Off-Year Election Pushes Republicans Back, Are Political Winds Shifting?
The Nation's John Nichols looks at lessons learned in Virginia, why Kentucky might be a bellwether, and the progressive battles taking place in our cities.
The Nation's John Nichols looks at lessons learned in Virginia, why Kentucky might be a bellwether, and the progressive battles taking place in our cities.
MARC STEINER Welcome everybody to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again. As we all know, yesterday were elections across the United States, and these races were in a sense a slap in the face to Trump, in Kentucky especially. We talk about that in a bit. Virginia showed what the power of sustained political organizing can accomplish, and I wonder if the Democrats and the left are really listening to that. Maybe they are. We hope they are.
San Francisco and Philadelphia accentuated the divide with the Democrats, I think, between Progressives and Centrists, with Chesa Boudin in a tight race for San Francisco DA still, and Working Families Party, Kendra Brooks, winning a council seat in Philadelphia. Seattle, a bastion of Progressivism many people would say, as well as home to big tech powers like Amazon, showed big tech flexing its political muscle to defeat Socialist council member and take on other Progressives who want the living wages, rent control, and taxing large corporations.
Do these elections pertain to anything about the 2020 election we’re facing in the near future? What would that be? What do they mean in the larger political context what’s happening in the United States at this moment? And we are joined by noted author, political analyst, and leading nation magazine writer and national correspondent, John Nichols, who joins me once again. John, good to have you with us.
JOHN NICHOLS A pleasure to be with you, Marc.
MARC STEINER So, let’s just begin. Let’s start with what you… the most recent article you wrote. We can start in Kentucky, one of those states that was fought for and that a Democrat won the governorship. And as we jump into this, I really have to play this clip first. Trump, at a rally, tried to get the Kentuckian voters to come out his way.
DONALD TRUMP You’re sending that big message to the rest of the country. It’s so important. You got to get your friends. You got to vote because if you lose, it sends a really bad message. It just sends a bad… And they will build it up. Here’s the story. If you win, they’re going to make it like, “Ho-hum.” And if you lose, they’re going to say, “Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. This was the greatest.” You can’t let that happen to me.
MARC STEINER “You can’t let that happen to me.” Can’t let that happen to me. Well, beyond that, let’s just talk a bit about what happened in Kentucky and what happened to Trump in Kentucky, because he does take it very personally, I think.
JOHN NICHOLS Well, it did happen, and it’s a big deal. Here’s a little pro tip for you, Marc. When you’re president, don’t go out on the eve of an election in a closely contested state and say that if the result doesn’t go your way, it’s the worst thing that ever happened because we have videotape now. We are able to replay that. And so, that’s what happened to Trump.
Now, here’s the interesting thing about Kentucky, and a lot of people will read it the wrong way and all sorts of directions. What you need to understand is this, Kentucky has been trending Republican, much like West Virginia. These are states that used to be pretty reliably Democratic, that actually were at least competitive well into the ’90s and 2000s, but in recent years you have seen Republicans doing exceptionally well, and so the fact that a Democrat was even competitive in Kentucky was a very big deal. It’s not to be underestimated.
Now, the reason this Democrat was competitive is Andy Beshear is the son of a former governor who was a quite effective governor. He is the sitting attorney general. He grew up in politics. He knows politics. He knows the state well. So, he’s a very viable candidate. The same time, Matt Bevin, the incumbent governor is… And I mean, I’m not… I don’t want to extrapolate here or use the wrong words. I don’t want to be hyperbolic. He’s a jerk. He’s literally one of the least liked people, an incredibly unlikeable person. And this is Republicans who say this. The Democrats, you can’t even repeat it on air.
So, you had a reality there. You had a place where the Democrat had a chance. And the Republican response to that, the Trump administration response to that was to say, “Okay, cool. We understand. It’s a relatively tough race. It’s an important one.” The president is going to go all in, and his supporters are going to go all in. They are going to say that if Andy Beshear, this center, maybe a little teeny bit center left candidate, pro-labor, pro-public education, pro-abortion rights, that if he gets elected, it’s full on Socialism, right? You know that. And they had ads literally accusing Beshear of being all in with AOC, all in with Bernie Sanders. They actually use the word Communist.
And so, they threw everything they had at him, but the icing on the cake, right… And remember, this is as we’re talking about what this might tell us for 2020. The icing on the cake was to have Trump say, “Hey, I got this little impeachment problem. I talked to the wrong people. I’m in kind of a lot of trouble. You folks in Kentucky really need to reelect Bevin as a way to say impeachment’s third rail. It’s a really bad political tool.”
Look at… If you’re looking at the video that you’re showing, I think right now people behind him with impeachment related T-shirts saying, “read the transcript” and stuff like that. So, they decided to weaponize impeachment to make this a national race, and it was a message to Republicans all over the country. You got to really strongly oppose impeachment. You got to really strongly align with Trump, and that that’s going to be the answer. Well, it failed. It failed. The strategy failed. And the lesson then for Republicans is Donald Trump can’t necessarily save you if you’re a jerk.
MARC STEINER Someone wrote, and I think it was in your article, that Trump may have no coattails or a few coattails in many of these races. But, let’s take a look at two things in Kentucky real fast before we move on to other parts of yesterday’s elections. I mean, A, a big reason that the Democrats won the governorship that Beshear won was because of the Libertarians who took 2% of the vote who despise McConnell and despise this governor. They don’t like what these men stood for. So, that was a big reason why he lost. So, that’s difficult to kind of jump up with glee and joy about it would seem for Democrats because that still isn’t… we don’t know what’s going to happen in Kentucky come 2020, even though it could be a very tight race for the Senate.
JOHN NICHOLS Well, I can tell you what’s going to happen. I can tell you what’s probably going to happen in Kentucky in 2020. If Donald Trump is not removed from office, Donald Trump’s probably going to win Kentucky in 2020. That’s a likelihood. And Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, is going to have a really rough race. And what this election told us is that people are not automatons. They can make distinction. And so in Kentucky, it may be that the voters like Donald Trump more than whoever the Democratic nominee is. That’s a possibility. Polls suggest that, but it doesn’t mean that McConnell is out of the woods. And so, we have to parse all of this. But, the one thing that I would tell you is really important is don’t get too obsessed with the Libertarian total. It’s relevant. The Republicans don’t like it, and it might’ve been the margin of error, but here’s the important thing to understand about Kentucky.
Four years ago, they had a race for governor. The Democratic candidate was a statewide elected official. He was a very appealing candidate, very effective candidate, and he lost by nine points. This time, the Democrats had a statewide elected official, appealing candidate, and he closed that gap. He moved nine points up, not happen… little benefit for the Libertarian there. But, that nine point movement is the significant thing. Just as in Mississippi… The headline out of Mississippi is the Republicans held the governorship. That is true, but the Democratic candidate there moved the Democratic total up 13 points, a 13 point improvement for the Democrat.
Now, why this is significant is Kentucky and Mississippi are very, very red state. They’re probably not going to decide the presidential race and maybe not even Senate races, but if you’re looking around the country that you can make up some substantial numbers. If you can move up, maybe not 9, or 12, or 13, but if you can move up even a few points in a state like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, that’s very, very good news for the Democrats. And the evidence out of Kentucky, out of Mississippi, out of Virginia, out of the suburbs of Philadelphia, where Democrats did very, very well, out of the suburbs of Indianapolis where Democrats did surprisingly well, is that Democrats have some room for growth, and that can have real significance. That’s what you take away from this.
MARC STEINER Well, let’s take a look at the Virginia race. You mentioned Virginia. Before we talk very quick about two cities and elections in Seattle and San Francisco before we have to end. But, if you look at what happened in Virginia, it was really interesting case where the Democrats won the… They didn’t just win. They took both houses. They took the governorship, which was really kind of very stunning the way they did it. And there was this fascinating article by [inaudible 00:09:33], who wrote this in this morning’s New York Times. So, what she was saying was that they spent two years organizing, going door to door, 2.5 million voters that they talked to across the state, registering people to vote, and organizing from the ground up is how they won.
So, people who lost last time, the woman who lost because her name was not drawn out of the hat, the other woman who gave Trump the finger and was fired, she won… the first Muslim American to win in the state house, in a state race for the state legislature won in Virginia. I mean, this is a huge twist. So in Virginia, there may be a lesson if Democrats can wake up to understanding what it means to organize and how you push and create a vote, and not just sit and run candidates.
JOHN NICHOLS That is exactly right, and it’s a huge deal. But, organizing is hard. It takes time. It takes money. And in politics, for a better part of a generation, maybe two generations, within the Democratic Party especially, the message has been, “We don’t really have a lot of money for organizing because we’re going to put it all on TV.” Right? That’s always been a dumb strategy for Democrats. But, they’ve done it a lot, and they often reap the damage. Republicans have always had a bigger emphasis on organizing. This is something people lose sight of. The Americans for Prosperity, and conservative groups like that, pour immense amounts of money into getting lists, getting names, and certainly you see the religious right groups like that. Abortion, anti-abortion rights groups, they’ve organized for a long time. They’ve got their numbers. They’ve got their names.
Democrats started really going in big, and they’ve done it in the state of Virginia. It’s reaping unimaginable benefits. Do you know… I was watching last night. The Democrats couldn’t keep up with the celebration. They were one victory after another. There was so many victories being reported, not just in races for the legislature, but for county jobs, and municipal jobs. I mean, they were just winning all over the place, and that’s the benefit of organizing. That’s where you get beyond a candidate’s name or beyond a particular issue, and you’re just turning people out who are inclined… They will be more Progressive voters. They’re inclined to vote with you, and they’re delivering. And one thing I would emphasize is that’s not just a Virginia thing, although Virginia is a stunningly important model, and the piece you’ve referenced is very important.
That’s something we also saw in Kentucky. And again, I’m not trying to Kentucky obsess here, but we just studied that that’s one of the reasons that Beshear won was that they had massive increases in turnout in Louisville. The African American community, working class communities there were turned out in big numbers. They ran a multiracial, multiethnic campaign, and it benefited them. And then, they also recognize that the Democratic setbacks in rural areas don’t have to be permanent. And they went into rural counties that Trump won, in some cases by as much as 40% of the vote, and they flipped those counties. And so, putting time and energy into grassroots work, and frankly, putting resources into it is incredibly beneficial politically. And I think that we saw a lot of examples of that last night.
MARC STEINER So, let’s take a look at three cities right here. Let’s look at Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Seattle was interesting. I mean, you saw… This is where a relatively Progressive city, in terms of the people that it elects, but then you had this giant push by Amazon and big tech to defeat the only Socialist member of the city council, to go after her but also just to defeat Progressives, period, who were talking about minimum wages, talking about taxing Amazon per head, and the rest. So, there’s a big push back in the time when we’re also seeing some Democratic national candidates talking about breaking up big tech. And so, talk about what the significance of that particular race is.
JOHN NICHOLS Well, let’s not rush.
MARC STEINER Let’s not rush? What do you mean?
JOHN NICHOLS Let’s take a breath because Seattle has mail in voting, and they count ballots until all of the ballots that are stamped on election day have been counted. So, there are still thousands and thousands of ballots, if I’m correct, to be counted in Seattle. So, we don’t know. We don’t fully know where this is all going to play out. And I’ll counsel that when Kshama Sawant, the Socialist city council member we’re talking about, when she ran in 2013, she didn’t initially come out on top. It was in the long counter, those mail in ballots that she closed the gap and eventually moved into the winning position. Some of these other races, it’s similar.
So first off, let’s understand that there’s still a lot of story to be told in Seattle. We’ll see where it ends up. With that said, there’s simply no question. Amazon came in, as did other major tech companies and businesses in general. They spent a fortune, into the millions of dollars. This is a hugely dangerous thing because over the last two decades, municipalities, cities, and counties have been moving Progressive legislation. They’ve often been in the forefront of it. Big tech, big corporate has figured this out. They’ve now figured out that by moving a big chunk of money into municipal races, they can tip the balance because those are usually lower spending races, and this is something we have to watch. Remember, because big tech has immense amounts of banked money. They don’t even know what to do with all the money they make. Their biggest decision is what bank in Liechtenstein to put it in this year. And so, they are able, with an incredibly small dent into their overall wealth or their capacity, to have an influence on politics.
This is a campaign finance reform issue. It’s also one of the challenges that we’re going to see. And it’s why frankly high marks to Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and some of these other folks who’ve talked about taking on big tech because that is politically risky as what we see… Seattle tells us. But, the way to answer a risk of this kind is not to back off and not to go soft. It is to… I would argue go big. Make sure that you understand if multinational corporations have the power to warp elections around this country, then it is certainly time to begin to regulate them because no corporation should have that power.
MARC STEINER That’s a good… That’s a lesson from that race I think that needs to be pushed by candidates, and the Democratic Party, and others who are Progressives. Let’s take a look now for a moment at San Francisco and Chesa Boudin and his race for the district attorney’s office. He won the top tier of the vote but then lost the other tiers of the vote. We’ll talk a bit about that and what that means. Also, if you look at that race, to me, it also sets up this battle between Progressives and Centrists among Democrats because the majority of the vote went to three candidates, one or two of whom at least were really throw away the key and lock them up. And then, when he ran against the interim DA… So, this both a lesson in the kind of voting system that we’ve been talking about earlier, as well as just how divided maybe Democrats are about who they want and what they want when it comes to things like crime in city elections.
JOHN NICHOLS So, it’s a big deal, and I’ll put a couple of things on the table. First off, criminal justice reform and the sort of really necessary response to it is only recently being developed out as a political issue in the fullest sense where it’s being discussed and understood. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s push and pull on this and that ideas that a couple of years ago were considered very radical, are now coming into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean they’re all the way there. There will still have to be education. There will still have to be work.
What Chesa Boudin has done in San Francisco is really put them front and center in a very bold campaign, and I think he made immense progress with that. Now, the question is will he win? Here again is my counsel to you, and remember I’m a political geek, so you’ve got to take me for what I’m worth. San Francisco also has mail in ballots, and there’s a lot more to be counted. And so, we shall see in a few days what the reality is. But, what we know now is that Boudin was certainly the target of a massive spending campaign by the police unions and by other forces in that city that simply did not want him as DA. So, he faced an incredibly negative attack campaign.
This again becomes a money in politics issue just as the tech stuff we saw in Seattle was, and so you have to see it in that context. Of course, there’s a push and pull on criminal justice reform, but we’re moving in the right direction as a country. We are going to get there, where we’re going to address the insanity of mass incarceration, where we’re going to address the insanity of our drug laws, in my opinion, just wrong-headed bad approaches. We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not there yet always. And this is a circumstance… When we’re in a circumstance like this, where money and politics can be very, very powerful, it’s sort of warping the process. If we’re going to be real criminal justice reformers, as I think we should be, then we must also be campaign finance reformers. We must recognize that powerful forces will very possibly jump in these circumstances. With all that said, don’t rule out the possibility that when all the votes are counted, Chesa Boudin might yet be a winner.
MARC STEINER So, let me take… very quickly here as we have to conclude. Two very quick things here, one, just a very quick look at Kendra Brooks winning as a working people’s family candidate in Philadelphia, which I thought was very significant, a citywide vote, and B, very quickly, what you look at… how this November 5th, how does it speak to 2020, if at all?
JOHN NICHOLS Sure. The Kendra Brooks win in Philadelphia is a huge deal because Philadelphia had this sort of bizarre system where a couple of seats were reserved for the Republicans, or at least for the minority party in the city. And it had always been kind of a deal, like a wink and nod deal, between powerful Democrats and the not so powerful Republicans, and they all work together, right? What the Working Families Party did here is the realization of their promise. They broke up that old sort of insider deal, and they elected an African American woman to a citywide position with the support of some Progressive Democrats. This is really moving the politics of Philadelphia to the left, and it’s a big, big deal because as we look around the country, there are many circumstances like this. I think this was a significant result, and worthy of a lot of attention.
Now, in your broader question on what do we learn from this off year, here’s my lesson or my suggestions for you. First and foremost, impeachment is not a third rail. It doesn’t harm Democrats. There’s no evidence that it’s harmful to Democrat, and so go for it. Keep progressing. That is the immediate reality. This president should be impeached and removed, to my opinion.
Now secondly, that around the country, the answer on winning elections is to be very conscious of the need for an all in organizing strategy, a strategy that says you’re going to organize in our urban areas, our suburban areas, and our rural areas. You’re not going to try and go after swing voters, but rather to try and mobilize those people that don’t always vote, to bring those turnout numbers up, because that’s what you saw in Virginia. That’s what you saw in Kentucky. That’s what you saw in a lot of these places around the country. Bump the turnout, you end up with a better result.
The final thing is, and I know some people see this as bureaucratic or whatever, campaign finance reform remains a fundamental small d democracy issue. If we don’t reform our rules as regards money in politics, we don’t really work on this in a fundamental way, we are going to see more circumstances like Seattle, where big tech, big corporate comes in and warps our politics. And so, never forget that organizing is incredibly vital, and so too is recognizing the damage done by corporate money and by just big spending in our politics.
MARC STEINER Well John, it was always a pleasure to talk with you, national correspondent for the nation, and noted author, and good to have you with us once again, and we’ll talk very soon.
JOHN NICHOLS Pleasure to be with you, my friend.
MARC STEINER See you down the campaign trail. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.