Progressive dairy farmer Sarah Lloyd, who is running against Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, by Jas McDaniel
The last time a Democrat was elected to represent the farm country and small manufacturing cities of Wisconsin’s sixth congressional district was in 1964. That’s when a machinist named John Race was talked into serving as the party’s sacrificial lamb in a district that had been a Republican stronghold since that party was formed by Wisconsin abolitionists in the town of Ripon more than a century earlier.
No one thought Race had a chance. Then the vote tally started coming in on the night of November 3, 1964. It was clear that Democratic presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson was headed toward an even bigger landslide than the polls had predicted, winning parts of the country that had been Republican since Abraham Lincoln led them into the fold. The historically Republican state of Wisconsin gave Johnson 62 percent of the vote, and Democratic U.S. Senator William Proxmire won reelection with ease.
That was enough for Race, a Democratic loyalist from the factory town of Fond du Lac, but when the sixth district tally was complete, he was the surprise winner against veteran Republican Congressman William Van Pelt—a loopy conservative who had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So John Race put down his tools and headed off to Washington and joined a Democratic “supermajority” in Congress. Race only served only did so as part of the transformational eighty-ninth Congress, which established Medicare and Medicaid, launched a war on poverty, and passed the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Freedom of Information Act.
Democrats never again won the sixth district seat. Some years, they barely even tried.
But, this year, progressive dairy farmer Sarah Lloyd is trying to pull a “John Race.” A longtime National Farmers Union activist with a record of service as a local elected official and deep roots in the district, she is running as a Democrat against one of the most extreme members of the House Republican caucus, freshman Representative Glenn Grothman. Lloyd is part of the wave of Democrats inspired by the presidential candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (whom Lloyd represented on the Democratic National Convention’s rules committee) to mount unlikely congressional bids. She’s in an uphill race and she knows it. But as she campaigns along the country roads of northcentral Wisconsin, she keeps thinking about John Race and 1964. And she is right to do so.
It now appears possible that the Republican Party could implode around the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, in much the same way that it did around Barry Goldwater’s “in-your-guts-you-know-he’s-nuts” campaign of 1964. Lloyd is thinking her unlikely bid might be looking a little more likely. And she is not alone.
Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who is mounting a strong bid to retake his old seat, predicts Lloyd’s race “is going to be one of the big surprises on election night.” There are similar predictions coming from unexpected and unlikely districts across the country.
If Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton continues to expand her lead over Trump in the polls, the most interesting political question of 2016 will not involve the presidential race. It may not even involve the competition for control of the Senate, in which Democratic contenders seem increasingly well positioned to displace vulnerable Republican incumbents and shift control of the chamber from a 54-to-46 GOP majority back to Democratic control. It might just involve the competition for control of the U.S. House of Representatives, which has been in Republican hands since 2011.
Republicans have the absolute upper hand in a fight for control of the House; at least thirty seats must change hands for Democrats to take charge. But David Wasserman, a respected analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, has suggested that a change of control is “not unthinkable.” Anyone who is paying attention knows why.
“Everyone keeps expecting some new Trump to emerge. That other persona doesn’t exist,” Republican strategist Rory Cooper told Bloomberg Politics in mid-August. “Trump will be Trump and that threatens the Republican grip on Congress and in other state and local races.”
Democratic Senate candidates Russ Feingold and Kamala Harris, AP Images
The fight for control of the House is the great test of the 2016 elections. If the House remains in Republican hands, as remains reasonably likely, then a President Clinton would be no better positioned than was President Obama when he was forced after the 2010 and 2014 elections to compromise with obstructionist Republicans.
No matter what Clinton and the Democrats may promise on the campaign trail, the prospects for enacting a progressive agenda are slim unless Democrats control both the Senate and the House. That’s why, during the Democratic presidential primaries, Sanders spoke not merely about his own run but about the need for a “political revolution” that would send dozens of new progressives to Congress.
In some senses, the revolution has begun.
The 2016 election is likely to bring a lot more progressives to Washington. Feingold, the great reformer, civil libertarian, and critic of unnecessary wars and unjust trade deals, is ahead in the polls as he campaigns to retake his old Senate seat representing Wisconsin. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is leading in the race for her state’s open Senate seat.
And Pennsylvania Democrat Katie McGinty, the former chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality who promises to be “a leading voice for strengthening our clean energy economy by investing in renewable energy and innovative infrastructure technology,” has pulled ahead of Republican Senator Pat Toomey in recent polls. Add on several other Senate contests where moderate Democrats (such as former Senator Evan Bayh in Indiana) are pulling ahead, and the Senate could be a very different place come November.
Democratic House candidates Mark Pocan and Angie Craig, AP Images
But what about the House? Membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus is bound to grow. Caucus vice chair Mark Pocan points to races across the country where progressives are making serious bids for open seats against vulnerable Republican incumbents. In some cases, progressives with long records of accomplishment are all but certain to win.
Among them is Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, an American University professor of constitutional law who for decades has been at the center of struggles for voting rights, campaign finance reform, and fair elections. Raskin’s big battle this year was in a Democratic primary for the seat that came open when Congressman Chris Van Hollen decided to run for Maryland’s U.S. Senate seat. Though he was heavily outspent, Raskin prevailed with a campaign that argued Congress “needs effective progressive leadership to renew the momentum of popular democracy in America.”
Raskin is not alone in offering that sort of leadership. Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, an expert on corruption in government and business who decries crony capitalism and champions anti-trust initiatives to break up corporate monopolies, is the Democratic nominee in a competitive House race in upstate New York. And Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal, an immigrant-rights advocate who founded the group Hate Free Zone to defend Arabs, Muslims, and South Asian Americans following the 9/11 attacks, appears to have the advantage in a race for an open Seattle-area congressional seat.
Pocan has been working with a number of other progressives who are in competitive races across the country, including Minnesota’s Angie Craig, a first-time candidate and former executive with St. Jude Medical, Inc. running against arch rightwing Republican Jason Lewis. Craig calls for expanding public health services, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and letting Americans import individual supplies of medication from preapproved pharmacies in Canada.
If Craig wins, she’ll take a classic swing seat from a district that has voted Democratic in presidential races while sending retiring Republican John Kline to the House.
Another Democrat running well in a swing-seat race is Monica Vernon, a city council member in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, whose ads identify her as “a strong progressive Democrat” and who highlights her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And in Colorado, State Senator Morgan Carroll is running on a platform that declares:
“Mass incarceration, disproportionately of people of color, is a civil-rights issue and our deeply broken immigration system is a human-rights issue. We need comprehensive immigration reform that unites, rather than divides families. We are most American when we welcome refugees who face racial, religious, political, or gender persecution in other countries.”
Both Vernon and Carroll seek to replace reactionary Republican incumbents. The same goes for former Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, in New Hampshire, who calls on voters to “Fire the Failed Republican Congress,” arguing that “the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has next to nothing to show for their time in a leadership position. They doubled down on partisan tactics and created a culture of crisis.”
Shea-Porter has a reasonably good chance of winning, as do Craig, Vernon, and Carroll. But if Democrats simply win high-profile contests in traditional swing districts, they will fall short of House control. Winning the Senate requires a five-seat shift to put Democrats clearly in charge. The House’s thirty-seat margin is a much greater hurdle. And there are other hurdles. Even if Democrats win control of a chamber by a seat or two, that would only give the party the basic majorities that can stop bad things from happening.
Republicans could still use the arcane rules of the Senate to obstruct progressive initiatives, and factional disagreements could still slow progress in the House. Larger majorities will be required to open the space for genuine movement on big-ticket issues, such as income inequality, climate change, and the establishment of a public option as part of a reform of the Affordable Care Act. To get those larger majorities, Democrats must nationalize congressional contests and motivate large numbers of base voters to turn out even if the presidential race seems settled.
Nationalizing congressional races relates to issues rather than personalities. The key is for the party that is competing for control of the House to advance a well-defined agenda. Classic examples of this approach include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” gambit in 1994, and the push for massive investment in job creation that then House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy used to great success in 1982.
In presidential years, it is actually harder to achieve a genuine nationalization of congressional races because so much of the focus is on the presidential nominees, who seek to maximize votes by softening positions and appealing to swing voters. But there have been cases where presidential candidates have had bold enough messages (and long enough coattails) to secure or extend party power in Congress. Franklin Roosevelt did it in 1932 and 1936 and ushered in a New Deal that transformed America. Harry Truman did it in 1948 and ushered in a Fair Deal that almost doubled the minimum wage and began to make real the promise of civil rights. Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964 and heralded a Great Society that extended the structures and promises of the New Deal.
In these breakthrough years, Democratic presidential contenders ran to the left and energized the party base at the same time that Republicans were divided and disenchanted. The results were wide wins at the presidential level, big pick-ups in congressional races, and the establishment of majorities that really could govern.
It is fair to ask whether Hillary Clinton and the leadership of the Democratic Party are prepared to go for an across-the-board win, or whether they will play it safe to their own detriment, as the party frequently has in recent years. Relying on special-interest money and adopting a political approach that is more strategic than ideological has made the modern Democratic Party a pale version of the party of Roosevelt and Truman when it comes time to fight for economic justice.
But the Trump dynamic upsets so many equations that 2016 could, like 1964, produce a lurch to the left. Voters inspired not just by a belief in what Democrats can accomplish but by a fear of the damage that Republicans might do could produce wins up and down the ballot.
To achieve the congressional majorities that are possible but are certainly not assured, Democrats will need a few wins that no one expects, like John Race’s victory on the coattails of LBJ back in 1964. This is an intangible politics that is rooted in hope rather than certainty. It requires faith in the possibility of a political revolution—a faith that Sarah Lloyd maintains.
After a week that saw her opponent, Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman, rallying with Donald Trump, Lloyd rallied on a Sunday in August with Russ Feingold in John Race’s hometown of Fond du Lac.
“I keep hearing from people who are talking about how much volatility there is at the top of the ticket, how unsettled things are,” she said. “People are troubled by Trump. They’re troubled by politicians like Glenn Grothman who back Trump. And I think that is freeing a lot of them up to think about voting for me,” she added, as a steady stream of well-wishers talked of “upsets” and “surprises.”
It would require a big upset for Lloyd to win her congressional race, and it would be a big surprise for Democrats to retake the House. But upsets and surprises have happened before. They’re what make politics interesting. And they are what make the possibility of real change imaginable.
John Nichols is a contributing writer for The Progressive, an editor of The Nation and The Capital Times, and the co-author of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy (Nation Books).