Campaign 2004: Are There Signs of Life After Death? By BOB BURNETT News Analysis

Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 21, 2004

Dante wrote that the gates of Hell bear the admonition “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” This phrase aptly conveys the feelings of many Americans as we prepare to enter four more years of the Bush administration.  

Berkeley activists are asking one another, “What are we to do? How will we endure the next term of what has been the worst presidency in memory?” 

For many of us, the answer is that we will take solace in our community and the spirit of resistance that has long been a vital part of Berkeley culture. But, as we recover from the disaster of Nov. 2, we can also take heart from a few glimmers of hope. 

In Montana, Democrats elected a governor, attorney general, and superintendent of public instruction, took control of the state Senate and decreased the Republican house majority to one vote. In Colorado, Democrats won a seat in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and took control of the Colorado Senate and House. Throughout the West, progressive Democrats won key elections. 

In each of these races there were important lessons for the future: Democrats fielded an attractive candidate, took advantage of Republican vulnerabilities, and ran a smart campaign. 

In the Montana gubernatorial contest, Democrats chose Brian Schweitzer to oppose Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown. (In the face of a political scandal, the incumbent Republican governor decided not to run.) Schweitzer ran as a political outsider; a rancher, and small businessman who had been called to do his civic duty because of Republican screw-ups. 

Schweitzer stole a page from recent Republican campaign success by coming across to the Montana electorate as more authentic than his opponent.  

In his funny and insightful book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” Thomas Frank observed that contemporary America is divided by a hidden class war—one where Republican ideologues have cleverly separated economic considerations from the notion of class. This neutered version of conflict has morphed into a culture war, one in which “resentment [has been diverted] from its natural course.” 

Which side you are on is no longer a matter of being a “have” or a “have not,” a plutocrat or a union member, now it is whether you belong to the “liberal elite” or are an authentic American—“the humble people of the red states [who] go about their unpretentious business, eating down-home foods…whistling while they work, feeling comfortable about who they are.” Republicans have proved adept at fielding candidates who appear authentic, for example, George W. Bush. 

In Montana, Schweitzer was more seen as more authentic than his opponent because of his bona fides as a native son. Schweitzer joined with other small business people to oppose deals that Montana Republicans had made with large, out-of-state corporations. He mobilized Montana hunters and fishers to oppose restrictions on stream and public land access, and condemn corporate destruction of prime hunting and fishing territory. And, Democrats pointed out that the GOP had been in power for 20 years, and yet had not dealt with Montana’s economic problems. 

Schweitzer knit together a revitalized populism: one in which Republicans were portrayed as the champions of big Business, and Democrats as defenders of the little guys. He reclaimed class warfare, turning the focus away from cultural issues and a fixation on a mythical liberal elite, to every day economic concerns with a spotlight on pernicious Republican greed. 

Something very similar happened in Colorado. Even though Republicans have 177,508 more registered voters, Democrats won most of the significant races. Analysts explained that the state had run up an $800 million deficit and, instead of dealing with this, Republicans focused exclusively on cultural issues, such as requiring the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited in all schools and condemning same-sex marriage. 

Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was considered unbeatable until a series of financial scandals forced him to retire. Colorado attorney general, Ken Salazar, then entered the race and waged a strong campaign as both a social moderate—pro-choice and against the gay-marriage amendment—and fiscal conservative. Salazar played up the fact that his family had operated a Colorado farm for more than 400 years, “On my desk in the Attorney General’s office, I have a sign that says ‘No Farms--No Food’… I want to be a strong voice for rural and agriculturally-dependent Colorado.” He came across as authentic and a populist. His “Sleepless in Colorado” campaign visited every corner of the state. As a result, Salazar carried many of the rural areas, which are nominally Republican, and outpaced Kerry by almost five percentage points. 

There are common elements in these victories: Democrats fielded attractive candidates who were seen as being more authentic than their Republican adversaries. Democrats ran on a populist agenda that shifted the debate from cultural to economic issues. And, Democrats ran a smart campaign; they took advantage of natural coalitions. 

If Democrats can win in the reddest of red states, Montana, they can win anywhere—they just have to remember who they are.