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As Battle for Senate Tightens, Progressives Home In on Down-Ballot Races

Sanders supporters are focusing on key down-ballot races to mobilize voters for progressives.

Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada's former attorney general and a Democratic Senate candidate, at an awards dinner in Las Vegas, Nevada, on August 25, 2016.

Part of the Series

At this point in the 2016 presidential election, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump among the most unpopular presidential candidates in recent history, many voters who are still planning to show up on Election Day are doing so primarily to vote in vital down-ballot races, ticking the box at the top of the ticket as more of a chore.

With Democrats gaining very slight edges in recent days as the battle to retake the Senate majority continues, “Berniecrats” and other activists are homing in on key, toss-up battlegrounds in both House and Senate races, and mobilizing disaffected voters who might otherwise choose to sit this election out to show up for more exciting down-ballot progressives.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan is planning a campaign blitz for down-ticket Republicans this month in 17 states, toeing the fragile line between stumping for those candidates and avoiding stumping for Trump. About six toss-up races could determine which party will capture the Senate this November. Democrats only need to win three of those races to tie with Republicans. If Clinton wins the presidency, however, an evenly split chamber would be an effective majority for Democrats because her vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, would become the tie-breaking vote.

The Race for a Senate Majority

One of those key races, the hotly contested race to replace Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, could be the race that might ultimately determine the Senate. Democrats hope to elect the first Latina U.S. senator, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. She is locked in a tight race with Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nevada), who was first elected in 2010, riding that year’s Tea Party wave in Congress. He has since won two re-election races. A recent poll in Nevada found that 47 percent support Representative Heck and 45 percent support Cortez Masto. Eight percent of voters responded, “Don’t know/No answer.”

Heck’s slight lead over Cortez Masto may be due to the more than $15.3 million Republican outside spending groups have levied in attack ads against her. The billionaire Koch brothers have invested heavily in the race through their super PAC, Freedom Partners Action Fund, which has spent $7,085,922 against Cortez Masto, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data from October 5. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has spent $3,316,860 million in the race, according to the same data.

“I was just talking to my own step-mom the other day and we were talking about Social Security, and she said, ‘Oh yeah, I saw this commercial. Why doesn’t Catherine Cortez Masto support Social Security?’ and I was like, ‘That’s not true,'” said Lucy Flores, who served two terms in the Nevada House and is also on the board of Our Revolution, an offshoot of Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign that is working to support down-ballot Democrats. “I told her, ‘What did I tell you about believing everything you see on TV?'”

Flores told Truthout that while Democrats there recognize that the race is challenging, they believe key demographic constituencies who typically turn out in larger numbers during presidential election cycles, such as millennials, women and Latinos, will secure a win for Cortez Masto.

“This country has been around for how long now, and we’ve never had a U.S. senator who is a Latina? Frankly, it’s disappointing. It’s a little embarrassing…. We need those different perspectives. We need those different life experiences,” Flores told Truthout. “We need those different opinions at the policymaking table because that’s how you get good, fair policy made that is truly reflective of the demographics of our community.”

While Our Revolution hasn’t specifically endorsed Cortez Masto, the 501(c)4 organization is throwing its weight behind a couple of other Senate bids for Democrats, including endorsing former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and North Carolina State Rep. Deborah Ross. While the organization can’t coordinate with the campaigns directly, it is raising money from individual contributions via ActBlue for the candidates it has endorsed.

Its prohibitive tax structure — 501(c)4s do not allow direct coordination with campaigns — was a major point of contention when the group launched in August. When former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver was brought on to run the operation, nine of 15 Our Revolution staffers resigned in protest, citing his emphasis on soliciting contributions from big money donors as antithetical to the organization’s campaign finance principles. But the organization seems to have recovered from its rocky start: Last week the group announced that it had received more than 100,000 contributions from thousands of individual supporters.

Those contributions are not just going toward Senate races but also other vital down-ballot congressional, state and local-level races that are energizing progressives, particularly millennials, during a time when many Americans are not enthused about their major party presidential options.

The support has proven transformative for many smaller races where fundraising has been, time and time again, the primary barrier to mounting serious progressive bids for office. In a post-Sanders atmosphere, many Berniecrats see an opportunity to elevate boldly progressive candidates whose GOP competitors are struggling to manage a delicate balancing act to both not endorse — and not-not endorse — their party’s presidential nominee.

Trump’s corrosive down-ballot effect has proven tricky for many Republicans, including most recently New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is running in another key Senate toss-up race in her state against Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan. Senator Ayotte was recently forced to walk back her statement that Trump is a good role model for children. With Republicans like Ayotte getting tripped up by Trump, progressives see a chance to make a greater down-ticket impact.

“The most change you can make is at the local level,” said Puja Datta, who is a co-founder of Ohio Revolution, which works to support and highlight progressive candidates there. “Don’t get distracted by the sexy presidential race — or unsexy, I suppose, in this case.”

Datta told Truthout she’s not seeing a huge effect from Our Revolution on races in Ohio. (The organization has only endorsed one congressional candidate from the state, and no ballot initiatives there.) She hoped the organization would focus more on training progressives to run strong campaigns at the local level, as opposed to raising money for candidates and advertising, something she’s not seeing in her swing state. “I just want to see progressives get into local office. I think that’s the most important thing we can take from this election,” she said.

She takes offense at recent attempts by Clinton and other Democrats to shame millennials into voting. Like many other young voters across the nation, she’s primarily motivated to turn out for local races in her state, and is closely following a number of other down-ballot races across the country.

One of those races, in New York’s 19th Congressional District, epitomizes the political opportunities Berniecrats have to move their progressive agenda forward as down-ticket Republicans navigate their tense relationship with their party’s nominee. Zephyr Teachout is an Our Revolution-endorsed candidate for the House of Representatives. Her progressive insurgency against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014 surprised many: She captured 34 percent of the primary vote. This year, she’s up against Republican candidate John Faso, a longtime political insider who has thus far declined to say whether he will vote for Trump.

“There’s a new progressive base that’s excited and motivated. Zephyr’s 2014 campaign felt like the beginning of that — a precursor to Bernie’s campaign. She came out of nowhere and really shook things up,” said Aly Johnson-Kurts, who served as Teachout’s press secretary during her 2014 gubernatorial bid but is not currently involved in her campaign. (Teachout is her step-aunt.) “The ideas Zephyr was talking about then and continues to talk about today — bringing jobs home, public financing for campaigns, funding education — feel universally appealing to folks, and give her quite a bit of cross-party appeal.”

A recent poll had the candidates in a virtual dead heat, with Faso receiving 43 percent, Teachout receiving 42 percent, and 15 percent still undecided, with a margin of error at 3.8 percentage points. But like the Nevada Senate race, Faso’s slight advantage may have more to do with contributions from outside spending groups than his policy positions.

The Republican super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund has spent $1,447,061 on attack ads against Teachout, according to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis of FEC data from October 5. The National Republican Congressional Committee, a PAC, has likewise spent $454,505 in independent expenditures against Teachout. But Johnson-Kurtz thinks Teachout has advantages in her current campaign that can lend her the boost she didn’t necessarily have previously.

Other down-ballot races this election cycle are attracting attention from progressives inspired by the historic and unprecedented challenges from the first two openly transgender candidates to be nominated for national office by a major political party.

Misty Plowright is running for Colorado’s 5th district in the U.S. House of Representatives and Misty Snow is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Utah. Both face uphill battles against their Republican, cisgender opponents, and both candidates are eschewing PAC money while hoping to draw support from independents and Berniecrats.

Our Revolution has endorsed Snow, but Rikkie Wells, who is working with her campaign as state field director, told Truthout the campaign still has a steep climb — likening it to “trying to climb Mount Everest without shoes or supplies.” However, the campaign has picked up some steam along the way. “When Our Revolution endorsed us, we got a backpack,” Wells said.

Wells believes that Snow’s campaign is underestimated because many don’t realize that millennials, who lean Democratic, make up the largest generational group in the state, and that the median age in Utah is the lowest in the nation. “If the millennials get out there and vote, we will win,” Wells said.

But like other progressives working for down-ballot Democrats, Wells lamented the lack of funding for campaigns that reject PAC and big donor money. “You have so many Berniecrats running that aren’t plugged-in to the machine, and whether you’re a Democrat or you’re a Republican, we aren’t getting support like people who are plugged-in to the machine get support. We’re not connected to the businesses and the dark money, and we don’t want it, and so it’s really about getting the citizens of America to mobilize.”

Our Revolution board member Flores from Nevada agrees, saying that significant policy fights are increasingly occurring at the state and local levels, and that, if Trump does win the presidency, down-ballot races could determine Congress’s ability to conduct damage control of his policies.

“If you look at the last 10, 20 years, all of the terrible losses we’ve experienced, whether it’s around collective bargaining or union-busting or reproductive choice, reproductive justice, all of those things occurred at the state level,” Flores said. “They didn’t occur for the most part at the federal level, they occurred at the state legislative level, and so … it’s really important to support courageous progressive candidates at all levels of government.”

No matter who wins the presidency next month, however, it remains to be seen whether the group’s goal — to reform the Democratic Party — will come to fruition.

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