Can Tomorrow’s Primaries Be a “Game-Changer”?

by Paul Hogarth on September 13, 2010

Four months ago, it appeared like there was hope for Democrats in November – because progressives were saving the Party from itself. Senator Arlen Specter had been defeated in the primaries, and the odious Blanche Lincoln was on the run. But that momentum appeared dead on June 8th, after Bill Clinton reared his head to save Lincoln’s hide – and prolong his legacy of ruining the Democratic Party. Now, Democrats are again in despair – as the “enthusiasm gap” widens, and Fox News can barely contain its delight about the latest polls. But tomorrow, several New England states have primaries – and the chance for progressives to save the Democratic Party from itself is again in sight. In New Hampshire, community activist Ann Kuster is favored to beat Joe Lieberman’s former campaign chair in the 2nd Congressional District. And in Rhode Island, David Segal’s underdog campaign proves that Democrats can generate enthusiasm among the base by waging a populist campaign against banks.

As a political junkie, I have a hard time these days checking sites like PoliticalWire and FiveThirtyEight – because it’s so depressing. The public hates Republicans more than they hate Democrats, but the G.O.P. is going to win seats (and possibly even a majority), because of who’s going to vote – i.e., a huge “enthusiasm gap” between the two parties.

What’s bitterly ironic is that Democrats are in more danger of losing the House, which has passed a lot of good legislation – only to have it die in the Senate under Harry Reid’s inept leadership, coupled with President Obama and Rahm Emanuel’s unwillingness to bring conservative Democrats in line. The last person who deserves the wrath for inaction is Nancy Pelosi.

But it’s important to have some perspective of what things were like in 2006. It’s easy to look back today and say Republicans lost because of the War in Iraq, but that’s not what Democratic elites were telling their candidates to say. It wasn’t until August, when Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman in the primary that Party leaders realized they had a winning issue. Democratic leaders are always clueless, but the primaries can be game-changers.

In New Hampshire, Congressman Paul Hodes is running for the Senate – and you can’t get a more stark difference between the two Democrats vying for his seat. Ann Kuster is a long-time community activist and author, who has waged a grass-roots campaign in the same mold as Carol Shea-Porter – New Hamsphire’s other Congress member. Katrina Swett is the wife of a former Congressman, and was co-chair of Joe Lieberman’s presidential campaign.

Things got heated at a recent debate, where Swett attacked Kuster for being too liberal – saying 2010 is “a year everyone understands that the country is moving back toward the center and away from the more left, progressive point of view.” Swett’s statement could have been made by the Tea Party, and echoes the “blame the left” meme that corporate Democrats always love to use – regardless of the facts. Kuster’s campaign deftly replied with an e-mail after the debate, which asked the question: exactly what primary is Swett running in?

Of course, Swett shouldn’t be talking about electability. She ran for the same House seat in 2002 and lost – a year Democrats got creamed because they didn’t stand for anything. At a time when the Democratic base is dispirited, Swett would only make things worse.

This weekend, Mike Lux wrote an excellent piece at OpenLeft – which analyzed how Democrats can turn things around. 2010 is shaping up to be another “blame election” – where voters are cranky, and are looking for someone to “blame,” like in 2006 and 2008 when they “blamed” Republicans. And if Democrats can get voters to blame Wall Street and the big banks, the conventional wisdom where the mainstream press is parroting Fox News will shortly get debunked.

Certainly, that’s the strategy David Segal has pursued since he launched his underdog bid for Congress in front of a Bank of America. The 30-year-old state legislator’s campaign for Patrick Kennedy’s seat in Rhode Island has emphasized returning democracy back to the people from corporate interests, and highlights Segal’s eight-year track record in state and local government fighting for affordable housing, a living wage and budget justice.

Segal has the distinction of having sued one of his Democratic opponents – Providence Mayor David Cicciline – for ignoring a local ordinance requiring developers to hire local residents. Now, Cicciline is taking credit for that ordinance. Another of Segal’s opponents hired an actor to play him in an ad, who now admits he just needed work in this struggling economy – and has endorsed Segal.

Fifty days until Election Day … The narrative can still change, but tomorrow is the last chance for progressives to win Democratic primaries.

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