Connecticut's crucial lesson: Democrats can win when they listen to progressives

Dannel Malloy waged a fiercely economic populist campaign against a tough opponent -- and he won

Published November 7, 2014 8:43PM (EST)

Connecticut. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy     (AP/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (AP/Jessica Hill)

Amid this week's disastrous Democratic drubbing, Connecticut emerged as one of the few bright spots for Democrats. Facing a formidable challenge from wealthy investor Tom Foley, whom he defeated by less than one percentage point in 2010, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy secured another term, fending off Foley 51 to 48 percent. For Democrats seeking a way forward after Tuesday's rout, Malloy's victory is instructive: when Democrats build a record of progressive achievements -- and run campaigns based on that record -- they can win.

Running against a multimillionaire opponent who paid only $673 in federal taxes in 2013, Malloy naturally lobbed plenty of populist rhetorical barbs at Foley. But Malloy also boasted something many Democrats who lost Tuesday night did not -- an actual track record of economic populist accomplishments. Malloy could point to specific policies he'd signed into law -- most notably, mandatory paid sick leave and the nation's first-ever state-level minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour -- that benefited Connecticut families but would be jeopardized if Foley, who opposed those policies, won the governorship.

Private Democratic polling showed that attacked Foley for his opposition to such economic security issues was an effective strategy, and Malloy went after Foley relentlessly for opposing paid sick days and the $10.10 minimum wage. A late-stage Malloy ad -- aired as public polling indicated a tied race -- put the issues at the very top. "On Tuesday, you future is on the ballot," the ad's narrator began. "What kind of state will Connecticut be? Tom Foley's made his plans clear. No paid sick days for workers. No to raising the minimum wage."

When Malloy declared victory on election night, he spotlighted paid sick days and the minimum wage as defining issues that put his campaign over the top. Lindsay Farrell, Connecticut director of the Working Families Party, told Salon that the issues resonated with a broad swath of voters.

"The core economic issues – such as the minimum wage increase and paid sick days – really drew a contrast between Malloy and Foley, partly because they are issues that really resonate with everybody," Farrell said. "Everybody has a sense that everybody who works should be paid a decent wage and people who get sick shouldn’t have to choose between their health and losing their job or losing their pay."

But, Farrell noted, Malloy signed both paid sick leave and the minimum wage increase into law despite encountering opposition among more moderate Democrats in the state legislature, particularly on the former.

"When we passed paid sick days, when we passed the minimum wage increase, it wasn’t easy," she said. "We had a lot of opposition from more moderate Democrats. In Connecticut, there are strong Democratic majorities in both chambers, but you get a lot of opposition from moderate, corporate Democrats. So if they had won the day on those issues, we’d probably be preparing for Gov. Foley right now, because Malloy would have been without these strong economic justice issues to run a campaign on."

The lesson for Democrats? Progressive economic measures are "not just good policies," Farrell said. "They're good politics. Things that give people economic security and tackle economic inequality in this country are popular with voters," she added.

Results elsewhere bear this out. Bloomberg Politics' Dave Weigel observes that while Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia barely survived after running a "radical centrist" campaign about the importance of slashing the national debt, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken cruised to a 10-point victory over his GOP opponent after a remarkably economic populist campaign. Earlier this year, most commentators -- including this one -- would have told you that of the two senators, Warner was almost certain to win by a larger margin. But as Weigel argues, "Franken proved that voters respond to direct arguments about their economic angst better than they respond to promises that Washington is going to Fix the Debt."

Will the rest of the Democratic Party take note?

By Luke Brinker

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