Students have power to shape Congress in fall 2008

With all the energy and coverage surrounding the primaries in early January, it’s easy to forget the eventual importance of other states in shaping our national politics. The most important decision some Yalies can make over break is to register to vote in their home states, especially those that will see competitive Senate races in the fall.

Although the Democrats maintain a 51-49 majority in the Senate, that majority is tenuously held together only by Democrat-turned-Independent Joseph Liberman of our adopted state of Connecticut. In 2008, voters have a unique opportunity to chart a new course for our nation not only by changing parties in the White House, but by voting out Senators who have kept troops in Iraq, denied health insurance to 3.8 million children and withheld funding from stem-cell research. In competitive races across the country, students in particular have a responsibility to show pundits and candidates alike that we do understand the issues, we do care about the future of our county and we will not be ignored.

In Oregon, with a job approval rating at 33 percent, Republican Gordon Smith faces approval ratings lower then President Bush’s. We need to replace him with the Democratic Speaker of the Oregon House Jeff Merkley, who has recently guided new bills on ethics reform and predatory lending through the legislature.

In Minnesota, Republican Norm Coleman has voted for corporate tax breaks over veteran benefits. Democratic challengers Al Franken and attorney Mike Ciresi, who prosecuted a $6 billion lawsuit for Minnesota against big tobacco, promise to make this race at least one of the most entertaining.

In Maine, Republican Susan Collins has said that ending the War in Iraq is not a top issue and voted against extending a vital tuition tax credit to students. We have an ally in Democratic Congressman Tom Allen, who has never missed a congressional vote in 11 years and has come out strongly for a firm timetable of withdrawal from Iraq.

Other races where Republican incumbents have chosen not to seek re-election will be just as important to a full Democratic resurgence. Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, once a potential presidential candidate, now shows a two-to-one polling advantage over all of his potential Republican challengers. Congressman Mark Udall has raised two-and-a-half times as much money as his Republican opponent in Colorado. Finally, in New Mexico, a number of candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination in a state where Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Jeff Bingham each recently won re-election by 68 and 70 percent of the vote respectively.

All these competitive races add up to one important point: 2008 will be a crucial year in ensuring that a progressive president has a real opportunity to sign the legislation our country needs. Despite early indication of success, nothing can be taken for granted.

We need to start by registering to vote. If you are from New Hampshire, Oregon, Maine, Minnesota, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska or Louisiana, your vote in both primary and general elections for Senate will help send the country on a new direction after President Bush. In this political climate, even races in Alaska and Kentucky could be close. Unfortunately, very rarely does it seem like our individual votes make a difference; this year, the number of competitive and open seats makes every vote count.

But registering to vote is not enough. Candidates in close races need student’s energy and time. Whether its making a couple of phone calls one afternoon over break, pursuing a summer internship or by keeping up to date with news from a local newspaper, Yalies need to become more engaged. Politics is a contact sport and while we are in the midst of reading period, we should not forget that our feet and our mouths can be just as important as our brains.

Take the example of Joe Courtney, now a first term Democratic Congressman from the 2nd District in Connecticut, who won by only 91 votes in 2006. Approximately 20 Yale students from all over the country spent the weekend before Election Day canvassing in some of the most contested areas of the race. The people we convinced and reminded to vote helped make the difference in the race – a tangible effect so rarely seen in politics.

With examples like this one, it’s easy to see how student activism has changed since the mass-protest movements of the Vietnam era. We understand that one cannot always change the direction of the country by shouting through a megaphone. Each of the competitive Senate races offers students an opportunity to do more. It’s easy to forget that in certain elections in certain states, student work can make the difference between victory and defeat.

But in 2008, don’t.

Ben Shaffer is a junior in Berkeley College. His is the president of the Yale College Democrats.

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