PFAW Memo: Election Results, the Far Right, and Fighting Back

From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way

To: Interested Parties

Re: Election Results, the Far Right, and Fighting Back

Date: November 5, 2009

Tuesday's electoral returns offered a mixed bag of results. A few bright spots managed to appear among some disappointing defeats, and politicians from both parties should consider them carefully before making rash, and perhaps costly, conclusions. The evening revealed a disturbing resurgence of the far-right in the GOP, but it also revealed that Democrats are better off standing up for their values and exposing the ultra conservative agenda of far-right candidates than they are running to the political center.

In fact, far from being an asset, a far right ideology proved to be a challenge that right wing candidates were forced to overcome.

In Virginia, Bob McDonnell, the victor in the state's gubernatorial race, has a decades long history with the far right fringe of his party. From his much-publicized Masters thesis from Regent University to the last minute donations from Pat Robertson, McDonnell is as much a candidate of the Religious Right as Pat Buchanan or Ralph Reed.

But unlike Reed or Buchanan, McDonnell took great pains to downplay his far-right credentials as a culture warrior. Through shrewd media work and personal charm, McDonnell presented himself as a friendly pragmatist who "puts Virginia first," even mimicking the design aesthetic of President Obama's online advertising. Despite his rabid anti-choice record and long anti-woman voting record, he skillfully deployed his well-spoken daughters to obscure his record-and succeeded.

His opponent, meanwhile, was a moderate to conservative Democrat who vacillated between asking for support from the White House and slamming President Obama's major initiatives. The progressive base, deeply uninspired by this strategy, failed to make much of a showing at the polls, and independent voters, never convinced that McDonnell was as conservative as his record illustrated, saw no reason to oppose a genial, charismatic politician. The results therefore shouldn't imply the victory of a conservative ideology over a progressive one, but of a savvy wolf in sheep's clothing triumphing over a sheep occasionally (and erratically) claiming to be a wolf.

The counterexample to McDonnell's skillful dodge of his right wing past is the race in New York's 23rd Congressional district, where the candidate backed by Sarah Palin, Dick Armey and a host of right wing luminaries ended with an historic win for the Democrats.

In New York's 23rd Congressional District, far right support for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman eventually forced Republican Dede Scozzafava to withdraw from the race. While the national Republican Party then rushed to embrace Hoffman-thereby placating Beck, Limbaugh and their ilk-Scozzafava decided to stand up to the extremism espoused by Hoffman, and crossed party lines to endorse Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate. Voters heeded her warning, and although some parts of the district had never sent a Democrat to Congress, Owens won a decisive victory.

In New Jersey the gubernatorial race turned on local and economic issues. Chris Christie, the Republican candidate, came to the race with an ideology to the right of Democratic-leaning New Jersey, but campaigned largely on jobs and property taxes, and was aided by Governor Corzine's past work for the investment banking industry, which the economic crisis turned from an asset in 2005 to a significant liability in 2009.

For many progressives, the most difficult defeat of the evening came when voters in Maine approved Question 1, a referendum repealing legislation that would have allowed same-sex couples to be civilly married in the state. The impact of the vote is crushing, not only to same-sex couples who deserve the same legal rights as their heterosexual neighbors, but to all people who believe in equal rights for all people under law.

But even in that race, it's important to acknowledge the valuable groundwork that was laid by pro-equality forces, as well as the deeply dishonest campaign waged by supporters of the measure playing on deeply ingrained misunderstandings about what same-sex marriage is.

Surely the more than quarter of a million people who voted against Question One knew that a vote against the referendum was a vote for same-sex marriage. And undoubtedly a sizable portion of those who voted for it did so because they disapprove of same-sex marriage itself. But if the public campaign waged by the "Yes On One" demonstrates anything, it seems that the issue which drove many people to support the referendum wasn't marriage equality, but a package of lies and distortions about how marriage equality would affect public school curriculum. Just as they did in California, anti-marriage forces worked hard to distort the important conversation about protecting same-sex couples, and they succeeded.

Meanwhile, a referendum offering a wide range of marriage-like benefits for same-sex couples passed in Washington State and an anti-discrimination ordinance was approved over well-organized opposition in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Taken together, it's clear: Americans want to protect LGBT people, but the lies pressed against marriage equality remain too deeply enmeshed in the culture to be resolved in a few months.

Tuesday's election results were a very real setback for progressives and the progressive agenda. But the answer isn't to abandon principles in a dash towards the center, nor is it to ignore the extremism of far-right candidates.

If progressives want to win in coming years, they'll need to do it with conviction and without apology. The alternative is more elections like this one.

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