By Shane D’Aprile and Bob Cusack - 09/08/10 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats desperate to convince their base to show up at the polls in November have begun talking less about issues and more about the possibility of a “Tea Party Congress” next year.
The passage of landmark bills such as healthcare and financial regulatory reform has not triggered as much grassroots enthusiasm as initially envisioned, Democratic strategists say. And while the right is engaged this cycle, the left is deflated.
So Democrats have turned to a strategy that may be their next best bet: demonization of the “insurgent” Tea Party.
“These are not your run-of-the-mill Republicans we’re talking about here,” said one Democratic organizer working in a state with a contested Senate race this fall. “When you actually start telling voters what these candidates are about, it scares the hell out of them.”
In the past several weeks, when Democratic activists cite the ramifications of a “Tea Party Congress,” they say, more volunteers have signed up to knock on doors to preserve a Democratic-led House and Senate.
President Obama does not fire up the left as much as he did in 2008, and polls indicate independents are turning on him.
A recent Gallup survey shows that Republicans are far more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats, leading by a 50 percent to 25 percent count.
Many liberals have expressed frustration with the White House on issues ranging from the war in Afghanistan to the military prison in Guantanamo Bay — which Obama pledged to close by last January — to the lack of a public option in healthcare reform.
Uniting the party, and making sure their voters don’t stay home this fall, has become the No. 1 issue for the Democratic Party.
“The argument that we’ve made is that the Republican Party has been taken over by the Tea Party,” Democratic National Committee (DNC) spokeswoman Hari Sevugan said. “It not only energizes Democrats, but it’s the fundamental choice that independents and moderates face in the fall, too.”
Some in Democratic circles are unsure whether they can convince voters that this election is a choice instead of a referendum on Obama and the Democratic Congress. Still, there is a consensus that it’s the best game plan they have.
While then-President George W. Bush was an effective bogeyman for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, blaming him now for the nation’s economic woes has not resonated nearly as much.
University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato pointed the finger at “the failure of the Obama economic agenda” for depressing the Democratic base, but is skeptical that shifting away from issues on the campaign trail will solve the party’s turnout dilemma.
“I’m not sure trotting out a bunch of devil figures — the Tea Party congressional nominees, George Bush, [former Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin, etc., is going to make much difference. Democrats know Obama is in power for at least two more years and can stymie a GOP Congress,” Sabato said. “But in the absence of good news on the economy, it’s worth a try to point out to Democrats who’ll be running things at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue if Democrats don’t show up to vote.”
Many Democrats, including Obama, predicted six months ago that voters would embrace the healthcare reform law when they learned more about it.
But polls show that the public is deeply divided on it. And it’s not moving many people off their couches, according to Democrats at the state and local level.
Financial reform, and other items enacted in the 111th Congress, are likewise not lighting a fire under the Democratic base.
What is working, turnout specialists say, is talking about the “insurgent” Tea Party and how the “rising red” movement could affect the agenda in Washington in 2011.
The success of Tea Party candidates in primaries, especially candidates backed by Palin, has given Democratic operatives a key talking point. These officials have also used the Aug. 28 rally in Washington, D.C., led by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, as a volunteer recruitment tool.
Malchow said that Tea Party-backed candidates who are further to the right than centrist and independent voters will, in the end, help the Democrats’ cause: “That’s a major motivating factor for Democrats, but I think it also depends on where you are.”
In Nevada, with a Republican nominee for Senate like Sharron Angle, Malchow said, it’s likely to be more of a motivator for Democrats than in a state like Illinois, where the party has nominated a more centrist Senate candidate in Rep. Mark Kirk.
“Base voters understand what’s at stake in this election,” said the DNC’s Sevugan. “The message that’s resonating is, do we continue to move forward or do we allow the Republicans to take us back? A slate of Republican candidates who hold very extreme positions make that choice crystal clear.”
Earlier this summer, Democrats launched an effort to cast the Republican Party and the Tea Party as one and the same.
“You don’t know where the Republican Party ends and the Tea Party begins, and they have to own that,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in July.
In an interview on MSNBC late last month, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said he expects voters to wake up to what Tea Party-backed candidates are actually running on before November.
“I think we’ve got some folk — Tea Party folk, Republicans — who are out of sync with the average American. And most Americans are in the middle,” said Cummings.
That’s a much sharper tone than Democrats were employing six months ago. In late February, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) went so far as to say that she and Tea Partiers share some of the same views. Since then, however, Democrats have identified the Tea Party as their clear adversary.
For example, Vice President Joe Biden lashed out at the “Republican Tea Party” a couple of weeks ago, predicting Democrats will retain control of both houses of Congress.
“It’s a race between Democrats and the Republican Tea Party,” Biden said.