The War at Home

Concerns about job losses in the heartland powered Dems' national sweep.

By Jim Cullen

Opposition to the war in Iraq played an important role in the Democratic victory in the mid-term election on Nov. 7. But economic insecurity of the middle class was the other haymaker in the one-two punch that knocked down George W. Bush and his congressional enablers.

Some election-night pundits played down the impact of the Democratic sweep. "We could be seeing the creation of a more conservative House of Representatives than the one we just had," George Will said. CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow claimed the "changeover in the House may well be a conservative victory, not a liberal one." The Washington Post, in a front-page analysis, declared that the election showed that the nation "leans slightly the right of center."

Those pundits overlooked the economic populism that powered many of the successful Democrats. Republicans tried once again to make the election about terror and taxes, but pre-election polls as well as election-day exit polls showed the economy to be a top concern of voters -- and they weren't buying Republican claims that the economy was booming. The Associated Press reported that "eight in ten voters called the economy very important to their House vote, and those who said it was extremely important -&endash; about four in ten voters -&endash; turned to Democrats."

Democrats gained at least 29 seats in the House, with nine races still in doubt the week after the election. In each of the settled races "fair traders," who support binding labor and health regulations in trade pacts, replaced "free traders," who favor dismantling trade barriers, according to Public Citizen's Global Tradewatch. In the Senate, six new Democrats plus independent socialist Bernie Sanders will be fair traders who replaced free traders. No free trader replaced a fair trader in the House or Senate.

Trade was a top issue for Sherrod Brown, the seven-term Democratic congressman from the Cleveland area who led the congressional fight against the Central America Free Trade Agreement last year and wrote a book called The Myths of Free Trade. He got 56% of the vote to clobber two-term Republican Sen. Mike DeWine. "My theme was 'It's time to stand up for the middle class,'" Brown said after the election. His criticism of trade agreements such as the North America Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and CAFTA helped him carry rural areas where Democrats haven't done well in a long time. John Kerry, who waffled about trade pacts in 2004, carried 17 of 88 counties in Ohio, while Brown carried some 50 counties. "Most of those were smaller rural counties with deep anxiety about what this economy is doing to them, and how Washington really doesn't give a damn," Brown said.

Economic anxiety also bridges the gap between union and non-union workers, Brown said. If anything, he said, non-union workers are more attuned to the threat of jobs moving overseas because they don't have a union to help them. "If you're working in a machine shop in Kokomo ... and it's family-owned and one of their big customers just moved their production to Mexico or Beijing, you don't have much protection at all. ... if you're going to get laid off."

Brown noted that he plans to insist on fair trade policies that feature binding labor and health regulations in developing nations. The reinforcements should transform a chamber that voted 54-45 to approve CAFTA last year and he is confident that Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y, who will oversee trade issues as Ways & Means chairman, will force the Bush administration to address the concerns of workers, small businesses and communities.

Global Trade Watch noted that fair trade campaigns were successful in key presidential states, including Florida, where Tim Mahoney (D) won disgraced free-trade Republican Mark Foley's old seat. In Iowa, Bruce Braley (D) won an open GOP seat and Dave Loebsack (D) upset Rep. Jim Leach (R). In New Hampshire, Democrats Paul Hodes and Carol Porter Shea upset Republican incumbents. In Ohio, Ted Strickland's criticism of free trade helped his successful campaign for governor.

Fair traders noted that the only close Senate race the Democrats lost was in Tennessee, where conservative Rep. Harold Ford (D), who voted for free trade on 12 of 15 trade measures, lost to former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker.

In Iowa, Leach, a moderate Republican who had served 15 terms in the Democrat-leaning 2nd District and was "100% free trade," according to Global Trade Watch, was ousted by Loebsack (D), a college professor who wrote, "It is time for fair trade agreements that help open markets abroad and guarantee labor and environmental protections in other countries. The Second District of Iowa has suffered dramatically over the years as a result of Republican policies ..."

Joe Donnelly unseated free trader Rep. Chris Chocola (R), a vocal supporter of free trade and Social Security privatizer, in a rematch in the 2nd District in north central Indiana. This time Donnelly made Chocola's support for eight job-exporting trade pacts in just two terms a major focus. After Delphi moved assets overseas and filed for bankruptcy, Donnelly noted, the corporation proposed to keep an auto parts plant near Kokomo open only if workers would accept a reduction from $21 down to $9 an hour, with a loss of benefits, Donnelly said. "Delphi's comment about the whole thing was 'Well, we can get it cheaper in China.' So fair trade has been a huge issue in our district from one end to the other." And he won the largest plurality in Howard County, which includes Kokomo, that has ever been run in congressional elections.

In western North Carolina's 11th District, former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler (D) ousted eight-term Rep. Charles Taylor (R). Taylor drew flak for not voting against CAFTA even though he was present at the session where the pact passed by a two-vote margin. Shuler said Taylor's CAFTA stunt was a "perfect example" of how Taylor is out of touch with the region, which has lost 78% of its textile jobs to unfair trade agreements. "When it really came down to supporting people in this district, he chose not to," Shuler said. "It was the hot-button topic of every campaign [stop]."

In California, fair trader and wind energy engineer Jerry McNerney (D) beat out House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R), who, in addition to being the bane of environmentalists, provided crucial votes for CAFTA, Fast Track (three times) and free trade agreements with Bahrain, Chile, Oman, and Singapore.

In Pennsylvania's Philadelphia suburbs, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) was ousted by Patrick Murphy (D), who attacked Fitzpatrick in debates for "crippling" the local economy by voting for CAFTA. "He was the deciding vote ... for CAFTA," Murphy chided. He cited the thousands of US manufacturing jobs that had been lost to lower-wage Central America in just the first few months of the pact. Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) lost to Chris Carney (D), who wrote that "I will be a strong voice for fair trade for our workers and for our environment."

Other key pick-ups include the Louisville, Ky., seat of Rep. Anne Northup (R), a 100% free trader who was defeated by columnist John Yarmuth (D), who attacked Northup's track record on trade.

All 10 incumbent Congress members with 100% fair-trade voting records who were up for election were handily re-elected or promoted. They included eight Democrats, one Republican and one independent.

"Perhaps most interesting about the trade electoral trend beyond its national scope is that it busted the myth of the trade debate being divided into 'pro-traders' and 'protectionists,'" Global Trade Watch noted. "The candidates who ran and won on trade explicitly advocated for better trade policies and not against trade per se, but against the specific avoidable damage delivered by over a decade of the NAFTA-WTO model."

A 2004 poll by the University of Maryland's Project on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans making more than $100,000 a year thought that the trade status quo was a net negative. That was in sharp contrast to the group's findings in 1999 (before the effects of the model were being fully felt), which found that the majority of wealthy Americans supported NAFTA-style trade deals.

Trade isn't the only issue where freshmen Democrats are progressive. The Center for American Progress ( studied 11 campaigns in races of national significance, including five US House campaigns, four Senate campaigns and two governor races. It found the largest sums of campaign advertising featured remarkably populist messages. No TV ads in the benchmark races showed candidates bragging about being conservative or proudly wearing the conservative label. "That the more unrepentant conservatives like Rick Santorum and Ken Blackwell did not fare well suggests that this caution was justified," the report noted.

At the state level, Democrats picked up 275 seats in state legislatures, taking control of nine chambers and winning six new governors' offices. Dems will control both legislative bodies in 23 states, the Center for American Progress noted, while Republicans control 10 states. (Sixteen are split and Nebraska is nonpartisan.)

Voters also approved initiatives raising the minimum wage in six states while rejecting right-wing positions on taxes and spending in six states. The progressive Secretary of State Project realized victories in Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.

Of the 29 candidates who, as of Nov. 14, had unseated Republicans or won open seats previously held by the GOP, found all the winning Democrats support a core progressive agenda. All 29 candidates back raising the minimum wage, advocate changing course in Iraq and oppose efforts to privatize Social Security. Only two of the 29 oppose embryonic stem cell research and only five describe themselves as "pro-life."

In fact, Media Matters found, the significant shift on Nov. 7 was the collapse of the "Reagan Coalition" voting bloc that had been nurtured by the conservative movement for 20 years. Majorities of every income category under $100,000; six in 10 of both moderates and independents; all non-college educated voters; and the majority of Catholics, all voted for change. In other words, the so-called Reagan Democrats -- economic-minded, working class voters concentrated heavily in the Rust Belt -- returned home to the progressive movement.

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said Nov. 9 they expect to gain at least seven new members in the 110th Congress. With at least 71 members, the Progressives would be the largest and most diverse subgroup in the Democratic caucus, decidedly larger than either the "Blue Dog" or "New Democratic" coalitions, US Rep. Barbara Lee, caucus co-chair, pointed out.

At least half of House committee chairs will be Progressive Caucus members, said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the other co-chair, who also noted that soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi belonged to the CPC before assuming leadership duties. "We will support Speaker Pelosi in the adoption of strong ethics reforms, the restoration of open, free-wheeling debate on the House floor that gives voice to the hopes and needs of all Americans, and the offering of a wide range of floor amendments to major bills," Woolsey said.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2006

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