Jobs, economy to rule recess campaign trail

From financial reform to the federal budget and unemployment benefits, Congress' action, or lack thereof, over the past week will offer plenty of campaign fodder as members head back to their states for the July 4 recess.

The House passed a financial overhaul bill Thursday that was highlighted by additional regulations on financial firms and a new government oversight process to liquidate firms when necessary. Just three Republicans supported the bill — Reps. Joseph Cao (La.), Mike Castle (Del.) and Walter Jones (N.C.) — while 19 Democrats opposed it.

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The Senate is expected to take up the bill when Congress reconvenes in mid-July.

Democrats think the financial reform debate offers them an opportunity to lead with a strong economic message over the recess — the Democratic Congressional Committee has an all-out campaign offensive planned over GOP opposition to the reform bill and GOP opposition to the extension of unemployment benefits.

Democratic candidates will continue to hammer House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) comments on the reform from last week after he compared its provisions to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon."

In Wisconsin on Wednesday, President Barack Obama offered a preview of the message that will lead the campaign trail, singling out Boehner as "out of touch" with American families.

Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will hit the trail this week. Obama will headline a fundraiser for Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) on Thursday, and on Friday the president will be in Nevada to campaign for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Biden heads to California to headline two fundraisers for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D).

Also stumping for candidates over recess are House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has two campaign stops planned — one for prosecutor Ken Buck in Colorado and another for Rep. Jerry Moran (R) in Kansas.

Given the overall state of the economy, Democratic strategist Peter Fenn said the recess offers Democrats a much needed opportunity to drive the "Wall Street versus Main Street" message.

"I don't think Democrats have hit nearly hard enough at Republicans on this yet," said Fenn. "Republicans are making a bad error in judgment by holding up these reforms and Democrats really need to let them have it."

Republicans will opt to focus on the lack of a federal budget and the soaring deficit, and continue to hit the Democratic majority for pursuing a "big-government agenda" in Congress. GOP congressional candidates have a slew of events planned for recess week that aim to highlight the deficit and congressional spending.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is already on the air in two districts with the budget theme. The committee has an ad up slamming Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) over the lack of a federal budget. The spot has a one-week run on cable. A similar spot will begin running Tuesday against Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas).

"When it comes to financial reform, I really think Democrats have a great issue, and a lot of their advertising will be centered on it," said University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato. "But the Republicans have a trump card, too, and that's the overall economy."

While Democrats drive the "Wall Street versus Main Street" message, the fact that unemployment is still hovering near 10 percent is one thing Republican strategists think will take some teeth out of Democratic attacks.

Republican consultant Chris Wilson also thinks that candidates who head back to their state or district and focus on the Washington "process" will emerge from the recess as losers.

"Candidates need to be walking in parades and eating bad barbecue," said Wilson. "That's the sort of retail campaigning touch that gives Republicans an edge."

Along with jobs and the economy, Thursday also drove two more contentious issues into the recess campaign conversation — Obama made a major speech on immigration reform, and a vote on funding for the Afghan war revealed lingering fissures in the Democratic ranks. Both issues are potentially complicating for Democrats in 2010.

If the president's Thursday speech wasn't enough to force immigration into the campaign narrative, the administration is expected to officially file its lawsuit challenging Arizona's new immigration law during the recess week.

"You have members leaving Washington and heading back to their districts for the first time in a while," said one Democratic strategist. "And Republican or Democrat, I think they're going to feel that voter anger that's out there. So I'm not sure I would pack my schedule with town halls."