Democrats’ campaign strategy aims to link Republicans with Tea Party

Democrats hope to avoid the chaos of last summer’s recess by painting Republicans as being in league with the Tea Party.

The party was knocked off message last year when the August recess was dominated with coverage of raucous town halls where members tried to defend healthcare reform.

Democrats want to be on the offensive this summer as lawmakers head into the fall campaign season.

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“There were Democrats going into town halls and campaign events last summer literally having no idea what they were walking into,” said one Democratic pollster. “The extent of the anger was something a lot of people didn’t anticipate, and we weren’t forceful enough in hitting back.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Wednesday that members will not shy away from town halls but plan to make the argument the GOP and Tea Party are one and the same.

“You don’t know where the Republican Party ends and the Tea Party begins, and they have to own that,” she said. Wasserman Schultz said the Tea Party had some “disturbing elements” and noted, based on her own observation, “there are racist elements in the Tea Party.”

While Wasserman Schultz said the events of last summer featured “a lot of people who really were abusive and rude,” there has been “no angst expressed in caucus meetings over that happening again.”

In an interview with The Hill, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) called it unfortunate that Democratic leaders “mischaracterized” the party’s agenda. Of the Tea Party, Sessions said even though the GOP and the Tea Party have “many of the same ideas about government responsibility and accountability,” the two “are not the same party.”

“The Tea Party has concerns about the direction of this country that are economic as well,” Sessions said. “We’re listening to them and because of the close identity they have on economic and debt issues, we will take that into account.”

Sessions noted that House Republicans would be unveiling their own comprehensive agenda toward the end of September, which would anchor the party’s legislative message on the campaign trail. “That agenda will come out of discussions with Americans all across the country,” he said.

Democratic campaign chiefs unveiled the centerpiece of their strategy Wednesday — a 10-point document titled “The Republican Tea Party Contract on America,” which argues the positions of the GOP leadership have become indistinguishable from the ideas espoused by some Tea Party activists, including abolishing the departments of Education and Energy, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as repealing the 17th Amendment.

“These are all positions that have been taken by multiple Republican Party leaders,” said Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tim Kaine, who warned they were agenda items Republicans were likely to pursue if the party returns to power.

Republicans, meanwhile, intend to spend the recess focusing on a fundamental messaging problem for Democrats — the fact the Democratic Party has held the reins of power in Washington for the past two years.

“How quickly the politics of hope have been replaced by the politics of fear, as public support has eroded for the Democrats’ reckless spending agenda,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said in a statement. “As they attempt to re-brand and re-calibrate their election-year strategy yet again, Democrats forget that the problem isn’t their message — it’s their big-government policies.”

At a news conference with members of the party’s congressional leadership at the DNC headquarters Wednesday, Kaine said Republican Party leaders and candidates across the country have increasingly taken positions that have moved the party to the right — a shift he said has been prompted by the Tea Party.

Democrats also argued the recently formed Tea Party Caucus in the House will help amplify their message.

Led by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the House Tea Party Caucus boasts close to 30 House Republicans in its membership, including Sessions.

Tea Party activists, meanwhile, say they have their own designs for the August recess and are planning some “general annoyance” at town halls held by Democratic members during the break.
“Our main message to take to Democrats in town halls this summer is don’t try to pass anything major in a lame-duck session, because that’s the biggest fear right now,” said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the group FreedomWorks.

Brandon said the group is planning events across the country for the August recess and will have another 9/12 event in Washington in the lead-up to the election. He also said he welcomes the attention being given to the Tea Party agenda, which he said is anchored by a message of fiscal responsibility.

While several prominent Republicans have called for the repeal of the recently-enacted healthcare law and Wall Street Reform, other agenda items listed on the “Contract” by Democrats have been espoused primarily by Senate candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky — and are positions many Republicans distanced themselves from.

Still, Democrats maintain proposals that have generally remained on the fringe, like the effort to repeal the 17th Amendment, could become a reality under new Republican leadership.

For their part, Republicans appear to have no intention of moving away from the Tea Party more generally, a political movement that has energized the base of the party and helped drive the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans.

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“The strategy has been helpful in the short term, and predictably so,” said pollster John Zogby. “The Tea Party has gotten out the vote in a number of primaries and it’s helped Republicans win many of them.”

In the latest Gallup poll, 46 percent of Republicans described themselves as “very enthusiastic” about this fall’s elections, compared to just 28 percent of Democrats who said the same.

Polls also show sizable numbers of likely voters identifying with some of the Tea Party movement’s overarching goals.

At its core, the Democratic strategy appears to be aimed at energizing a depressed base, as Democrats in more conservative states and districts are unlikely to adopt the “bash the Tea Party” mantra.

In a column last week, Zogby argued there are two ways to fire up the party’s base. One is to paint the opposition as lacking a platform for the future; the other — “to let ultra-conservatives carry the ball for them by scaring the bejesus out of key Democratic constituencies.”