Democrats are injecting race into the 2014 midterm elections amid fears that a drop-off in minority voters could severely cost them at the polls this fall.
Democratic leaders in Congress and administration officials have suggested GOP opposition to policies ranging from immigration reform to ObamaCare are, at least partly, motivated by race.
Democrats reject charges that the rhetoric is a concerted political calculation on their part as they try to retain their Senate majority and make gains in the House.
“You turn out voters by demonstrating your past performance and what you’re promising to do for a constituent in the future,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I don’t call that race-baiting. I call that a political platform.”
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only African-American Republican in Congress and a leader in his party’s outreach to minority voters, slammed the perceived approach.
“What alienates people is getting all of us stirred by the notion that we should be afraid of somebody else. [Democrats’] comments are designed to evoke fear from my perspective,” said Scott. “It’s unfortunate, and it should be shameful, frankly.”
But Democrats haven’t shied away from using it as a tactic. Earlier this year, both Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested Republican opposition to immigration reform was partially motivated by racism.
Their comments came the same week that Attorney General Eric Holder told a crowd of civil rights activists that his tenure had been marked by “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity.”
More recently, retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) drew a firestorm of criticism when he suggested some of the GOP’s opposition to ObamaCare was based on race. And just two weeks ago, longtime civil rights crusader Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), never one to ignore the issue, said the Tea Party opposed Obama because of his race.
Much like Democrats have highlighted their efforts to reform student loan rates to appeal to students, or their efforts to protect access to contraception to woo female voters, couching policy debates in racial terms allows the party to speak directly to another important portion of its base: minorities.
African-Americans turn out in force for presidential elections but typically have significant drop-off in midterm years. But now, Democrats know they need the crucial bloc more than ever as they battle a difficult midterm climate and fear a GOP-led Senate would stymie the remaining two years of the country’s first black president’s second term.
Still, Democrats are in somewhat of a tough spot when it comes to turning out minorities, when one of their best figureheads for motivating that portion of the base — Obama — is paralyzed by low approval ratings.
Obama’s presence on the campaign trail in places where they’re trying to save Southern Democrats — particularly Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and candidate Michelle Nunn in Georgia — would hurt with independent and swing voters, even if it could energize the states’ sizable black populations.
Georgia-based Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson, who worked on the 2012 Obama campaign, said Democrats — especially those in the South — needed to talk about the issues that matter to minorities and be open about the country’s inequality.
“We can never be afraid to talk about the issue of race while we still have racism in this country every single day, as far as economics, inclusion and with our justice system,” said Johnson. “Landrieu, Nunn and others have to be bold and direct when it comes to issues like public education and the justice system and economic equality that deals with race when they’re having conversations with voters. They have to be willing to talk about it.”
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said strong minority turnout could be a game changer come November.
“I hope that Hispanics and minorities and women do turn out in the midterm — if they do, we may see an unexpected outcome,” said Shrum.
Still, many national Democrats insist the discussion of race isn’t resulting from some ulterior motive or concerted strategy to turn voters out.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said the party often discusses these issues in racial terms because it’s important for Democrats to point out Republican hypocrisy.
“The problem is, the message does matter, and the agenda matters, and they have fallen even further behind with an agenda, and actions that I think continue to poke these communities that they claim they want to reach out to in the eye,” he said.
“And so, yeah, we’re gonna call them out on that.”
Restrictive voting laws are another white hot issue that Democrats know are of particular concern to black voters. They frame the issue as a continuation of the movement that began half a century ago and punctuated by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed 50 years ago this month.
After the Supreme Court knocked down a core part of the Voting Rights Act last year, Democrats have also demanded a fix and loudly attacked GOP pushes on voter identification laws that they say are aimed at suppressing minority turnout.
The Democratic National Committee has also put an emphasis on its new Voter Expansion Project, a bid to educate voters and campaign staffers about the voting process to counteract the effects of the law. Both former President Clinton and Vice President Biden have leant a hand on those efforts, with Clinton saying, “There is no greater assault on our core values than the rampant efforts to restrict the right to vote” in a DNC video.
Republicans aren’t immune to claims of race-baiting themselves; Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) drew fire from Democrats this week after declaring that he didn’t think there was “anybody in Congress doing more for minority rights than I am right now.”
But Republicans say the approach from across the aisle has only contributed to the discord on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said it was “pretty much an established fact” that Democrats raise issues of race to turn out their voters to the polls.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate — it’s something, quite honestly, that a number of Democrats do, injecting the race card into conversations that have nothing to do with it. It is offensive,” he told The Hill.
Scott said the purely political ploy from Democrats was not a shock but still disappointing.
“It’s a political year — so am I surprised I’m hearing more conversations about race as a strategy? I’m not,” said the African-American Republican. “Unfortunately I’ve seen this play out before.”
Cameron Joseph contributed.