On the Campaign Trail: 5 Unexpected Hotbeds of Liberal Politics in This Election

These blue candidates have gone deep into red country to campaign.

Democratic nominee for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat Michelle Nunn and Usher at Usher’s New Look Celebration on July 30 in Atlanta. (Photo: Moses Robinson/Getty Images)

Oct 3, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As November’s election draws closer, Democrats across the country are working polls predicting that Republicans may edge them out to gain a Senate majority. If Republicans take control of the Senate and hold the House majority, even more gridlock along party lines is expected.

But there are places where Democrats are making inroads, even in traditionally red states that require uphill battles to get elected. Here are a few places with robust liberal campaigns that are fighting against the odds.

Black Hills Go Blue

South Dakota hasn’t elected a Democratic president since 1964 (hey, LBJ!), and its political reputation since then has been awfully red. When Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, the GOP backed former governor Mike Rounds in hopes of swiping the seat. But the state’s Democrats have put up a good fight with candidate Rick Weiland. Just this week the gap between the two grew even closer, according to Public Policy Polling, with Rounds’ approval rating dipping to 35 percent, and “Weiland continues to be better liked and within single digits of Rounds.”

Rounds’ approval rating likely dropped in part because of accusations about his alleged abuse of the state’s EB-5 immigration program, part of a controversial federal program that allows wealthy foreign investors to essentially buy green cards for a hefty price tag. Weiland’s supporters launched an aggressive ad campaign to accuse Rounds of “auctioning off” green cards to the highest bidders.

To boot, to fill Rounds’ onetime seat, Susan Wismer, the Democratic candidate for governor, is the state’s first woman to win nomination for that role. Her opponent, current Gov. Dennis Daugaard, has spent over 12 times more on his ad campaigns than Wismer, yet Wismer’s approval rating continues to rise.

On Democrats’ Minds

Georgia Democrats made headlines recently for their massively effective efforts to register minority voters, inciting GOP panic and an investigation into alleged “voter fraud” by Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office in a thinly veiled attempt to stall the successful registration campaign.

In a red state that just may turn purple, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn needs all the left-leaning new voters she can get. Late September polls prove the GOP may be right to panic: Nunn’s opponent, Republican David Perdue, is leading by just 46 percent over her 45 percent. Nunn’s campaign fund-raising efforts have been successful, contributing to pro-Democrat ads in Georgia outpacing those that are pro-Republican.

Keep a (Hawk) Eye on...

Iowa Democrats this year have reason to be uneasy in light of the departure of popular Democrat Tom Harkin, who is retiring from the Senate after more than 25 years of progressive political maneuvering on behalf of the state.

Democrat Bruce Braley is competing with Republican Iraq war veteran Joni Ernst, famed for an early ad in which she proudly declared her expertise in pig castration. Pork jokes aside, Ernst is leading Braley, and this tea party favorite isn’t slowing down. Braley’s campaign is highlighting her opposition to a national federal minimum wage in hopes of tipping the scales his way, and takes a direct approach to the various mudslinging attacks Ernst has aimed at him.

While Iowa has historically leaned Republican, in recent decades it has become a notorious swing state, dominated in the last two Presidential elections by its liberal eastern half. It was one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage, and it desegregated education well before Brown v. Board. Those are just two examples of the liberal tradition that continues to surprise the rest of the country—and will hopefully hold strong in November.

Seeing Blue in Palin Country

In Alaska, Democrat Sen. Mark Begich is holding on for dear life in the race some say is critical in determining the balance of the Senate this November. Democratic hold in this state is essential, and political statistician Nate Silver notes that Alaska will be one of the toughest “gets” for the GOP.

But Karl Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, has already spent nearly $900,000 in the fight against Begich, and his opponent, Republican Dan Sullivan, is enjoying a modest lead in the polls. Still, Alaskan commercial fisherman and writer Brendan Jones recently published an editorial reminding the rest of the country that it would be a mistake to “check Alaska off as bright red.” He digs up moments from his state’s history that point to the contrary: Alaska was the first to establish a minimum wage higher than the federal level, was one of four states to legalize abortion before the Roe v. Wade decision, and abolished the death penalty in 1957. Alaska’s tradition of liberalism is often forgotten in a haze of Second Amendment admiration, pro-oil drilling politics, and moose-hunting vice presidential candidates whose foreign policy was informed by an alleged proximity to Russia. But such stereotypes underestimate the state’s healthy Democratic scene—and perhaps the undecided voters who could reelect Begich come November.

Raising a Mitten for Democrats

In Michigan, state House candidate Betsy Coffia challenged her Republican opponent, County Commissioner Larry Inman, to join her and take the “No PAC pledge.” The move might seem naïve in the overwhelmingly conservative county where Coffia is fighting for a seat that has been held by Republicans for decades. But the former social worker and aspiring state House Representative of Grand Traverse County put her anti-PAC stance center stage, boasting “$49,870 raised, 520 individual donors, 345 campaign volunteers, and zero special interest dollars” on her homepage. Coffia’s success with individual donors makes a loud statement about voters who agree that they want big money out of politics in their county and offers a refreshing alternative to Inman.

Though she’s fighting an uphill battle, Michigan’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Gary Peters, appears to have a strong lead over opponent Terry Lynn Land.