After the 2014 elections: keeping our eyes on the prize


I'd like to start this report with a prelude:

 The second day after elections I was among those who attended a rally called by Sen Richard Blumenthal at New Haven City Hall with Mayor Toni Harp, surrounded by unions and immigrant groups. Sen Blumenthal announced he is the first Senator post-election to publicly call on the President, with respect, to take bold administrative action for relief from deportations to keep families together, help our economy and jump start Congress for comprehensive reform. The context is the warning by Sen Mitch McConnell the day after elections that administrative action by the President would poison the well, and President Obama's statement that he would keep his pledge since Congress has not acted.

Sen. Blumenthal steps forward on the strength of the Connecticut elections in which Governor Dannel Malloy who became a national target for his pro-worker first term, embraced labor and other progressive issues, welcomed the President and first lady to the state, and won four more years. 

"We knocked on many doors to elect the President, and now we are knocking on his door," was  Blumenthal's message.

I start with this experience because it is a main takeaway from this election:  The results are a serious setback.   But there is more to the story.  That is the amazing organizing on the ground in battleground states involving many thousands of union members, civil rights groups and many more who are now in position to take it to the streets and build even stronger to defeat the extremist right-wing agenda. Just like in a union organizing drive or strike, even if the victory is not complete or not achieved, even if the contract has take-backs, if the proper lessons are drawn the experience and solidarity gained make the struggle a winning one and can help to raise class consciousness.

In that vein, I would also like to open with a few sentences from the statement by the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina the state with the worst voter suppression laws where Thom Tillis (R) narrowly defeated Kay Hagan (D) for U.S. Senate.  It says:  "The turnout was a record for a midterm election, and was made up of African Americans, whites, Latinos, people of all different classes, faiths, sexualities, and ages. And we believe these are people who not only voted but who will stay vigilant and grow their ranks in the fight for a fair and just state." 

"It should be noted that this participation, despite intimidation, voter suppression efforts, and lewd amounts of extremist-focus money, shows that when the people are united, inseparable in our struggle for putting people first - putting people over greed and corporate interest - and when activism is guided by a common agenda, not any one person or any one party, the people can defeat the callous cynicism of the divide-and-conquer strategies. Regardless of the powers stacked against us.

"Speaker Tillis should not see his victory as a mandate but as a message that he should govern as a senator for all the people and not be a tool of extremists, because what may seem to be victories now may turn into real losses in 2016 and beyond."

This is a fighting framework going forward, similar to that expressed by AFL CIO president Richard Trumka, AFT president Randi Weingarten and many others who were deep in the trenches in many states during this election year. The Moral Monday movement is an example to  learn from and support.  Within it, white workers express common interest in rejecting racism. It shows the potential power of a movement united against the extremist corporate minded right-wing.

The Results

This is a very difficult election setback for labor and people's forces with big consequences requiring study and well thought out tactics. 

Red states turned Republican again after having elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president.  (Arkansas, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia.)  Republicans won enough U.S. Senate seats  (also Colorado, Iowa) to take majority control of the Senate (52 R / 44 D + 2 I, 2 undecided), although still shy of the 60 votes needed to overturn a veto or end a filibuster. Republicans also increased their seats in the U.S. House by 12.

Republican Governors in four battleground states were narrowly re-elected  (Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio). Three Democratic Governor seats shifted Republican: (Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois.) 

 Along with the election of Republican Senators and Governors, at the state level 11 legislative chambers flipped to Republican control.  The number of Republican state legislators increased especially in the South and Mid West, furthering the national strategy of the extreme right-wing to apply their anti-worker agenda at the local level to destroy unions, cripple the organizing capacity of the people, and provide more corporate tax breaks and other such legislation.

The election results are grim, but also contradictory. In six states that elected Republicans, ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Illinois) and for paid sick days (Massachusetts) passed overwhelmingly, indicating that the Republican agenda does not have a mandate.  Voters in three cities (Trenton, NJ; Montclair, NJ; Oakland, CA)  also approved paid sick days, and in two cities (San Francisco, CA; Oakland, CA) approved raising the minimum wage.

As a result of these votes, more than 1.7 million workers will get a raise, especially benefiting women.

The overwhelming passage of these ballot initiatives is a response to the fact that the economic recovery by and large has not reached the mass of people who are struggling to hold onto their jobs, make ends meet, keep their homes, send their children to college, and achieve economic security.  The American Dream of a better future for the next generation is disappeared, except for the top 1%, creating "desperation for a new economic life," as Richard Trumka puts it. The minimum wage and paid sick days ballot questions provided a direct way for voters to express their hopes and their anger.

There were additional positive results that should be noted: In New Hampshire, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D) was re-elected, defeating Scott Brown (R) who opposed the paycheck fairness act. Rep. Gary Peters (D) was elected to the U.S. Senate in Michigan (where the Republican governor was re-elected), and John Warner (D) retained his U.S. Senate seat in Virginia narrowly defeating Ed Gillespie (R).. 

Of special note is the victory of Tom Wolf for governor of Pennsylvania, defeating Gov Tom Corbett (R) who waged war on public education.  It is the first time an incumbent governor was defeated in the state. SEIU proudly announced they had knocked on 279,000 doors to get out the vote for Wolf. Rhode Island elected its first woman governor and in Connecticut, Minnesota, Colorado (where a Republican Senator was elected) and California voters returned Democratic governors to office who rejected austerity policies.

A few House races of note:  In Florida Gwen Graham (D) defeated Steve Sutherland (R) who opposed the violence against women act. In Nebraska R Lee Terry (R) was defeated after airing racist attack ads. In Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin (R), who has taken anti-gay positions, was defeated. In New Jersey, IBEW Local 351 member Don Norcross (D), was elected on a strong pro-labor platform (one of 40 union members elected to office in New Jersey this year), and Bonnie Watson Coleman became New Jersey's first African American congresswoman in the 12th CD. In North Carolina, Alma Adams (D) will become the 100th woman in the 113th Congress, elected to replace Rep. Mel Watt. 

Six of the eight pro-peace candidates in battlegrounds that Peace Action prioritized won election: Senators Jeff Merkley (OR), Al Franken (MN), Gary Peters (MI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and House members Mike Honda (CA) and Rick Nolan (MN).  [The two who lost Bruce Braley (IA) and Carol Shea Porter (NH).]

Down ticket, voters in Richmond, California took on big oil and big money when they elected a progressive slate of mayor and city council candidates who took on Chevron which operates a refinery in their city and spent $3 million dollars in an attempt  to defeat them.  In Maryland CWA organizer JimmyTarlau was elected to the state legislature as part of a progressive slate. In Vermont the Progressive Party took three new House seats, adding to the four House and three Senate seats they retained.

In addition to minimum wage and paid sick days, other progressive ballot initiatives passed:

-- Towns in Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin voted to overturn Citizens United.

-- California Proposition 47 downgraded nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. As many as 10,000 people will now be eligible for early release from state prisons, and courts will annually dispense around 40,000 fewer felony convictions.                                                                                                              

 -- Denton, Texas and Mendocino, San Benito and Santa Barbara counties in California banned fracking                                                                                                                                                       

 -- Colorado and North Dakota rejected personhood measures.  However it passed in Tennessee            

 -- Washington I-594 closed the loophole on "background checks" in the purchase of firearms

These positive developments represent a rejection of the extreme right-wing agenda, further indicating contradictory trends in the election, and possibilities to move forward.

How it happened

From the time President Obama was elected, the extreme racist and corporate Republican strategy has been to obstruct and make government dysfunctional and then blame Obama and dismantle government.  In this election, the strategy of Karl Rove (American Crossroads) , the Koch's (Americans for Prosperity) and Mitch McConnell  (America Rising) was to put Democratic candidates on the defensive by tying them to Obama and making that the issue instead of jobs, while cleverly diverting attention from their own extremist shrink-the-government anti-working families austerity agenda.

Fear tactics and divisive ads were used to distort the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and to cynically cover up what progress there has been toward economic recovery.

Many of the Democrat candidates weakened themselves by going along and distancing from Obama instead of representing a strong economic program. Jobs and the economy was the top issue for voters, with immigration first among Latino voters, but a national economic narrative was absent.  In many states the campaigns also undercut themselves with late outreach to Black and Latino voters, women and youth.

Add to that the record high money invested by corporate interests who were mainly united in this effort. A total of $4 billion was spent in the 2014 elections, the highest ever.  $92.8 million of the $190 million in undisclosed donor money went toward Senate races in five states. (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina.)

Add to that massive voter suppression.  According to the Brennan Center for Justice, "The Republican electoral sweep has put an end to speculation over whether new laws making it harder to vote in 21 states would help determine control of the Senate this year. A quick look at the numbers shows that in several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement."

Here are three examples they cite:

North Carolina

In the North Carolina Senate race, state house speaker Thom Tillis (R) beat Senator Kay Hagen (D) by a margin of 1.7 percent, or about 48,000 votes.

The new voter law slashed seven early voting days, eliminated same-day registration, and prohibited voting outside a voter's home precinct. Widespread problems were reported on election day. In the 2010 midterms, 200,000 voters cast ballots during the early voting days now cut. In 2012, 700,000 voted during those days, including more than a quarter of all African Americans who voted and . 100,000 voters, almost a one-third of whom were African American, voted using same-day registration, not available this year. And 7,500 voters cast their ballots outside of their home precincts that year.


In the Kansas governor's race, Governor Sam Brownback (R) beat back challenger Paul Davis (D) by a margin of 2.8 percent, or less than 33,000 votes. A strict photo ID law was put into effect before the 2012 election, and there is a new documentary proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration. More than 24,000 voter registrations were held in "suspense" this year because they failed to present documentary proof of citizenship. Kansas's voter ID law reduced turnout by approximately 2 percent in 2012. If the effect was similar this year, it would mean turnout was about 17,000 voters lower than it would have been. The number of Americans that don't have government-issued photo IDs accepted under new laws is closer to 11 percent.


The Florida governor's race was decided by only a 1.2 percent margin, with Governor Rick Scott (R) narrowly beating former Governor Charlie Crist (D) by just under 72,000 votes. Florida has passed a host of new voting restrictions. This year Scott and his clemency board made it virtually impossible for more than 1.3 million Floridians formerly convicted of crimes to have their voting rights restored, permanently disenfranchising one in three African American men. Formerly, Governor Crist had established a path for people with past convictions to more easily get their voting rights restored. More than 150,000 citizens had their rights restored before Scott changed the rules. This is part of a pattern this year of candidates benefiting from voting restrictions they helped to pass.Also in Texas 600,000 voters were disenfranchised due to lack of required ID.  And in Georgia 40,000 voter registration forms were never processed.

When you think about the cynical and divisive messaging, the big money and voter suppression, it is amazing that with all that, the battlegrounds were still razor thin to the end. This further underscores the fact that the Republicans do not have a mandate, but raising the minimum wage does.  It emphasizes the urgency of democratizing and making uniform election laws in our country.  Sen. Bernie Sanders' new bill to make election day a national holiday so it will be easier to get the time off to vote is a good place to start.

Above all, this election shows that the struggles for democracy, against racism and for economic security are inextricably linked, and must be fought together.

Voter Turnout and Exit Polls

 National turnout statistics show numbers similar, and sometimes slightly higher, than the last mid-term election in 2010.  After the 2010 Republican wave, it was understood that even in the mid-term it would require a higher turnout for Democrats to prevail.

Mid-term elections tend to bring out frequent voters, who trend more white, more male and older and that was true this year.  Data on union member turnout numbers is not yet available, but NBC's national turnout statistics show numbers closer to 2010 than 2012 for African American, Latino, women and youth voters, called the "Rising American Electorate" that votes heavily Democrat. 


RAE Voters

2014 share of all voters

2010 share of all voters

2012 share of all voters

Youth ages 18-29

13 percent

12 percent

25 percent

Single women

21 percent

21 percent

23 percent

African American

12 percent

11 percent

13 percent


8 percent

8 percent

10 percent

It would be instructive to examine specific state results and also the impact of voter suppression in absence of protection from the Voting Rights Act.  As Color of Change reports "Black voters defied expectations and turned out at rates higher than in 2010 despite continued attempts by the right wing to suppress our votes."

Total voter participation continues to be shockingly low.  In this election only about a third of potential voters cast ballots.  Why and how to change that is key to build a movement that can change our political system in favor of working people.

The Latino Decisions election eve poll asked  non-voting Latinos why they did not come out.  The answers are probably similar to reasons affecting many working class voters:

-- 25 percent said their schedule didn't allow enough time off to go vote

-- 24 percent said they didn't know where their polling place was

-- 19 percent were frustrated by bad candidates

-- 14 percent said they did not have a proper voter photo ID

The responses indicate the tremendous challenges for millions of families trying to make ends meet in an economy that requires holding down several jobs, with high child care costs, difficulties for low income and youth voters who move frequently, and increasing barriers in the election process -- exacerbated where candidates are removed from these issues and did not speak to the anger they feel.

Overall, the share of votes for Republicans by white voters increased 1 percent this year compared to 2010, but there is a dramatic shift toward Republicans among white voters compared to the 2008 Obama sweep year, sharpest in the South, according to the AP/Edison Research poll.

The constant media barrage against President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, dripping with racism, is part of the picture, along with the use of fear in hard economic times. It should also be noted that the white voter category includes a significant number of managerial, professional, small and large business owners and investors.

One exception cited is the attempt by Travis Childers (D) to unseat Thad Cochran (R) for U.S. Senate in Mississippi.  Childers increased the Democratic share of the white vote from from 8% to 16%.  In his statement on election night he said,  "we have the momentum to keep fighting for something better....We campaigned on issues that have rarely been a priority for a candidate running for statewide office -- issues that have a huge impact on Mississippians.  For the last eight months, we have traveled the state talking to voters and local media about increasing the minimum wage to a living wage, ensuring women receive equal pay for equal work, and the importance of making health care accessible to the 300,000 Mississippians living without."

Reaching white workers and forging unity is a top challenge. New union organizing drives in Southern states, the growing multi-racial Moral Monday movement,  the successful southern tours by Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Richard Trumka's leadership speaking with white workers about how racism hurts them are all positives.

The AFL-CIO Hart Research election night survey in 11 battleground states underscores the union difference in voting patterns. Union members voted 61% Democrat compared to 47% for all voters, reflecting the many thousands of member contacts by the Labor 2014 program discussing issues and candidates. The summary states:

"Empowered union members supported working family candidates.  While the non-union electorate voted 6% more for Republicans than Democrats, union voters preferred Democrats by 26%. That difference continued over key demographic groups: while non-union seniors voted 21% more for Republicans than Democrats, union seniors voted Democratic by a margin of 35%.

"Similarly, Republicans won non-union white women voted by 25%, and union member white women voted for Democrats by that same margin- 25%.  Non-union voters who make less than $50,000 per year voted for Democrats 1% more than Republicans, while their union counterparts voted for Democrats 35% more than Republicans."

The poll also shows majority support among all voters for a progressive agenda:

75% support increased funding for public schools, 73% favor taxing American corporations on profits they make overseas, 62% support raising the federal minimum wage and 61% support increasing Social Security benefits. Meanwhile, only 27% support raising the Social Security retirement age and only 18% support raising the Medicare eligibility age.

Republican Control

 New Republican Senate committee chairs who oppose measures that meet the needs of working families and the environment will be empowered to bring forward Mitch McConnell's agenda including the XL pipeline, repealing the medical devise tax and other measures to undermine the Affordable Care Act (ACA), more corporate tax cuts and less regulation of finance, national right-to-work legislation, weakening Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and increased military actions abroad.

McConnell, who will become majority leader, smiled to the media as he explained that he will no longer have to rely on government shutdowns or defaults since Senate control will allow him to execute the cuts that he wants in the budget that way.  He also said if he could repeal ACA he would.

National grass roots opposition is needed to act as a firewall against this reactionary program, and in support of immediate reforms that have wide support including infrastructure repair and green jobs.

In the next two months during the lame duck session, the pressure for administrative action by the President for immigration reform is at the top of the grassroots agenda, along with building momentum to raise the minimum wage.  Confirmation of Loretta Lynch, Obama's nominee for Attorney General is also a top priority in the lame duck session.

Also on the immediate agenda is opposing the post-election drive to escalate the war in Syria and Iraq.  President Obama is sending more troops to Iraq, and asking Congress for war authorization. National Days of Action have been organized from November 11 to 16 calling on Congress to end the bombing and take action for a political solution to the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

Also starting now is a grass roots effort to sign people up for health care under the Affordable Care Act. Open enrollment begins November 15 through February 15. Unions who represent low-wage workers, civil rights and community groups and the White House are coordinating outreach.  Over 15 million people who had no health insurance before the ACA was signed into law in 2010 are now covered.

The Republican Senate pickups took place in states that went for Romney in 2012. In 2016 there will be 24 Republican Senators and 10 Democratic Senators up for re-election, which provides an opening to win a change back in the Senate majority. The municipal elections in 2015, already underway, also offer possibilities to elect labor and grassroots leaders or allies. 

While Hillary Clinton is the presumed nominee of the Democrats for president in 2016, she does not have unanimous support.  In particular her economic and foreign policy agenda has critics within the Democratic coalition. Progressive Democrats for America has launched a poll among its constituency.  Some are hoping that Sen. Bernie Sanders will run in order to push the debate.  The effort to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren continues although she has declined.  Others are contemplating coming forward.

Perhaps the most effective way to influence the choice of nominee is organizing on the critical  issues now facing the labor and people's alliance to give voice and hope for jobs and security.

Going Forward

The Republican advances create new challenges at the state and local level as well.  Day to day life needs including food stamps, housing assistance, public education, collective bargaining, pensions, social security are all in danger.

Disappointment and impatience will not win a progressive agenda.  Who are the leaders, who are the allies issue by issue? Our strategy to defeat the extreme right wing is exactly on time.  It is a major contribution we have to make.  The idea of  maximum unity makes common sense.  Within that multi-class tactic, the key remains organizing the core forces for social change - union members, African American, Latino, Asian Pacific, Native American, women and youth voters.

Unions are in the cross-hairs because they provide a means to collective action and raising sights.  As a result, union members vote more progressive. New organizing is a top priority, connected to the needs of workers in their communities as the fast food workers demonstrated when they joined the October March in Ferguson, Missouri to end racial profiling. 

Low wage organizing broadly defined and including organizing low wage communities as well as workplaces addresses a large and growing multi-racial working class constituency.  It has the potential to shift the political spectrum to the left.  As that develops there is the capacity to influence people beyond those who are directly organized and have influence among white voters, particularly white working class voters. 

Working class based political independence expresses itself in many ways  It can manifest itself both in and outside of the Democratic Party.  The independent structures being built up in unions through the Labor 2014 program to support  union members who are candidates and candidates that support working families is one way.  These candidates are usually Democrats, some also running non-partisan or on Working Families or other ballot lines. In some cases, ward committees can take on an independent form. 

Organizing on issues like the Moral Monday movement and holding candidates accountable is another way.  Running candidates on an independent, non-partisan or third party line is another way.  The Working Families Party fields some candidates of its own and  cross-endorses candidates who commit to being leaders on specific issues.  The Progressive Party elected officials in Vermont have a caucus in the State Legislature.

One lesson from this election is that having a local mass base as a result of year round organizing can push a candidate and then excite voter turnout on that issue.  On election day, New Haven city hall was jammed with well over 1,000 young people who came to register and vote as part of  the state's first year of same-day voter registration.

Another lesson is the potential power of local organizing on immediate issues connected to a national movement.  The minimum wage ballot votes show the possibility of connecting nationally through the fast food workers but beyond that as well.  It was President Obama who called for $10.10 as a start.  Had some candidates not tried to distance themselves, but rather embraced the minimum wage initiatives in their state, it would have been harder for the Republican candidates to get away with pretending to represent workers' interests.

Ultimately it is only this kind of grass roots organizing connected to issues that affect people's everyday lives that can prevail against the onslaught of corporate money and media lies.

As Communists we have no illusions.  Of course the system is rigged.  And more and more people understand that.  The challenge is how to organize the anger and build unity strong enough to take on corporate power.  The labor and people's alliance can't defeat the extreme right without sustained movement building over time and particularly in red states and districts and in the deep South.

Next Steps

Our Party and YCL worked hard in these elections.  We should be proud of our efforts. There is a lot to build on. Congratulations to all the door knockers and phone bankers, to all the local writers and sharers of People's World stories. Congratulations to all the committee reps and organizers and union release time workers and volunteers in Labor Walks.  Congratulations to those who ran and those who were elected. Congratulations to the new members who joined during this year-long campaign. I don't have numbers, but I believe that many of our districts, clubs and members did their part at every level. 

We have to make a conscious effort so that each and every member sees the fight and the progress within the campaign, and does not get discouraged or disengaged.  Especially the youth and those who became involved for the first time, to feel the power of their participation and understand that the struggle is won through persistence and commitment.

This report is just an opener.  At the national committee meeting we should examine the experiences and lessons state-by-state:  How and when was the campaign organized? What issues? How much voter registration? What kind of voter contact? What problems getting out the vote?

And other questions as well: Why were Republican governors re-elected in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Florida?  Any potential splits among the extreme right wing forces? What is our assessment of the Democratic Party?  What do we mean by independent politics and how do we help strengthen that? How can we most effectively help raise class consciousness, tackle racism and forge unity? How to strengthen labor's role?  How to build a mass base for our Party?

What allies can we join with to reform campaign finance and election laws?  How to build on the climate march and the march in Ferguson and the upcoming peace actions?

It's a great opportunity to talk with new friends, with allies even before the holidays to help shape our tactics going forward.

In Ohio, Ed Fitzgerald (D) put up a hard and good fight for Governor, although John Kasich (R) was re-elected. His message is a reflection of the pain and suffering, of the anger and urgency for justice on the rise in our nation:

"We need to guarantee human rights and equal rights, in the workplace, in housing, in marriage, in life, for everyone in Ohio regardless of wealth or race or gender or orientation. We need to start providing universal early childhood education, K-12 education that respects and supports our children and our educators, and we must establish a higher education system that is affordable for every single child regardless of wealth. We need a minimum wage that actually rewards hard work, an economy that is focused on working people and not just corporate profits, and allows workers to have a real voice in their workplace. We need to treat our environment as a sacred trust, not as an obstacle to development. These aren't just things that it would be nice to have, they are things we need in order to have a state that fulfills the hopes we have for ourselves and our children and grandchildren.

"So, especially for those of you who are in their first campaign, we need you to persevere and continue to fight for all of those principles, not for the benefit of a particular politician but for all of those Ohioans who deserve so much more than they're getting, but won't get it unless you keep fighting until we win someday."

Joelle Fishman Chairs the Political Action Commission, Communist Party USA. This report was presented to the Party's National Board on November 6, 2014.

Photo: The All-Nite Images/fllickr/CC



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