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2018 Midterms: Searching for the Bigger Picture

With two weeks before the midterms, what has this election season taught us?

Progressive Democratic Senate candidate, TX Beto O'Rourke speaks before a crowd in Montgomery County (Photo: Twitter/@BetoORourke).

The upcoming midterm elections on Tuesday, November 6th, is a chance for the progressive Democrats to replace Republican incumbents around the country. Beto O’ Bourke, who is running against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, leads his campaign using revolutionary grassroots strategies which serve as an example for future insurgents. While many progressives try to get people involved by relying exclusively on donations from individuals, Republicans do all they can to suppress the right to vote.

In a country where Congress’ incumbent reelection rate is about 95% and approval ratings verge on 19%, our politics appear profoundly out of touch with what most Americans want. Like the midterm elections of the last few decades, 2018’s season is deemed a watershed moment in the trajectory of the United States.

And clearly, that sentiment is not unfounded.

While many Americans have lost faith in the Democratic Party, with Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, despite his lying under oath and several sexual assault accusations, Donald Trump’s destructive presidency, and the general rise of an explicitly racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and warmongering far-right political arena, taking back the House and Senate is dire. The general analysis is that Democrats have a decent shot at gaining a majority in the House, but not in the Senate. However, as we saw in the 2016 presidential election cycle, polling projections aren’t really giving us the whole picture.

But what is that we can take away from this election season before knowing the high-stakes results?

First things first, our elections are broken. We don’t need the results to see that voter suppression is rampant throughout the United States, with a particularly egregious example in a North Dakota race that can make or break partisan control of the Senate. In June of 2013, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which specified states and districts that required federal clearance for proposed voting legislation. Voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and other tactics that generally discourage or prevent voting were let loose on the American public, specifically targeting racial minorities, working-class people, and young potential voters.

Republican lawmaker Mike Terzi and Pennsylvania Republican Party Chair Robert Gleason admitted to pushing for legislation to disenfranchise minority voters during the Obama’s reelection in 2012. Voter registration and turnout have always been low in the midterm elections because voting is purposely made difficult and complicated in a effort to deter voters. This issue has come to light recently because voters’ rights are under attack in every key election.

In North Dakota, the Supreme Court just upheld a notorious law that requires voters to present IDs with a residential address. As Democrats fight to take control of the Senate in November, or at the very least not lose any seats, North Dakota’s new restrictive voter-ID law could help the Republicans take out Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, “the most endangered Democratic incumbent of 2018,” according to The Nation.

The legislation will prevent many Native Americans, who generally vote for Democrats and compose 5.5% of the state’s population, from voting in the midterms. Native Americans in North Dakota who live on reservations or in rural areas often have P.O. box numbers on their identification cards, thus inhibiting them from casting a ballot. They make up a small but significant number of votes for Sen. Heitkamp. Currently, Tribal leaders in North Dakota are working on assigning addresses to 5,000 Native American voters, but there might not be enough time due to the purposefully complicated process of confirming addresses.

The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb highlights another egregious example of blunt voter suppression in the Georgia gubernatorial race. Former minority leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives Stacey Abrams is looking to become the first Black female governor in U.S. history and to defeat Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is in charge of running the election. Kemp’s exact-match law, which scraps voter-registration apps for minor infractions, has already suspended over 53,000 applications, 70% of which belonged to African Americans who only make up 32% of the state’s population. Kemp and Abrams are more or less tied in the polls, but the exact-match law will give Kemp a definite boost. Recent reports on Kemp’s tactics suggest he has contributed to the suspension of 1.4 million voter registration applications since 2012.

But we have yet to even mention the six million felons who are legislatively barred from voting. Taking this into account, some might think it laughable to call the United States a democracy. Rather, the country is becoming, if not already is, an oligarchy.

On a brighter note, many Americans are beginning to view grassroots strategies as the only way to reject the oligarchical system. Funding a campaign is essential to winning an election, which is a problem in itself, and with special interest Super PACs and corporations free to contribute exponentially more than the average citizen, representatives are actually elected by the rich rather than the majority. This is effectively the operation of an oligarchy. However, after Bernie Sanders, in his 2016 presidential campaign, brought the removal of Super PAC and corporate money from politics to the forefront of the progressive movement and the minds of the majority of Americans, how campaigns are financed has become a deciding factor in some elections.

According to Rachel M. Cohen and Ryan Grim of The Intercept, although “just four [Congressional Progressive] caucus members who will be returning to the House next session have pledged to decline corporate funds… That number, however, is about to balloon to as many as 40 or more, as a wave of successful progressive insurgents,” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pledged not to take corporate money even after they become incumbents, are winning elections. With the increasingly popular move to reject corporate money and pander to the majority in order to win elections, comes a new, although dim, road to democracy.

Thanks to Democrats learning how to use the internet, progressive insurgents like Beto O’ Rourke, who is running against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, are able to reject corporate and Super PAC money while maintaining a significant chance against their bought-out Republican opponents. According to Michael Whitney of The Intercept, O’Bourke raised “$38 million in three months [and] …42 percent of all the money raised by his campaign now comes from small donors. His average contribution this quarter was around $47.” He accomplished this by spending more money on digital marketing than any of his Democratic peers. The focus on grassroots strategies is not just an alternative way of raising money, but also effectively gets more people involved in the campaign. Small donors also have the advantage (over Super PACs and corporations) of being real humans who can not only vote, but mobilize support.

Kristin Bahner’s campaign in Minnesota also benefited greatly from a new grassroots strategy, in which the group Data for Progress thought to optimize small donations by distributing them where they would be the most consequential. Choosing eight elections in the country in which Democrat insurgents were up against Republican incumbents, donors were given the option to either divide their donation between the 8 or choose one. Creative grassroots strategies like these are necessary for Democrats to level the playing field between corporations and small donors.

With progressive candidates finding new ways to use the internet and optimize small donations, many Americans are becoming more hopeful about getting corporate money out of politics, the future of grassroots campaigns, and voting in general. The progressive wave is proving itself to be much more than a dream, but a concrete reality. Whether or not grassroots candidates around the country win their elections on November 6th, or if Democrats more broadly take back the legislative branch of government, a seed has been planted.

A paradox has appeared this election season: voter suppression is rampant and the grassroots is strengthening. These tactics reveal the essence of the Republicans’ and progressive Democrats’ respective strategies.

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