I have been bemused for many years by the peculiar mindset represented by D.C.-centrism. I have written about it a number of times over the years, in my book The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be, and in many of my blog posts. D.C. Centrism embraces what the political establishment, especially including the big special interests who tend to control this town, thinks is right, even when the vast majority of Americans are opposed to it. For example, cutting Social Security, something 80 percent of Americans oppose, is a classic example of D.C. centrism. Another example is focusing obsessively about the deficit while ignoring new measures to create jobs, which is the reverse of what voters want the government to focus on. Bailing out, and now subsidizing, the Too Big To Fail banks is yet another example. And these three examples really just scratch the surface -- there are so many ways that D.C. Centrism is different from what the centrist position of real voters is.
I was thinking about all this again over the last week while I was out in my home state of Nebraska, where the Senate and governor races are wide open. While traveling around the state talking politics with folks, I was also doing email conversations with friends about the South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oregon Senate races. In all of these cases, the political situation goes against D.C. conventional wisdom, as candidates and potential candidates scramble the usual political labels and dynamics. Let's look at the situation in all of these races.
Six years ago, in both Minnesota and Oregon, openly progressive/populist challengers Al Franken and Jeff Merkley took on well-funded Republicans with reputations in D.C. as centrists in classic swing states (both of them have been on target list for both parties in most of the presidential campaigns over the last 30+ years). D.C. conventional wisdom rated them both very long shots -- after all, how could a centrist in a swing state lose to lefties like Franken and Merkley? But both Democrats ran aggressively populist campaigns, attacking the incumbents as beholden to big-money special interests. Both won, and both have served in the Senate just as they ran, as bold and unapologetic populist progressives. And you know what? Both enter this election cycle as very well-positioned for their re-election battle in 2014.
Iowa is another classic swing state, one of the closest states in each of the last four presidential elections. With Tom Harkin retiring, Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley is running to replace him. Braley is so populist that he founded the Populist Caucus in the House, and if wins he will carry on Harkin's progressive politics in the Senate. You would think that such a candidate would be in a tough race, and one may yet develop, but so far every leading Republican that party leaders have tried to recruit into the race have turned them down, and Braley is likely to win.
Turning to more red states, take a look at the political dynamics in Montana. D.C. Centrist Max Baucus had shaky approval ratings and a tough re-election race in front of him, and he retired. Ex-Governor Brian Schweitzer has far higher approval ratings than Baucus, and would be heavily favored if he decides to run. Guess what? Schweitzer is the ultimate populist, happy to take on corporate special interests on behalf of everyday working families in Montana, and made himself a beloved figure in Montana for doing so.
South Dakota is another fascinating state politically. Unlike the states above, we don't know the outcome yet, but the dynamics have some similarities to some of the stories above. The conventional wisdom D.C. Centrist candidate was supposed to have been Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who had voted to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and against tightening up regulations on Wall Street speculation, who has come out against repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and who had come out against repealing big oil companies' tax loopholes. Since these were Republican positions in a red state, conventional wisdom suggested that they should have helped her in SD, but she lost her bid for re-election because a third party candidate picked up about 6 percent of the normal Democratic vote, and because Democratic turnout for her was abysmal. When a Democratic candidate far preferred by most Democratic activists in the state entered the race, she decided not to run.
That Democratic candidate, Rick Weiland (full disclosure, he is my friend and I am helping out with his race), is supposed to be "too liberal" to win in South Dakota, at least according to the D.C. establishment. But people in D.C. don't get the difference between being a coastal liberal and being a Midwest populist. Rick's message of taking back the country from the big corporate interests that are strangling the Main Street economy of places like South Dakota it is likely to play well there. There is a fair amount of evidence from recent decades that this approach can win. Populist firebrand Byron Dorgan wasn't supposed to win his first Senate race in North Dakota; Brian Schweitzer wasn't supposed to win the Montana governorship but did so going away twice; and South Dakota Democrats Jim Abouresk, Tom Daschle, and Tim Johnson were never supposed to win their first Senate races either, but they did. Taking on the big money special interests works pretty well in these states, and it just might this time.
Nebraska is the toughest state of all for a Democrat to win in, and there aren't even any announced candidates yet. But it is a fascinating year in Nebraska politics, with wide-open races for governor, Senate, and a lot of down ballot races as well, and I suspect some populists are going to jump in to some of these races and give the Republican establishment a run for its money.
The pro-establishment, pro-special interest "centrism" of Washington, D.C. doesn't actually work very well in the Midwest and West states. I think progressive populism is the path for Democratic victory, at least in that part of the country, and I just hope that D.C. Democrats don't get in the way of helping candidates who follow that path win these races.