WASHINGTON -- Democrats across the country ran away from their votes on the stimulus, cap and trade and health care reform leading up to the midterm elections, trying instead to define the Republican opponent as an extremist looking to take the country back to the Bush days.
A handful of Democrats in tight races, meanwhile, defended their votes and articulated their reasoning. Most lost anyway, but one congresswoman seeking her second term bucked the trend: Chellie Pingree, a progressive Democrat from Maine, was elected during Obama's wave with a ten-point cushion in a district that has an eight-point Democratic advantage.
In 2010, political handicappers such as the Cook Political Report rated the race a tossup. But Pingree won by 14, one of the few, if not the only, Democrat to increase her base of support.
Pingree was surprised by the margin, as a local newspaper poll had her trailing just days before the election, she said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
She said that there was pressure to run a more moderate campaign. "People said, 'We'll play down health care, and talk about these other things,' and I saw a lot of my colleagues around the country changing their position on a variety of things. And you do get conflicting advice in a tough year like this. But for me, personally, I wouldn't want to do this, I wouldn't want to be a member of Congress if I had to walk away from the things I care about."
Following her victory, Pingree said, it felt good to be able to say she won because she stood up for progressive values.
"Boy, when we had to talk to every newspaper and TV and radio station and they kept asking, 'What happened? How did you pull it out when other people didn't?' It was nice to be able to say, 'I think it was because I stuck to my guns and I went out there and explained the health care bill and the good things that had come from investing in the stimulus package and things like the energy bill."
Pingree, who represented a conservative state Senate district before coming to the House, said she's used to being challenged. "Honestly, I've been a legislator for a long time in a tough district, and I've learned over the years that if you stick to your guns, people have more respect for you over time," she said.
Four other progressives elected in swing districts in 2006 and 2008 who similarly defended their positions in the face of a conservative backlash couldn't withstand the wave that swept them out of office. Pingree's district is slightly more Democratic than the ones lost by Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.), Alan Grayson (Fla.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio.). Those districts are R+5, R+2, even and D+1, respectively, according to Cook.
There was no lack of conservative outrage in Maine, however. Voters elected an extremely conservative, Tea Party-backed Republican for governor.
"We had some wide swings in the polls. We started out ahead. My opponent went on the attack," said Pingree. "He drove around a stupid panel truck that had a picture of Pelosi holding a gavel. He really ran on the stimulus being a bust and the health care bill, and had a real extreme agenda: privatizing Social Security and the whole thing. When he went on the attack, we were really hurting in the polls."
Toward the end of the campaign, Pingree was in front of a crowd when a man attempted to reenact the vitriolic town hall healthcare gatherings of the summer of 2009. Pingree gave it right back.
"I was at one of my most conservative towns in their rotary club, and it was during an early morning speech and a very confrontational guy came up and said: 'I've watched all your votes. One of your most evil ones was the vote for the health care bill,'" recalled Pingree. "And he went on with the 'You didn't read the bill.' And I took him on and said, 'What's evil is when people go bankrupt because they can't afford the costs of healthcare.'"
The man tried to interrupt her. "This other guy said, 'Hey, shut up! Let her talk!' And the whole rotary club started cheering. It was a surreal experience."