It matters a lot that Terry McAuliffe won the election in the Virginia gubernatorial race Tuesday, but it also matters what McAuliffe didn't win – and what progressives thus must find a way to win in the political fights ahead.
A major key to forging an enduring progressive majority is to connect the elements of the Obama coalition – young people, single women and people of color, the so-called "rising American electorate" – with white, working-class voters receptive to an economic populist message, what Rev. Jesse Jackson in his 1988 presidential bid called the "rainbow coalition."
Simply put, McAuliffe did not complete the rainbow. His win, even though it was a decisive defeat of a tea party hero, doesn't offer a template for rebuilding the electoral framework for progressive reform. Establishing that template and using it to dismantle the tea-party stranglehold on government is going to be the challenge of 2014 and beyond.
McAuliffe's Narrow Win
McAuliffe won a surprisingly narrow victory against Ken Cuccinelli, the tea-party Republican candidate who embraced hard-right positions against reproductive rights, the Affordable Care Act and the role of government. Cuccinelli's positions, particularly his role in suing the federal government to block health care reform as the state's attorney general, tied him in voters' minds to the hated federal government shutdown.
What most voters saw of McAuliffe was that he was not Cuccinelli, but in the all-important air war people saw little of what McAuliffe was for. But what they did know was that McAuliffe looked a lot like the wheeling-dealing corporate wing of the Democratic Party, not a grassroots fighter against the power brokers of Wall Street and Washington.
Large swaths of voters were unimpressed. Exit polls show that McAuliffe lost male voters by three percentage points (45 percent to 48 percent for Cuccinelli). He won female voters by nine percentage points (51 percent vs. 42 percent for Cuccinelli), but he actually lost white female voters decisively (38 percent vs. 54 percent for Cuccinelli). Cuccinelli won voters with less than a four-year college education and voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. He also won the lion's share of the state's rural counties.
Particularly striking is the exit poll finding that among voters who were most worried about the direction of the nation's economy, Cuccinelli won handily, by a margin of 64 percent to 29 percent. McAuliffe simply did not present himself as a compelling choice for voters who feel left out in today's economy.
Common Ground, But Not Centrist Ground
Coming up with a way to win the white working-class voting blocs where McAuliffe underperformed has been a preoccupation of Andrew Levison, a contributing editor at The Democratic Strategist and the author of "The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support." His core argument is that a candidate can be an unabashed progressive economic populist and still be competitive among restive working-class voters that have been lured into supporting tea-party candidates.
What Levison explicitly rejected in a recent interview is the model of so-called "Third Way" or "moderate" Democrats who borrow heavily from conservative policy positions in an effort to woo Republican support. "The centrists [in Congress] who claimed that they were representing their constituents when they were writing dirty tax deals on behalf of corporations, that's not at all what I'm talking about," he said. "You don't have to do that to win white working-class voters. In fact, quite the contrary.”
What Levison envisions instead are economic populist candidates who are comfortable with the values of red-state and purple-state working-class voters and who can then earn the trust of those voters as they advance progressive prescriptions. What those candidates need as support are local institutions that can serve the same role that unions, Democratic Party organizations and some churches used to play when the Democratic Party was dominant in many of these districts until the 1980s – supplying what Levison called "a framework and interface through which people can see government at work" and "the speed bump that kept white working class people from falling into a conservative framework."
Polls show that a large percentage of white working-class voters and the rising American electorate share a common disdain for the fact that so much of the political system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the powerful. They also understand in a visceral way how the middle class has fallen behind, so much so that overall people in their 30s today are financially worse off than their parents, according to a 2013 Urban Institute study.
Win With Winning Issues
There are progressive policy answers to the plight of the working class that appeal to both the rising American electorate and a majority of white red-state voters, says pollster Celinda Lake, including raising the minimum wage, requiring equal pay for equal work, and pushing for affordable child care, and paid family maternity and sick leave. "These are issues that unite a lower-income white working class population and a rising American electorate," Lake said during a recent briefing.
Levison says progressives need to do a better job of giving people a way of grasping how government can be used as a tool to improve their economic condition. That, he argues, requires patience with people who are used to hearing that government is a remote, alien entity that hinders instead of helps, and should thus be pushed out of the way.
"If you've never encountered the Keynesian idea in an economic textbook, the idea that government spending stimulates the economy doesn't sound plausible," he said. "You have to have learned that framework in order to grasp the idea. … Once you understand that, it makes perfect sense. If you don't, it sounds insane."
One Voter At a Time
Levison has particular praise for Working America, the worker organization that is building a membership base of millions of nonunion workers on a base of pro-worker, pro-working-class economic solutions. He says Working America's success validates his idea of face-to-face, one-voter-at-a-time movement-building. Karen Nussbaum, who heads Working America, says that her experience shows that Levison's argument has merit.
"We talk to working-class moderates about good jobs and a just economy and part of the solution is that we need strength in numbers; join Working America so we can fight the corporate elites who are destroying our democracy, and two out of three people join," Nussbaum said.
"These are people who are not in the progressive movement, but they totally agree with us," she said.
Tea-party conservatives will conclude from Virginia's election that they must keep pressing their agenda of economic austerity and holier-than-thou social rigidity – government that wags its fingers rather than extends its hands – even if its purity means losing more elections. Democrats should not make the opposite mistake of believing that it is winning that matters, and the principles that candidates advance on their way to victory, and the coalitions they knit together, don't matter.
What we really need to build is a new consensus based on an economic vision that is more positive and more powerful than tea-party anger – of full employment and economic security based on an economy that works for everyone, not just for a favored few. In that regard, the landslide election of Bill de Blasio in New York City – where white working-class voters have helped elect a series of Republicans, a Republican-turned-independent and center-right Democrats for the better part of the past four decades – is a more important beacon for the way forward than Virginia.
Let's be restrained with the congratulations over Tuesday's elections until we see more evidence that we're building a real "rainbow" progressive coalition.