Democrats throw kitchen sink at Republicans ahead of midterms

Democrats are throwing the kitchen sink at Republicans in a bid to keep the Senate and erode the GOP’s House majority in November’s elections.

While the Democrats’ official campaign strategy focuses wholly on the economy, education and women’s rights, party leaders have charged into the August recess with a much broader message that paints Republicans as too tough on immigrants, too easy on corporate election donors and too focused on toppling President Obama in lieu of helping the middle class.

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The wider emphasis could pay dividends in November’s midterms, as the Democrats are highlighting issues that tend to poll strongly in their favor. But the strategy is not without its perils, as calling attention to a spectrum of topics also risks muddling their message ahead of the elections.

“There is always a danger of throwing too many issues at the voters,” said Julian Zelizer, political historian at Princeton University. “If everything is a problem, it is hard for the voter to see how realistically the Democrats will resolve all of this — especially in an era of political gridlock.”

Democratic campaign operatives are quick to defend the sweep of their message, arguing that each of the issues they’re highlighting — from the minimum wage to immigration to campaign finance to the perceived threat of impeaching Obama — reveals the Democrats to be the only party fighting to boost the middle class.

“Democrats are intensely focused on drawing the contrast between Republicans who have the backs of special interests and the Tea Party, and Democrats who have the backs of middle class families,” said Josh Schwerin, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Republican strategists have a decidedly different theory. They say the across-the-board approach is a sign of Democratic desperation — that party leaders are floating an array of topics because they lack a cogent message that resonates with voters. 

GOP leaders are running largely on the theme of opposing all-things Obama — a strategy punctuated by their recent push to sue the president over what they consider his habitual abuse of executive power. 

“Democrats are desperately throwing spaghetti at the wall hoping something will finally stick, while Republicans have a very clear and consistent message about the need to provide an appropriate check and balance on this administration,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Tuesday in an email.

Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said a focus on the middle class will be crucial for both parties leading up to November. The trick for Democrats will be to tie the many elements of their message to that singular motif, she said, while the test for Republicans will be taking advantage of Obama’s low approval ratings without being seen to lack a positive message of their own.

Central to the Democrats’ campaign message is their “Middle Class Jumpstart” agenda — a package, unveiled last month, that includes specific proposals to expand education opportunities, empower women in the workplace and promote domestic job creation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) distributed a memo to her caucus last week laying out a strategy for promoting that trifecta over the August recess. She mentioned no other topics. 

Still, many Democrats appear eager to expand their message during the five-week break. 

On immigration, they’re heading into the recess attacking Republicans for what they consider an inhumane approach to the child migrant crisis at the border. Addressing campaign finance, they’re warning that political spending by the conservative Koch brothers is a direct threat to the country’s democratic foundations. On the economy, they’re highlighting the GOP’s opposition to an extension of emergency unemployment benefits. And on politics, they’re warning that the Republican effort to sue Obama is the first step toward impeachment proceedings — a message that’s been a recent boon to the DCCC’s fundraising haul.

The list of topics has grown to such an extent that some party leaders even appear confused about what their official marching orders are heading into August. 

“We can check, but my understanding is that we are talking [about] immigration,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), head of the House Democratic Caucus, said last week of the “Jumpstart” agenda, which includes no immigration component.

Princeton’s Zelizer said the challenge for the Democrats is to combine the various issues into easily digestible themes, as the minority Republicans did in 1994 in portraying “a broken Washington” run by Democrats; and the minority Democrats did in 2006 by running against then-President George W. Bush.

They have a tough road ahead. Senate Democrats are fighting to maintain control in the face of a growing threat that Republicans could net the six seats they need to win the majority. Across the Capitol, House Democrats would need to pick up 17 seats to retake the Speaker’s gavel — a scenario viewed as highly unlikely in an off-year election under an unpopular, lame-duck president.

The Democrats don’t appear deterred. Instead, they’re banking that voters will respond to their emphasis on the middle class — and that the country’s political prognosticators are wrong about their November predictions.

“If Republicans think talking about economic issues that middle class families care about is desperation,” said the DCCC’s Schwerin, “it might be time for another autopsy.”

Democratic messaging in 2014

  • January and February: The year starts with a focus on the economy, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and the Democrats host a series of briefings and events highlighting the GOP’s opposition to a hike in the minimum wage and an extension of emergency unemployment benefits.

    • Feb. 26: The Democrats launch a discharge petition on the minimum wage increase. 
    • March 11: House Republicans win a seat in a Florida special election that hinged largely on Obama-Care. Democratic leaders double down in support of the law, saying it will be no liability at the polls in November. 
    • March 26: The Democrats unveil a discharge petition on comprehensive immigration reform.
    • April 1: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) unveils his 2015 budget proposal. Democrats howl that it’s an attack on seniors and the middle class.
    • April 2: The Supreme Court strikes down a decades-old cap on campaign donations by an individual. Pelosi calls it “an existential threat” to the nation’s democracy, and Democrats highlight their campaign finance reform legislation.
    • April 30: Senate Republicans block the Democrats’ effort to hike the minimum wage.
    • June 27: The Democrats use the one-year anniversary of the Senate passing its immigration reform bill to spotlight Republicans’ refusal to consider the issue on the floor.
    • June 30: The Supreme Court announces its Hobby Lobby decision, finding that the birth control mandate under President Obama’s healthcare reform law is a violation of religious freedom. Democrats respond by accusing conservatives of encroaching on women’s reproductive health decisions. They quickly unveil legislation to overturn the SCOTUS decision. 
    • July 16: Pelosi and the Democrats unveil their “Middle Class Jumpstart” campaign, outlining their 100-day agenda if they take the House. The package focuses on women’s empowerment, education issues and the economy, including efforts to hike the minimum wage and increase infrastructure spending.
    • July 24: Decrying “corporate deserters,” Obama calls for changes in the tax code to prevent businesses from reorganizing their operations in lower-tax places abroad. “I don’t care if it’s legal — it’s wrong,” Obama says.
    • July 30: House Republicans pass legislation authorizing the lower chamber to sue Obama for what the GOP considers abuses of executive power. Democratic leaders warn that the move is just the first step toward an impeachment effort. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launches a fundraising drive that proves the most successful of the cycle. 
    • Aug. 1: House Republicans pass their $694 million package to address the migrant crisis at the southern border — a measure going nowhere in the face of Democratic opposition in the White House and Senate. Democrats blast the effort as caving to the Tea Party at the expense of the migrant children.