Dems get a sinking 2014 feeling

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Democrats put on a brave face while sorting through the post-election rubble of their loss in Florida’s 13th District Tuesday, but the takeaway was clear and urgent: The party has a dire turnout problem heading into the midterm elections.

Though party mouthpieces and vulnerable incumbents downplayed the national implications of Republican David Jolly’s victory, it was hard to see a win by a flawed candidate in a swing district as anything other than bad news for their chances of taking back the House this November.

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National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) told The Hill that Republicans now “absolutely” have a shot at gaining seats in November, and that the Florida race shows their message on ObamaCare will work in target districts. 

“If you’re a Democrat in one of those crossover seats, I’d be panicked this morning, because their playbook they’ve given [Democrats] is to run on ObamaCare. Go support the president and go support ObamaCare, and they tried that out and it failed,” said Walden.

Democrat Alex Sink indeed did defend the healthcare law in her race, previewing a message of fixing the law instead of repealing. Democrats believed that argument would sway voters because polling has shown a slight majority of people in the U.S. agree with that mindset. 

Still, vulnerable Democrats insisted they wouldn’t back down from the law. 

Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who narrowly won reelection last cycle and is facing a rematch that’s expected to be even tougher this year, said he believes he’s in a good position to push back against GOP attacks. That’s because, as a member of Congress, he can point to concrete occasions where he’s worked to fix the healthcare law.

“There’s a difference between being a candidate and being a member. I have a record that shows how many times I have voted to fix the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

Barber is in a unique position for a vulnerable Democrat because he wasn’t in Congress when the law was passed and can blame many of its problems on the Democrats who did vote for it. 

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has a tougher task ahead: She worked on the law as a state legislator when it was crafted, a fact the NRCC has already used in attack ads against her. But she, too, repeated the “fix” mantra, while admitting the “stinkers in the law” and the fumbled rollout caused “some real difficulties” for Democrats.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) went so far as to tie the Florida results to vulnerable Democrats in red states this cycle, suggesting Sink’s loss spells bad news for those facing far more GOP-leaning electorates, like Sens. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.

Landrieu, however, told The Hill she’s not concerned about the outcome of the race, and pushed back on the NRSC’s assertion.

“The NRSC makes up a lot of things everyday that aren’t true,” she said. 

Landrieu suggested that flood insurance was a bigger issue in the race than ObamaCare, and declared that “the NRSC can run all day long on repealing ObamaCare. It’s a losing strategy and it will not work.”

Indeed, Democratic pollster Geoff Garin argued that Sink “essentially neutralized the issue” of the Affordable Care Act with the fix-it message. 

The real problem with the law, Garin said in a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee postmortem call with reporters, was not that it was necessarily a negative against Sink — it was an “energizing issue for Republicans.”

“The one thing we do have to acknowledge is that the Affordable Care Act was a motivator for Republicans to turn out and vote and less so for Democrats,” he said.

Former White House adviser David Axelrod echoed that assessment on MSNBC Wednesday morning, when he said that Democrats will need to figure out how to better turn out their base voters — young people and minorities — in the midterms, when those Democratic constituencies typically stay home.

That task remains a complicated one for the party, however, particularly in the evenly split districts they want to flip this cycle, because of the president’s persistent unpopularity.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out Wednesday morning showed President Obama at an all-time-low approval rating of 40 percent, and a record-high disapproval rating from Democrats of 20 percent. 

The onus is on the candidates to convince independents they’re not a rubber stamp for the president, and also to inspire Democratic base voters, disillusioned with the president, to turn out.

Garin said Sink experienced the impact of Obama’s unpopularity in her race.

“The reality is that, especially given the partisan composition of the electorate [in the special election], the president’s approval ratings are low. Alex had to carry a lot of voters who liked her and thought she was the better candidate and feel some frustration with the president,” he said. 

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said the Florida special election would have no impact on his race, in which Republicans are trying to tie him to Obama in a state that voted overwhelmingly against him in 2008 and 2012.

“There’s no question my critics try to blame Obama-Rahall for everything,” the vulnerable Democrat said. “I mean, the snow blitz that’s coming tonight is probably Obama-Rahall’s fault. And they won’t have that to do two years from now, so it’s obvious they’re leaving no stone unturned to defeat me this time. Because it’s the last time they’ll have Obama around! It’s that simple.”

Rahall acknowledged that Obama was deeply unpopular in his district, and ticked off a half-dozen policies where the two have disagreed: coal, trade, immigration, abortion, gun control and the conduct of Attorney General Eric Holder, whom Rahall voted to hold in contempt. “That’s just off the top of my head,” he added.

Asked if Obama had been good for West Virginia overall, Rahall replied, “Probably not.” 

“I probably have supported George Bush more than I have Barack Obama,” Rahall said. “Am I going to switch parties because of that? No. I’m a Democrat, born a Democrat, am a Democrat and will die a Democrat.”

Still, Walden compared the current political climate to that of 2006, when Republicans lost both chambers in part because of then-President George W. Bush’s unpopularity, which rivals that of Obama’s.

“I remember what that felt like in ’06 for us,” he said. “It was awful.