Progressives often wonder why so many Republican lawmakers stick to their avowed principles while so many Democratic lawmakers abandon theirs. We can grasp some answers by assessing the current nationwide drive called “Primary My Congressman” — a case study of how right-wing forces gain ground in electoral terrain where progressives fear to tread.

A Democrat Donkey

Time for some fresh blood?

Sponsored by Club for Growth Action, the “Primary My Congressman” effort aims to replace “moderate Republicans” with “economic conservatives” — in other words, GOP hardliners even more devoted to boosting corporate power and dismantling the public sector. “In districts that are heavily Republican,” the group says, “there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real fiscal conservatives to Congress — not more ‘moderates’ who will compromise with Democrats. . .”

Such threats of serious primary challenges often cause the targeted incumbents to quickly veer rightward, or they may never get through the next Republican primary.

Progressive activists and organizations could launch similar primary challenges, but — to the delight of the Democratic Party establishment — they rarely do. Why not?

Here are some key reasons:

* Undue deference to elected Democrats.

Members of Congress and other elected officials deserve only the respect they earn. All too often, for example, plenty of Congressional Progressive Caucus members represent the interests of the establishment to progressives rather than the other way around.

* Treating election campaigns more like impulse items than work that requires long-term planning and grassroots follow-through.

The same progressives who’ve spent years planning, launching and sustaining a wide range of community projects are apt to jump into election campaigns with scant lead time. Progressives need to build electoral capacity for the long haul, implementing well-planned strategic campaigns with candidates who come out of social movements and have a plausible chance to win on behalf of those movements.

* Assuming that millions of dollars are necessary to win.

Yes, successful campaigns require effective fundraising — but money is often a less significant obstacle than a shortage of commitment and willingness to do painstaking grassroots organizing.

* Self-marginalization by ignoring elections.

Some on the left prefer to stay out of electoral contests while focusing on the next protest demonstration — thus leaving the electoral field to battles between corporate Democrats and Republicans. One sure result: a progressive won’t win.

* Self-marginalization with third-party efforts in partisan races.

In congressional races, Green Party and other progressive third-party candidates have a zero record of success in our lifetimes. In other races with party affiliations also on the ballot (such as governor and state legislature), victories have been almost nonexistent. In such races, the corporate-military complex is not in the slightest threatened by third-party candidates, who rarely get higher than a low single-digit percentage of the vote. In nonpartisan races, by contrast, there are examples of successful and uplifting campaigns by third-party candidates, as with Green Party member Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, California.

By changing just a few words in the Club for Growth’s “Primary My Congressman” manifesto, progressives have a road map for electoral progress: In districts that are heavily Democratic, there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real progressives to Congress — not more of those who go along with the Obama White House as it keeps compromising with Republicans.

Anyone serious about getting genuine progressives elected to Congress next year should be engaged in developing campaigns now. To avoid the impulse-item syndrome, that means identifying key races where progressives have a real chance to win, while remaining mindful that election campaigns should be subsets of social movements and not the other way around.

If there’s a defining issue that now separates the Obama party leadership from social decency, it is the president’s push to cut Social Security benefits. Less ballyhooed but also crucial is his push to cut Medicare benefits and the ever-present danger of cuts to already woefully-underfunded Medicaid. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are unwilling to seriously cut the enormous military budget.

Any incumbent Democrat who is not serving progressive interests should be weighed as a possible primary target. And the most fruitful primary challenges are beckoning in heavily Democratic districts where there are many progressive voters and incumbents aren’t measuring up.

By that standard, the Congress members who may be vulnerable to a primary challenge include the 44 who tout their membership in the Progressive Caucus but have refused to sign the letter (initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano) promising not to vote to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.

A good starting point to consider launching a primary challenge in your area would be to look at those 44 members of Congress who continue to refuse to make such a promise, leaving themselves wiggle room to vote for cuts in three crucial programs of the social compact. To see the list of those self-described “progressives,” click here. (Meanwhile, wherever you live, you can let your Congress member and senators know what you think of proposals for such cuts by clicking here.)

It’s fair to say those 44 members of Congress are among the many Democratic incumbents showing themselves to be more afraid of the Obama White House and the Democratic Party hierarchy than they are of voters in their own districts. Progressives in and around those districts need to do less venting and more organizing.

Image by DonkeyHotey released under a Creative Commons license.


9 Responses to Don’t Vent, Organize — And “Primary” a Democrat Near You

  1. elisemattu May 1st, 2013 at 3:25 pm 1

    I very much like the your study of the Republican Conservatives as a launching point for reforming the Democratic Party. Another starting point is that of examining what the Ron Paul supporters did in terms of accessing the state conventions and trying to get fair elections for Ron Paul. Some of them were jailed or detained until the state convention was over, and so their efforts for a fair outcome came to naught.

    The movement to get progressives elected of course would need leadership, someone who can often get his articles and opinions on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. Someone like, Hmm, Norman Solomon.

    Are you up for helping see this through? To help progressive FDR-idealists “get their party back”? To help figure out and announce which 44 districts have Congress critters who need to be replaced? And to see that the outline for real change is disseminated across the country. Most of us who are fed up with the party as it is have no idea of where or who or how or whatever. But you sound like you have your game plan on.

    Remember though, you wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting help from the “Democratic Party.” And by now, the party has replaced Rahm Emanuel, who spent circa 2004-2007 going across the nation, making sure that progressive candidates running against the conservative DLC types were undermined, remained unfunded, etc, so that the progressives lost.

    The problem is that the Democratic “leadership” has a lot of power. For most of us “foot soldiers” in the campaign situation, if like me, you are known to be “progressive” or let’s say, a FDR-idealist, you will be excluded even from the local “get out the vote” phone banking efforts. Unless you say things you don’t mean – like “Boy, Secretary of State Clinton is my favorite person” no one in the local Dem party will help anything you are trying to do.

    I also think that since the Democratic Party has the money and connections, some of us might find ourselves supporting some Norman Solomon-endorsed candidate, only to find out that the candidate was made an offer they couldn’t refuse, once elected! But do sign me up — something has to give as the Republican/neo-Dem paradigm has brought us the outsourcing of jobs, bankrupting/foreclosing the jobless middle class, endless wars, Too Big To Fail or Jail Financial Institutions and also of course the ever expanding military police state.

  2. TarheelDem May 1st, 2013 at 4:37 pm 2

    To successfully primary an incumbent Democrat or to take down a Republican incumbent when Democrats put up a wimpy sacrificial candidate, requires that (1) you have enough votes to suprise the Democratic establishment and (2) you have enough votes to win. The Republicans that the Club for Growth primaried went on to win their general elections.

    The magic number of votes for a Congressional seat is 170,000. The Club for Growth had the money power to gin up those votes. Progressives will have to use their social networking people power to do the same.

    Yes, now is the time to develop campaigns–whether as a primary challenge to Democrats or as third-party campaigns playing to win. In fact, you are about six months behind the curve.

    The risk is that efforts at electoral politics do not deliver and like in Wisconsin post-Walkerstan wind up sucking momentum out of movement building to expand the number of people aware of what’s going on. Each person has to make that calculation based on their local circumstances.

  3. oicu812 May 1st, 2013 at 6:15 pm 3

    Are you rich? Do you have influence inside any political party? If you ran for city concil would you be elected? Figure it out. The whole political party on every level is holding us hostage due to term limits and lobbyists. Wake up, figure it ouyt.

  4. GreenMan518 May 1st, 2013 at 7:25 pm 4

    Your reasoning is severely flawed with regards to third parties. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat, but a Socialist, and if I am not mistaken greens and other third party candidates have won substantial victories at the local and state levels, especially in states like Vermont, Oregon, and Washington State. You need a strong, active third party presence to put the fear of losing elections into Democrats. What effort was there to run a strong primary opponent against Obama and other extreme right-wing Democrats in 2012? NONE. ZERO. ZIP. ZILCH. Your fear of Republicans getting into office to do the exact same things Democrats are already doing has neutered your efforts.

    Don’t be afraid to run third party candidates, especially in municipal and state-level judicial races. They’re the only means you have right now of applying real political pressure on Democrats. No one’s seriously primarying them, so who else does that leave? The third parties.

  5. arcadesproject May 1st, 2013 at 7:46 pm 5

    The Democratic Party is dead. It committed suicide when it decided to support cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

  6. Norman Solomon May 1st, 2013 at 8:02 pm 6
    In response to GreenMan518 @ 4

    Actually, Bernie doesn’t run third-party. He runs as an “independent,” and caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate as he did in the House.

  7. TarheelDem May 1st, 2013 at 8:33 pm 7

    It doesn’t matter what the party label is on your lefty candidate, if you don’t have a serious plan to generate the number of votes to win in the general election, you don’t have a serious campaign. And if you go to primary a Democrat (or a Republican) and don’t have a serious plan for getting the number of votes from registered members of that party to win, you don’t have a serious campaign.

    For a member of Congress, the magic number 170,000. That is a major lift to do from scratch without a deep bench of well-known names and a bunch of cash to buy media. Planning an innovative strategy to deliver that number is critically important.

  8. Ohio Barbarian May 1st, 2013 at 10:30 pm 8

    In this system, TarheelDem at 7 is absolutely right. It’s put up the MONEY or shut up.

    Because the system is rigged. A Bernie Sanders can win in Vermont, but could he in Ohio? I doubt it. Without systemic change, there can be no progress at the ballot box. And, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t see how such a systemic change can happen peacefully. How the HELL are you going to get the Democrats and Republicans, who control the electoral system, to agree to a proportional representative system that allows other parties to have a chance at real representation?

    You can’t.

    As far as primarying Democrats from the left, it ain’t gonna happen in enough places to make a difference. There’s too much money involved, too much ignorance, too much apathy, too much LOTE be afraid of the Big Bad Republicans thinking. Besides, as far as I am concerned, the Democratic Party has outlived its usefulness and should be destroyed.

    I only hope I live to see it.

  9. lefttown May 2nd, 2013 at 5:23 pm 9

    This sounds like let’s “elect more, better Dems” by “working within the Democratic Party.” We’ve been there and done that. The entire Democratic Party has proven itself to be completely corrupted, in my opinion, and there’s no going back. If we could manage to elect one or two people who want to lower themselves by identifying with the Democratic Party, they will more than likely lose their sense of morality just by associating with the amoral and greedy Democrats.
    There are countless Socialist candidates and some Libertarians who would be much better than any of the Democrats. There are many people out there right now Norman Solomon could get behind. Right now, the Socialist Equality Party candidate for Mayor of Detroit has collected the necessary signatures to get on the ballot. Why not write about him, Mr. Solomon?