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The Battle for Congress

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In addition to candidates like Sanders and Beatty, here are ten contenders for the House and Senate who would pump up the progressive volume in the next Congress:

SHERROD BROWN:  When Ohio Governor John Kasich attacked the collective bargaining rights of public employees last year, Brown shifted his re-election campaign to full-force advocacy of the efforts to overturn Kasich's law. That's vintage Brown. He's passionately pro-union and pro-civil rights, and as a former Ohio secretary of state, he's a fierce defender of voting rights. That's made Brown a top target of national conservatives, who are pouring money into Ohio to beat him. Progressives are fighting to keep him because Brown is ready to take on the big fights. With Sanders, he's become a leading Senate backer of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

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TAMMY BALDWIN:  When Russ Feingold lost his Senate seat in 2010, it was easy to imagine that his maverick progressivism would never be replaced. But Feingold says Baldwin can fill the bill. A House member, she voted with Feingold against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, and she has championed the same labor rights and human rights agenda as the former senator. Now Baldwin is locked in a tight race with Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and Bush/Cheney secretary of health and human services. If elected, Baldwin would be the first openly lesbian or gay senator and the first female senator from Wisconsin. And her campaign's emphasis on protecting the rights of workers, renewing American manufacturing and bringing the troops home from Afghanistan confirms that she's ready to renew the progressive-populist politics of Feingold and Paul Wellstone.

HEIDI HEITKAMP:  In North Dakota, a state Obama will lose this year, and where the Affordable Care Act has taken a pounding from right-wing talkers, Republicans thought they could finish off former State Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp's Senate campaign by linking her to the law. Heitkamp didn't blink. "Twelve years ago, I beat breast cancer. When you live through that, political attack ads seem silly," she explained in one of the most effective TV ads of the 2012 campaign. "There's good and bad in the healthcare law, and it needs to be fixed. But Rick Berg voted to go back to letting insurance companies deny coverage to kids or for pre-existing conditions. I approve this message because I don't ever want to go back to those days." If Heitkamp wins her open-seat race, as now seems possible, she'll give Democrats a win no one was expecting and very possibly save the Senate for her party. More important, she'll provide Democrats with something they could use a lot more of: a rural populism that wins in farm country and small-town America.

VAL DEMINGS:  Jen Bluestein of EMILY's List calls Florida congressional candidate Val Demings "an actual superhero." The daughter of a housekeeper and a janitor who started her career as a social worker, became a cop and worked her way up the ranks to become Orlando's police chief, Demings now wants to crack down on corporate wrongdoing. "We can't keep rewarding the same Wall Street executives who drove our economy off a cliff," says the challenger to GOP freshman Daniel Webster, a social conservative blowhard who's in hot water after being videotaped yachting with lobbyists. "We need to keep the pressure on to make sure Wall Street can't hurt Main Street again." Like Elizabeth Warren, Demings focuses on issues that affect real people, like "ending predatory lending practices by credit card companies and banks." And Demings wants to break the DC consensus that lets corporations dictate trade policy by "opening up our trade agreements to renegotiation to ensure that our workers and companies are competing on a level playing field."

DR. DAVID GILL:  Most redistricting news was bad for Democrats, as Republicans used dominance of state capitols to draw lines favoring their candidates. But in Illinois, a Democratic governor and legislature made districts better for progressives. That means the university towns of Champaign and Urbana might actually elect a Democrat this year. Dr. David Gill, an emergency room physician and campaigner for single-payer healthcare, was not the first choice of party insiders. But he won a tough primary by running as an uncompromising progressive who declared, "I won't take a penny from Wall Street or corporate interests." He's campaigning on a message of taxing "the wealthiest few [who] have rigged the system," attacking healthcare "profiteering" and proposing "Medicare for All." And against the counsel of those who say candidates in swing districts should go soft on social issues, Gill proudly defends reproductive rights and calls for marriage equality.

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ALAN GRAYSON:  Progressives miss former Congressman Grayson, who during his one term in the House emerged as the Democrat willing to say that the GOP healthcare plan was "Don't get sick! And if you do get sick, die quickly!" Grayson was so good at stirring things up that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin agreed: "It's OK if the Republicans lose every seat in the Senate and the House except for one. As long as that one is Alan Grayson losing." Overwhelming spending by conservative and corporate interests defeated Grayson's 2010 re-election in his old GOP-leaning district. But he's back in a new, more Democratic district and says he wants to fight even harder (in conjunction with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Progressive Democrats of America) in the next Congress -- not just against conservative Republicans but against the worst instincts of Democrats who are so prone to compromise that they lose sight of principle.

JOAQUIN CASTRO:  No one is going to hit Washington faster than the new congressman from the Texas district once held by Henry Gonzalez, who rose to become the Wall Street-bashing chair of the House Banking Committee. Joaquin Castro, twin brother of Democratic convention keynoter Julian, is all but certain to win the San Antonio seat once held by Gonzalez, who 50 years ago ushered in a new era of Latino politics. Castro will arrive in Washington with political skills learned from his mother, a barrio activist with La Raza Unida and other civil rights groups. Castro is a superb communicator, and every Democrat should learn his rap about the need to expand the "Infrastructure of Opportunity--great public schools and universities, well-paying jobs and a sound healthcare system -- that enables Americans to pursue their American Dream."

ANN McLANE KUSTER:  One of the last of the great liberal Republicans was Susan McLane of New Hampshire, who championed reproductive rights, promoted fair taxation and led a path-breaking fight to require insurance companies to pay for mental healthcare. Today's GOP has no room for that kind of politics, and McLane's daughter, Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, could well be elected to Congress this November because of the shift. Kuster's a progressive lawyer and activist who has earned backing from unions, Feminist Majority, the Human Rights Campaign and JStreetPAC -- yet she's viable in a historically Republican district. There's a lesson here for Democrats: You don't have to run as a murky centrist to win over disappointed Republicans; instead, you need to emphasize social and economic ideas that Republicans once accepted as common sense.

NATE SHINAGAWA:  Democrats achieved their strongest position in the House in recent decades by winning 2006 and 2008 victories in rural and small-city manufacturing districts, from upstate New York along the Great Lakes to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In 2010 they lost a lot of those seats, often to Tea Party conservatives. One of the new Republicans is Tom Reed, a gimmick-obsessed conservative representing the newly formed Twenty-third District in New York's Southern Tier. Reed proposed installing a national debt clock in the House chamber. His Democratic (and Working Families Party) opponent, local legislator Nate Shinagawa, has challenged not just the gimmicks but the underlying premises of austerity politics. A fair-trade advocate whose local-government experience has made him a passionate advocate for infrastructure and education investment, Shinagawa is also a savvy supporter of sustainable energy and one of the country's most outspoken critics of fracking.

KYRSTEN SINEMA:  Few races present so stark a choice as the one in Arizona's newly created Ninth District. On the right is Tea Party favorite Vernon Parker, a former Bush administration aide backed by immigrant-bashing Sheriff Joe Arpaio. On the left is veteran activist and legislator Kyrsten Sinema, who once sued Arpaio, defended immigrant rights during the bitter debate over the AB1070 law, and helped lead coalitions to defeat a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions and to defend affirmative action and equal opportunity programs. Sinema is running an in-your-face campaign that features images of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh as she says: "These guys don't get it. They're more focused on dictating women's personal healthcare decisions, like birth control, than getting our economy back on track." Sinema says she'll get things done in Washington "without sacrificing my progressive values" -- which, of course, should be the point of running for Congress.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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