Labor official warns of 'populism being hijacked by right'

A top labor official expressed concerns Wednesday over “a danger of populism being hijacked by the right,” as prominent Republicans work to revamp the GOP's image by pushing policies to help the middle class and the poor.

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But AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer said he believes Republicans’ “record belies their rhetoric” on those issues, and that the efforts “are not going to be that successful.”

“I would completely agree that there’s a danger of populism being hijacked by the right,” he told reporters during a briefing at the union’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Many of the GOP’s top potential presidential contenders have come out in recent months with proposals geared specifically toward addressing poverty and urban economic and social issues. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has made eliminating sentencing disparities that disproportionately affect minorities a pet issue, while Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently launched a push to address poverty that centers around reining in government regulations.

But Podhorzer called the broader effort from the GOP “rehashed versions of this compassionate conservatism.”

“And my hunch is that that’s not going to be that successful,” he added. “I think that they recognize that these proposals are efforts to deal with the polling that shows them as being  out of touch with working people and feeling uncompassionate towards the poor, but I’m not sure that putting out a couple of policies in Washington is going to change their brand.”

Podhorzer framed that debate — over which party is seen as more supportive of the middle class — as one of Democrats’ major advantages heading into the midterms. He said while it’s clearly “a challenge” for Democrats to retain their fragile six-seat majority in the Senate, it’s “not insurmountable.”

He warned, however, that a lack of message unity is hobbling Democrats heading into the midterms.

“There are just a cacophony of issues out there and a lot of uncertainty among the electorate about what this election is about, and I think that’s translating into a marked lack of enthusiasm especially among working-class voters,” Podhorzer said.

Democrats need to focus on “a progressive populist message,” he said, which includes a focus on raising the minimum wage, tackling student loan debt, reinforcing retirement security and infrastructure investment. Such a focus could unify the party’s base — but it hasn’t happened yet.

“A lot of campaigns have not gelled into a clarification of that, and have been about individual issues and personalities and the like,” Podhorzer said.

He held up Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), both facing nominal Republican challengers, and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), initially considered one of Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents but one who has held his own in polling for much of the cycle, as examples of candidates who have been pushing that message well.

And he said he sees the labor movement as a strong force this cycle, with the AFL-CIO planning to focus its efforts on Senate races in Alaska; Colorado, where Sen. Mark Udall (D) is locked in a tough contest with GOP Rep. Cory Gardner; Michigan, where Democratic Rep. Gary Peters is fighting Republican Terri Lynn Land to retain the open seat; and Iowa, where Rep. Bruce Braley (D) is battling Republican Joni Ernst in a fight that’s been tougher for Democrats than expected due to Braley’s repeated missteps.