Much has been made of Elizabeth Warren being the go-to Democrat in this cycle, being eagerly welcomed in places like West Virginia and Kentucky where few other Democrats were. Elizabeth’s populist message works with both base Democratic activists and voters, and with hard-pressed, white, working-class folks who aren’t real fond of Barack Obama. But here’s the thing about the elections that has been less commented on: In the purple states and tough races where Elizabeth prioritized, or where candidates consciously followed her on message and strategy, Democrats did pretty damn well in what was obviously an overwhelmingly Republican year.
Let’s start with three Senate races the media has all but ignored because they weren’t on the final week’s list of the most closely contested races: the Oregon Senate race, where Jeff Merkley won re-election; the Minnesota Senate race, where Al Franken won re-election; and the Michigan Senate race, where Gary Peters won an open seat. In a terrible Democratic year where Democrats like Mark Warner who were supposed to breeze to victory barely hung on, and heavily favored Democrats in deep blue states, like Anthony Brown in Maryland, faded and lost in the end, all Merkley, Franken, and Peters all won strong, solid victories. Skeptics to my argument might point out that these all states Obama won. Of course, so were Iowa, Colorado, Maryland, Florida, Wisconsin, the president’s home state of Illinois, and many other places where Dems lost big races. But keep in mind that Oregon, Minnesota, and Michigan are all very purple states, with long histories of close races. Oregon has been hotly contested in many presidential races in recent decades — for example, Gore only won by less than 7,000 votes, and Merkley won his first race six years ago only 49-46; Minnesota has been a hotly contested race in presidential elections for years, and Franken’s first race was so close that he was delayed in taking his Senate seat for several months while a recount went on and on; Michigan has been one of the most hotly contested presidential states for as long as I have been doing presidential politics, and has a Republican governor who just won re-election.
Moreover, all these races were supposed to be much tougher earlier in the cycle. All of the Republican candidates were well-funded — in fact, the Michigan Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land was a big favorite early for the Koch brothers’ spending. Democratic groups watched these races closely at the end of the cycle for any signs of the slippage that was happening all over the country. So why did these candidates do so well? And why didn’t they fade at the end like so many other Dems? Simply put, they followed the Warren formula and spoke in strongly populist language about Wall Street abuse of the economy. As Richard Kirsch has pointed out in his brilliant article in HuffPost, these candidates won convincingly in a terrible year by sticking to a strongly progressive populist narrative about rebuilding the middle class by challenging the power of big money corporate special interests.
And by the way, Elizabeth prioritized all three of these races early, lending her strong political support to rally the progressive troops, raise money, and carry the message. Her first appearance for a candidate outside of Massachusetts was in Minnesota for Franken early this year, and she followed up shortly after by heading to Oregon to help Merkley. She not only campaigned hard for Peters, but told many of her friends (including me) that he was great and the race should be a priority.
Another top race for Elizabeth, probably number one on her list, was the New Hampshire Senate race. Being New England women Democratic Senators, Shaheen and Elizabeth have been close, and shockingly enough, Elizabeth also had a strong interest in beating Scott Brown — again. So she dived into the race early and often, doing everything she could to help Shaheen with money, groups, lists, etc. And Shaheen followed Elizabeth’s strategy for beating Brown closely, using her research and talking points a great deal. And of all the most competitive, highly targeted Senate races from start to finish, there was only one race Democrats won in 2014: Jeanne Shaheen.
Even though Elizabeth focused all her political attention on the Senate and Massachusetts, and wasn’t directly involved, it’s also instructive to look at the governor’s race in Connecticut. Just like in the Senate, Democrats lost almost every close governor’s race in 2014, even some in strongly states like Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois. But one of the very few exceptions was in Connecticut, where Dan Malloy won re-election in a hotly contested race. Malloy was another candidate who ran a Warren-style race, didn’t back down one iota from his strongly progressive politics, and won. Connecticut has been a blue state in recent years in presidential elections, but don’t be fooled by that: They have had one hotly contested Senate and Gov race after another over the last decade. But by sticking to his progressive roots and inspiring both the Democratic base and working class swing voters, Malloy pulled out a victory.
Let me note one other fact about these races: In a year where white, working-class swing voters mostly deserted the Democratic party, all of these candidates did well with this demographic group. Of the states where we won those victories, only one — Michigan — had a significant people of color population. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Oregon are four of the whitest states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012, with neither a large African-American or Hispanic population. And in Michigan, while there is a large black population, a Democrat can’t win without competing well in the mostly white working class suburban Detroit counties like Macomb, which Peters did. A populist message and narrative worked for those Democrats.
I’m going to close on what will probably be a surprising state to focus on, because it is one where we lost big: South Dakota. But even in one of the most Republican states in the country, there is evidence that the populist message has resonance. Look at this fascinating piece by Pete Stavrianos, who has been the political mastermind behind many SD Democrats uphill political victories including Tom Daschle’s. Pete argues that even in heavily Republican South Dakota, one of the whitest and most working-class and most rural states in the country, an Elizabeth Warren-style populist message came closer than anyone thought it would to working. Former Republican Senator Larry Pressler ran a strongly populist outsider campaign and embraced most of Democrat Rick Weiland’s anti-big money progressive message, and polling showed that the vast majority of Pressler voters’ second choice was Weiland, enough that if Pressler hadn’t been in the race this would have likely been the closest Senate race in the country. And that is with Weiland getting almost no help from the DSCC, Senate Majority PAC, or the party establishment in general.
In purple states, and even in red ones, Democrats had a path to victory even in a tough year. For those candidates who took the Elizabeth Warren message and stayed strongly with it throughout their campaign, they didn’t fade and they won tough races, or races that could have been a lot tougher if they had faltered.