Progressives' answer to 2014 midterm election results? Be more liberal

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Amid the post-election Democratic handwringing, some activists have an answer — be more liberal.

After a resounding midterm defeat, progressive leaders argue Democrats played it safe, sidelined the president and lost. But now, the party can win by moving to the left. 

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“The reason Democrats lost in 2014 was that there was not a united and bold Democratic economic vision, it was very much an election about nothing, in some cases, small-bore or conservative ideas,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told The Hill.

“The real issue is that the Democratic Party has not painted a picture in people’s minds of what a bold, populist Democratic governing agenda looks like.”

Green and his co-founder, Stephanie Taylor, wrote in an op-ed days after the electoral rout that the party needs to coalesce an agenda that aggressively trumpets issue like Wall Street reform, cutting the cost of college and student loans, and expanding Medicare and Social Security. They pointed out that Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSanders: Clinton with a moderate VP would be a 'disaster' Verizon, striking unions reach agreement in principle What Bernie needs to do right now MORE, the Massachusetts Democrat beloved by their organization, was popular on the stump for many embattled Democrats because she touts that message. 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump thought biker rally crowd would resemble ‘I Have a Dream’ speech Sanders supporter challenges Wyo. delegate allocation Snowden mocks Trump for refusing to debate Sanders MORE (I-Vt.), another progressive favorite that’s weighing a bid for president in 2016, said on Friday that Americans want a more progressive message despite the midterm results.

“The irony of our time is that on virtually all of the important issues, the American people want government to act on their behalf and are progressive,” he said on The Big Picture radio show with Thom Hartmann.

“The bad news is for a hundred different reasons, they are voting for the candidates that are opposed to everything they believe in and we’ve got to figure that one out.” 

Sanders and Green both mentioned how a number of states voters backed ballot measures like a minimum wage expansion even while they chose Republican senators.   

The PCCC’s letter cites victories by Sens. Al FrankenAl FrankenDems press ITT Tech to give students right to sue Consumer internet privacy: Leaving the back door unlocked Senators unveil bill to overhaul apprenticeship programs MORE (D-Minn.), Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySanders tests Wasserman Schultz Honor Frank Lautenberg by protecting our kids Dems discuss dropping Wasserman Schultz MORE (D-Ore.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) as proof that a bold strategy works. The group says that Franken and Merkley won by double-digits in a Republican wave because they stuck to principles, and Schatz used his populist platform to help defeat a more conservative Democrat.

But other Democrats say that all of those races were considered safer for Democrats, which gave them the leeway to tack left without facing consequences at the polls."

But there is a model for Democrats looking to win tight races with a progressive message: Ohio Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownDems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals Sanders: Clinton with a moderate VP would be a 'disaster' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE. Despite his record as one of the most liberal senators, Brown embraced that reputation and sailed to reelection in 2012.

“Democrats need to make clear who we are fighting for and what we're fighting against and draw distinctions,” he said in an emailed statement. 

“If you remember what you stand for and who you are fighting for, you don’t have to move to the center - wherever that happens to be at any moment.”

But not all Democrats believe the election was a mandate on a lack of liberalism.

The party lost five seats in states where President Obama got 42 percent of the vote or less—West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas and Alaska—and are in danger of losing a sixth after December’s runoff in Louisiana. With those states added to Republican-leaning contests in Kansas, Iowa and North Carolina, many Democrats believe they had to play the hand the map dealt them. 

Mark PryorMark PryorEx-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Top Democrats are no advocates for DC statehood Ex-Sen. Landrieu joins law and lobby firm MORE cannot run on the same exact message that perhaps Elizabeth Warren could,” a Democratic strategist and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonWeld wins Libertarian nomination for VP Sanders supporter challenges Wyo. delegate allocation Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals MORE supporter said of the Arkansas senator who lost.

“Senate candidates in particular did the best that they could under the circumstances and they ran on messages that they felt reflected the Democrats that they were speaking to gain support from.”

Bill Burton, a political consultant and former Obama press secretary, said the Democrats face more of a messaging issue than a policy issue and most Democrats do back core progressive ideology.

“I don’t feel that there are real policy differences that they are talking about,” he said.

“There might be some differences on tax policies, maybe some conservative Democrats have a different idea on individual or corporate tax rates, but on things like Wall Street reform and minimum wage, Democrats are pretty close together,” Burton added. 

As the party pivots towards the big prize in 2016, progressive groups like the PCCC have been working to bolster true left politicians like Sen. Warren. Ready for Warren PAC wants to draft her into a bid for president as a more liberal foil to Clinton, the former secretary of State.

But even if Warren declines, Green is confident that her weight within the party, as well as her recent rise to Senate leadership as a liaison, can make an impact on the field.

“Hillary Clinton has shown an ability to evolve, she did so on gay marriage [and] her position on Iraq has changed. The jury is still out on corporate power and economic populist issues,” he said.

“The path to political success for Democrats is to follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead and campaign on big, bold economic populist ideas.”

The PCCC plans to meet with members of Clinton’s staff as she weighs a bid. Green added that Democrats don’t have to worry about a Tea Party-like fracture, as they believe their message is in line with the majority of Americans, not just their wing of the party.

Many in Clinton’s camp question the characterization that she’s too moderate for the Democratic base. The Clinton supporter added that when push came to shove, the base would ultimately flock towards Clinton if she has the nomination tied up.

“There are not enough big policy differences between moderate Democrats and liberal more progressive Democrats to divide us that much,” the supporter said.

“Its kind of funny when you think that Hillary has been labeled by progressives as not liberal enough…she’s pretty freaking progressive.”

This post was updated Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 12:09 p.m.

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