Wake up everybody no more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’ — time for thinkin’ ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be
There is so much hatred, war an’ poverty
The world won’t get no better if we just let it be
The world won’t get no better we gotta change it—yeah, just you and me.
—Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
People had better wake up soon, because we are only months away from the November 2022 midterm elections. And yet there’s already a troubling “common sense” narrative emerging: “The Congressional 2022 midterm elections are going to be a disaster, with Democrats losing their majorities in both chambers. Which in turn, will destroy President Biden’s chances to achieve positive legislative change, resulting in Republicans winning the White House in 2024.”
A very bleak scenario indeed! Not surprisingly, this paralyzing narrative is reiterated daily in the news media. What is most concerning however, is that so many progressives have adopted this mantra as well. “The House is lost, and the Senate is teetering on becoming Mitch McConnell land again.” This discussion of the importance of the midterms is hardly new. After the Biden victory and the Senate gains in Georgia, we urged labor and our allies to focus on the 2022 midterms. It was immediately obvious that the margins in the Senate were too close to achieve Biden’s (and Bernie’s!) anti-austerity agenda—let alone progressive measures like Medicare for All, the PRO Act, and the Green New Deal.
Yes, the leadership of the Democratic Party is corporate and awful. But after the January 6 insurrection and subsequent Republican actions, the urgency of the situation has become clear: we are fighting to stop an ultra-right takeover. Blocking it, while also strengthening the progressive movement, is a key task of the moment. Undertaking that work—especially in the labor movement—is a particularly important challenge that we must not shy away from.
Republicans have indeed made some progress in a number of states to suppress votes and use partisan election officials in an attempt to rig the results. Yet, one fact remains: a significant majority of voters support the Democratic Party’s agenda. The real challenge—and it’s a big one – is to get these voters to the ballot box. And what was true in 2020 is true again in November 2022: they can’t steal an election if we don’t win it first!
What will it take to engage labor?
Now we have to grapple with two tough questions: “What will it take to wake up union members and their families to the real dangers of losing majorities in the House and Senate?” and “What will it take to get union leaders to break out of their funk and mobilize tens of thousands of members to start registering nonvoters, identifying supporters, and motivating infrequent or casual voters?”
We sure wish we had the answers! But for starters, it might help to build a sense of urgency. This moment should be compared to Spain in 1938 and the failed fight to block Franco’s rise to power. Simply put, failure to block the ultra-right white supremacists from building momentum in 2022 could lead to an authoritarian takeover of the national government in 2024.
We can also point to what worked in 2020. The election was won by the determined efforts of many groups, both large and small. But one of the most important factors was the contribution of those people who deployed to battleground states where margins were ultimately only in the thousands. Working in close coordination with local allies, unions like UNITE HERE safely and courageously sent their members to hit the doors to talk to voters in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. Their intensive canvassing often provided the winning margin through their tireless efforts working with organizations of immigrants and people of color.
Any hope of prevailing in the midterms must not only replicate that work, but substantially expand it. This is not an exercise in blind faith: it’s all about turnout. AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer points out in his email newsletter that there are plenty of positive factors to be optimistic about the 2022 turnout:
“…[T]here is a realistic path to prevailing against [the] odds. A clear and growing majority of Americans reject MAGA – Clinton by 3 million in 2016, and House Democrats and Biden by seven to eight million in 2018 and 2020. They will do so again in 2022 if it’s clear what’s at stake.” Further, “[I]n 2018, 25 million Biden voters showed up who had not voted in midterms previously, a 13-point advantage over Trump voters.”
In the House of Representatives, Podhorzer says, there are 190 solid seats for Democrats and 195 solid for Republicans, with 50 seats “in play.” Of those 50, 27 presently swing in favor of the Democrat. That is not a final majority, but it does mean that with sufficient effort Democrats could hold the House.
The Senate is even better. There it’s possible to imagine winning enough seats to make the traitorous Manchin and Sinema irrelevant. There are 17 Republican seats up with the potential to flip seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Drawing on data compiled by Catalist, Podhorzer cites an important advantage for the Democrats: “This is the first midterm…that a president’s party has had this reservoir of votes hanging over. That’s the way Democrats can avoid the usual losses in the midterm: They have the names and addresses….
“In 2022, we know that nearly everyone who votes will have voted in 2020. That means that nearly everyone will have voted for either Biden or Trump in 2020, and, of course, there are 7.1 million more of the former than the latter. So, the best way to understand the Democrats’ challenge is simply as ensuring that as many of the 80 million who voted for Biden return, and that as few of them as possible defect.”
Gerrymandering: Not a Done Deal
On the gerrymandering front there is good news too: According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, Republicans were set to gain at least five seats from population shifts away from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West. But efforts in Democratic-led states like Illinois and California have eliminated some of those gains. A little over halfway into the redistricting process it looks like Republicans won’t win the US House after the midterm elections based solely on the redistricting process.
While Build Back Better is not going to be the ambitious program we had hoped for, there are other factors that will give us ammunition on the hustings. In many places, this election will still be about Trump, because the far right will make it about him. The early signs are that they will be running some real wingnuts.
“[N]o strategy can succeed if it is not anchored by people who are committed to give the fight everything they’ve got. And beyond that, to do what it takes to raise the spirits and stiffen the spines of all those who are daunted by the enemy’s ruthlessness and seeming strength.” Max Elbaum, Organizing Upgrade, January 25, 2022
Elbaum, and many others, are calling for all the political forces that united in the 2020 election – Move On, Swing Left, Seed the Vote, Our Revolution, Working Families Party, and the countless community, immigrant rights and organizations of people of color – to come together again for the battleground races.
The authors, along with a few other labor activists, have been convening meetings on Zoom with union leaders hoping that many will follow the lead of UNITE HERE by joining (or replicating) that union’s commitment to canvassing in key battleground elections.
On the last Zoom call, Working Families Party National Campaigns Director Joe Dinkin spoke about Republican efforts to pass voter suppression laws. Dinkin emphasized two ways to counter voter suppression: “Voters need to be armed with accurate information to feel comfortable voting. Secondly, they need to hear the truth: the voter suppression laws are only coming because the right wing is scared of their votes — and that’s why using your vote is so important. It can be a huge motivator.”
Instead of predicting what hasn’t happened, let’s imagine defying history in 2022 by building a labor-fueled movement to elect pro-labor majorities in the House and Senate. There’s a pathway for that to happen if enough of the labor movement gets on the phones, sends the postcards—and most importantly—gets on the doors in 2022!
This article is being published jointly with The Stansbury Forum.