While most of the news centers around troubles within the conservative movement and Republican Party, the Democratic Party is experiencing some troubles of it's own.
The progressives are looking to take it over.
Since 1995, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have collectively given $6.3 million directly to members of the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, according to an analysis by the Huffington Post of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That's not an overwhelming sum when the average winning campaign nowadays costs more than $1 million, but it represents one-sixth of all giving from one faction within the party to another. It doesn't include the millions that progressives have given to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- rank-and-file members are supposed to cough up $150,000 every two years (though many miss that mark), committee chairmen $250,000 and up. The DCCC turns around and funnels that money to conservative Democrats in close races. Add to that the millions spent by organized labor and outside groups such as MoveOn.org, and it's clear that progressive donors have become major financial benefactors of the conservative Democrats who battled to undermine their agenda. "That tension exists a lot," George Miller says about the party's demand that progressives fund their intramural rivals. "That tension exists a lot. And it's real."
Democrats play it too safe, says Grijalva. "When I give my dues to the DCCC, or when you contribute to it, you have no distinction as to where your money is going to go. And it goes to front-liners and usually Blue Dogs and [they] usually vote against our issues. And that's a real frustration. And usually, if there's a progressive running, it's the last consideration in terms of support," he says.
The Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions emerged in the 1990s in the wake of the successful Republican campaign to take control of Congress, and have continuously expanded their membership ever since. The prototypical Blue Dog comes from a socially conservative, rural district; New Democrats are more likely to represent pro-choice bankers from the suburbs. Both groups offer automatic protection against accusations that their members are too liberal.
Grijalva is piqued that the caucus his fellow progressives helped create has now launched a pep rally in his low-key Tune Inn, which he discovered when he arrived in 2003 after searching for a bar stool safely outside the orbit of Washington's power center. His colleagues don't seem to notice the host's distress. Leaving the bar to shouts of "Crow-ley! Crow-ley!", the Queens congressman out of central casting barely acknowledges Grijalva. Other members give him cursory nods. He stays until after the lights come on -- last call. As the remaining reporters file out, Grijalva says he will begin the fight again tomorrow.
He'll have company. Organized labor, MoveOn.org and progressive members of Congress are increasingly breaking from the orbit of the White House and the Democratic establishment, beginning to take on the administration, build an independent infrastructure and back progressive primary challengers. Unions are working to groom progressive candidates in small, local races and, inside Congress, the progressive caucus -- after years of being treated like the stepchild of the House -- has the potential leadership and organizing vision in place to be ready the next time the nation clamors for a step forward and, in the meantime, to finish what was started on March 21, 2010.
Raúl Grijalva and his allies, which include other newcomers like Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), don't have the same scars. Powered by an emboldened, less institutionalized left, they see Congress as a stagnant body in need of a sharper, clearer vision. But while Congress worked on the most significant pieces of legislation in several generations, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was never able to present itself as an organized negotiating bloc and clearly articulate the demands of the left beyond the public option. Instead, it burned up its energy in a civil war. The fight was personal -- longtime CPC leader Lynn Woolsey simply does not like her new co-chair and the feeling appears to be mutual -- but it was also about competing political visions.
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There is a growing sense that the key to building a progressive party establishment is to stop trying to fix the Democratic Party from within and instead build new institutions. Several progressive members, including Grijalva, Ellison, Edwards, Pingree, Polis and Nadler say in interviews that they are willing to go against the DCCC and back progressive candidates in primary contests where there is no incumbent Democrat. "There should be some members on the inside who do that," Pingree says of supporting progressive challengers. "I've talked to people like Donna Edwards a little bit -- we're freshmen, so we're not a part of the old system as much."
The revenge being plotted by Kahn is an extreme response, but it's merely the sharpest expression of donor dismay. In 2006, MoveOn and Big Labor heavily backed Jason Altmire in his western Pennsylvania race. "He was elected with the support of independent groups and he would not have won in 2006 without them," says Matzzie. He followed Altmire's race closely when he was the Washington director of MoveOn because he grew up in Altmire's district. Collectively, MoveOn and the AFL-CIO raised more than a million dollars for Altimire in 2006, the bulk of his money. Progressives in the House, meanwhile, have given him more than $50,000. He turned around and cast a crucial vote against health care reform.
"Certainly, on health care, we had no inclination he was going to do this," says Matzzie. "I can't imagine what he'd have to do [to win back support]. This is a once-in-a-100-years vote."
A similar dynamic is playing out across the country, where Democrats who voted no have found that there is a limit to progressive support. Congressmen like Michael Arcuri, Larry Kissell and Tim Holden have been told, either explicitly or implicitly, by labor and progressive groups, that they are cutting off funds.
Some have already been abandoned. In November, staffers for Suzanne Kosmas were meeting in her Orlando office with representatives of the local AFL-CIO, telling them why she was still undecided on her vote. At the same moment, Kosmas herself was in her Washington office telling Orlando Sentinel reporters why she was voting no.
Stupak, as savvy a vote-counter as anybody in the House, saw it, too. "Speakers never bring a bill to the floor unless they have the votes. And they always have a few in reserve," Stupak explained to the Catholic News Agency in a post-vote interview. "I had a number of members who thanked us after, because they could vote no."
The public option died so that Rick Boucher could vote no. Progressives inside and outside of Congress have no intention of letting that happen again.
"MoveOn members have contributed countless hours and dollars to help elect a Democratic majority only to be deeply disappointed by those elected officials who rode that wave into office and then promptly forgot who got them there," says Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn's campaign director. "We've learned over the last year that when it comes to taking the hard votes to do what's right for our country and stand up to corporate interests, not all Democrats are created equal. 2010 is going to be about supporting courage and abandoning the Dems who abandoned the folks who got them into office."
Until they do, however, it'll be the job of outside groups. "People get so immediately panic-stricken about our majority numbers that the caucus will make a front-line list based on who's most vulnerable, no longer who votes with you. And they just start throwing money in that direction," says Pingree.
The newest arrival on the scene, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, positions itself as the progressive alternative to the DCCC and tries to help candidates who aren't versed in fundraising and the ins-and-outs of a contemporary campaign. The administration, which met regularly with progressive groups -- such as the powerful labor-backed coalition Health Care for America Now -- and approved and disapproved of strategy, often in blunt terms, created a power vacuum that the PCCC has filled. The PCCC now claims a membership of more than 400,000, largely thanks to its activism around the public option and willingness to operate outside of the White House orbit.
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People have grown tired of the old guard in both parties. You read it here first. A new political party will rise.