Some Democrats question strategy of going after Chamber donations

Some Democrats are beginning to question the party's shifting strategies in the closing weeks of the campaign, particularly its recent focus on groups who are spending millions on behalf of Republicans.

These veteran party strategists are raising doubts as to whether the attacks on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the group American Crossroads and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will translate into crucial votes for Democrats come Nov. 2.

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"I think attacking the outside money, and specifically attacking the Chamber, is of very limited value to the White House," said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who once headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). "I don't think it makes much difference in the election."

Democratic officials have increased their fire power on these groups, claiming they use foreign contributions for campaign ads — an allegation the groups strongly deny — and asking them to release the names of their donors.

The effort is mainly pioneered by the White House and its political organization within the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

One Democratic strategist, speaking on background so as not to anger the White House, said of attacking the Chamber: "That dog won't hunt."

"In a different election year, this narrative and this messaging could work," the strategist said. "This is not that election year.

"If the economy is the focus of the electorate, that's where your message focus should be. I cannot convince the electorate that it's sunny outside when it's raining. So you've got to speak to their reality."

But the foreign money lines of attack are all intended to be part of an overarching message about jobs and the economy, said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the DNC.

"This discussion is not divorced at all from the economy; in fact, it's absolutely relevant to it," he said.

The focus on the spending by outside groups follows a sustained effort to tar Boehner, the would-be Speaker if the GOP wins control of the House, as an ally of corporations who favor a return to some of the unpopular economic policies of the Bush administration. The Democrats argue these Bush-era policies led to the country’s economic troubles.

Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who has advocated an overarching economic message from the White House, said the new message is exactly what the party needs to turn out an unenthused base.

"It's campaign time, baby," Simmons said. "The die is cast. There's nothing that you can do between now and Election Day. What you can do is motivate your base to turn out. And talking about this big moneyed interest coming into buy the election really animates Democratic constituencies."

Simmons noted a larger economic message would have allowed Obama and the Democrats to be targeting independent voters at this stage of the game. But he argues the attacks on the Chamber can appeal to liberal Democrats and the surge voters from 2008 the White House is desperately trying to turn out this November.

"The playing field would be wider," Simmons said. "But, being where we are, you appeal to the people that you think will be responsive."

Frost, who led House Democrats' congressional campaign efforts in 1996 and 1998, questioned whether those attacks were really effective on a race-by-race basis.

"I know a little bit about congressional races," he said. "I wouldn't say it's frustration, but I just don't think they're focusing on things that will move voters."

The national party's increased attacks on the Chamber could also put the few conservative Democrats who have won the business group's backing in a tough spot.

Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.) is "incredibly proud of the Chamber endorsement," according to spokeswoman Leah Nelson. But Nye is "trying to stay out of the partisan fight" that has pitted his party against the Chamber and other groups, she said.

Instead of focusing on Boehner or the Chamber, Frost advised, the White House and DNC might be better served by focusing on bread-and-butter issues like jobs and Social Security that play to the older, more established voters who tend to participate in midterm elections.

"If I were still in charge of the DCCC, I'd be telling my candidates to eat that issue [Social Security] for breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said. "Spending a lot of time on college campuses is not particularly helpful at this point."

But Democrats are convinced their line of attack is working, pointing to a recent Bloomberg poll that showed "47 percent of respondents said that knowing a campaign was aided by advertising paid for by anonymous business groups would make them less likely to vote for that candidate, compared to 9 percent who said it would make them more likely to vote for that candidate."

"That’s because the American people want — and deserve — to know who is bankrolling the people they are being asked to vote for so they know if those candidates will be fighting for corporate special interests or middle class families when they get to Congress," said an official at the DNC.