals to fear, anger, and racism, the most diverse slate of candidates in U.S. history is poised to change the direction of the nation’s politics for a long time to come.

A big field of progressive candidates in districts across the country will likely drive a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, November 6.

Republicans are still favored to hold onto the Senate. And a handful of tight governor’s races in swing states could change the political map for 2020. But behind the snapshot offered by the midterms, a rolling wave of organizing has been laying the groundwork for a larger shift in who votes, who runs for office, and who holds power.

An unprecedented number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates are running for office in 2018, making it the most diverse election year in history, according to The New York Times. 2018 also has the lowest percentage of white male candidates—58 percent—in the last four elections.

A quarter of all of candidates this year are women—mostly Democrats. The Democrats chose a record-breaking 198 women in Congressional primaries, compared with the Republicans’ fifty-nine women candidates.

According to Brookings Institution research published by POLITICO, women candidates are changing their party’s message and priorities. The researchers found that women running for office were far more likely to talk about abortion, federal education policy, same-sex marriage, and guns than their male counterparts. By articulating issues that are important to women, they will likely reshape their party’s priorities after the election.

The same is true for the groundswell of grassroots candidates, including the record-setting numbers of people of color and LGBTQ candidates who are emerging from progressive movements and getting into electoral politics.

Women candidates are changing their party’s message and priorities.

The movements that are sweeping through this nation and shaping our democracy are happening at the local level,” Philadelphia city councilwoman Helen Gym told a fired-up group of public-school advocates at the Network for Public Education summit in Indiana in late October.

She pointed to the “amazing rising force of resistance” visible in teacher walkouts around the country last spring, as well as Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, March for Our Lives, and Fight for $15.

Gym, who cut her teeth organizing for immigrant justice in Philadelphia and helped form a coalition that ended the state’s hostile takeover of city schools and propelled progressives into office, reminded the activists to keep their focus on movement-building at the community level.

“I come out of political movements that never, ever saw politics as the starting or end point of power,” she said. “Instead, our job is to hit the streets, to work alongside communities in crisis . . . to arm people with a different vision about their own capacity and appetite for change.”

On the flip side, Trump voters in Rust Belt states and rural areas are not feeling motivated and will likely not vote Republican next Tuesday, according to a New York Times op-ed by Timothy Carney, author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.

Thanks to these voters’ disaffection, Democrats are poised to win governor’s races and Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, Carney points out—four states that swung from Obama to Trump in 2016, turning the Rust Belt red.

Carney’s theory is that voters in these states who chose Trump in 2016 live in places afflicted by job flight and drug addiction and have suffered from a breakdown in community—the key ingredient for political empowerment and social change that Helen Gym identifies.

Voters who chose Trump in 2016 live in places afflicted by job flight and drug addiction and have suffered from a breakdown in community.

“Low social trust and low civic engagement defined the places that swung hardest to Mr. Trump,” Carney writes. “Because the vote was an expression of alienation and dissatisfaction, rather than an expression of partisan fealty, many of those places will swing back enough to give Democrats statewide wins on Election Day.”

There’s an important lesson there that goes way beyond partisan politics.

As Gym told the activists in Indiana, “We only get what we are organized to take.”

In Philadelphia, Gym described how parents, youth leaders, clergy, and community members organized to take back their public schools. Along the way, they built a coalition of people fighting for immigrant-rights, tenant-rights, to end mass incarceration, and improve life for people in the poorest and most unequal big city in America.

Members of the coalition saw a strong connection among all of their issues. By uniting, they were able to beat back corporate interests that want to stare school funding, drive low-income residents out of their homes, and fuel a school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s been a long road. In 2013, after organizing and winning some early victories in Philadelphia, Gym’s group watched Republican Governor Tom Corbett cut $1 billion out of the state education budget. The state lost 4,000 school staff and schools were forced to strip essential services.

“After all the organizing we had done, it almost felt like it was too much to bear,” Gym says. Classes were overcrowded. Two children died in schools without a school nurse on duty. And an unaccountable state takeover body voted to close twenty-four public schools in one two-hour meeting.

“These were things that literally brought us to our knees,” Gym said. “When things get this bad it’s tempting to walk away . . . to give up on politics and figure there’s little we can do.”

But her group’s community organizing over the previous twelve years had laid the groundwork for a political movement that was able to fight back.

In 2014, they defeated Republican Governor Tom Corbett, and replaced him with Democrat Tom Wolf. They elected a progressive mayor and city council in Philadelphia who support public education, along with three state supreme court justices who have ended the state’s unconstitutional gerrymandering. City officials have launched a determined effort to reduce mass incarceration and have announced plans to close a county prison.

While Trump was busy appointing Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice, Pennsylvania elected a lifelong civil-rights defense lawyer, Josh Shapiro, as it’s attorney general.

“This is politics as it should be,” Gym says, “Not a top-down, trickle-down, ‘you better be grateful for what you get.’ This is a bottom-up reality check that says, ‘You better give us what we need because we are not going to go away.’ ”

Around the country, other grassroots leaders like Gym, who come out of local nonprofits fighting for social justice, are making the move to electoral politics.

On the get-out-the-vote side, a national group called Nonprofit Vote is making a push to get community nonprofits to help get the local people they serve to the polls.

“This moment is chaotic. It is demoralizing. It is oppressive. And it is most definitely not normal,” Gym told the crowd in Indiana. “But we know what becomes possible when communities stand together.”

“We are not waiting for doors to open,” she added. “We’ve got to be ready to kick those doors in.”

Across the country, a whole lot of people are getting organized to give those doors a kick on November 6 and beyond.

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Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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