By Alexander Bolton - 01/23/14 09:26 AM EST
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ political guru, has a plan to poison the Tea Party by driving a wedge between its rich funders and its blue-collar rank and file.
Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most influential strategists, will argue in a major speech on Thursday that super-wealthy Tea Party donors have hijacked the grassroots movement that grew out of the economic anxiety of the 2008 financial collapse to suit their pro-big-business agenda.
"There is a glaring weakness, one very weak link in the Tea Party’s armor, which is an inherent contradiction within the Tea Party that, I believe can be exposed to greatly weaken their hold on the policy debate," Schumer will say, according to excerpts of his remarks.
"The fundamental weakness in the Tea Party machine is the stark difference between what the leaders of the Tea Party elite, plutocrats like the Koch Brothers want and what the average grassroots Tea Party follower wants," he will say.
Schumer will argue Democrats must defend popular government programs, such as extended unemployment benefits and student loan subsidies, to persuade Tea Party voters they could benefit from federal programs.
"The average Tea Party member, like the average American, likes government run Medicare, likes government built highways and water and sewer lines, likes government support for education, both higher and lower," he will say.
Schumer contends powerful Tea Party patrons, such as David H. Koch and Charles Koch, have directed the anger of many independent voters toward the government to ease federal regulation of their multibillion-dollar industries.
“Wealthy Tea Party leaders have convinced Tea Party rank and file and many other Americans that anti-government ideology is the answer to their problems — but many Tea Partiers and sympathizers support government programs — Democrats must exploit the difference,” Schumer’s office said in a statement announcing the speech.
Schumer also plans to touch on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that gave outside groups more leeway to spend on elections. He supports legislation that would force outside political groups to identify major donors.
Tea Party representatives scoffed at Schumer’s plans, saying they’d heard similar arguments for years.
“Liberals have been trying to claim the Tea Party is something other than what it is from the beginning,” said Sal Russo, co-founder and chief strategist of Tea Party Express, a major Tea Party political action committee. “We heard everything from Karl Rove’s orchestrating it to the Koch brothers are doing it or oil companies.”
Russo said the Tea Party is an indigenous grassroots reaction to “exactly what Chuck Schumer is,” and the movement resulted from “an oppressive intrusion into the people’s lives by the federal government, runaway spending and an unsustainable national debt.”
Schumer, however, thinks Tea Party leaders are at a vulnerable crossroads because their unifying ideology centered on the federal deficit has become outdated.
A nationwide poll by Quinnipiac University earlier this month showed 39 percent of respondents said the economy should be President Obama’s top priority, while 23 percent said it should be the federal budget deficit.
A CBS News poll from mid-November showed 31 percent of adults nationwide rated the economy and jobs as the most important problem facing the country, while only 7 percent pointed to the budget.
Democratic pollsters say a majority of Tea Party voters support increasing the minimum wage, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will address later this year.
“What the senator is getting at is, they’re very populist, and they are hard-pressed economically,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said of Tea Party voters. “So I think there is an interesting point right now where Democrats can lay out an economic agenda that really pressures the Tea Party leaders.”
Lake said Schumer and other Democratic leaders would be hard pressed to convince Tea Party voters to embrace big government, but they could push a populist economic agenda that resonates with them.
“A majority of Tea Partiers do support raising the minimum wage. They like to stand up for the little guy,” she said.
Democrats also believe a majority of Tea Party voters support extending unemployment benefits, which Senate Republicans blocked before Congress left town last week.
Schumer also wants state officials to mull switching to a “jungle primary” system similar to what was adopted in California, in which the two highest recipients of votes in a nonpartisan primary advance to the general election.
He believes this would reduce the influence of conservative ideologues in low-turnout races. The election of some hard-core conservatives has made it more difficult for Senate Democrats in Washington.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), for example, helped trigger the October government shutdown. He defeated former Sen. Bob Bennett, who had been more willing to cross the aisle, in a GOP contest
But the election of conservatives has also worked to the advantage of Senate Democrats by making it more difficult for Republicans to win Senate races.
Democrats will look to keep the pressure on after Schumer’s speech with a national press conference call on Friday focused on extending unemployment benefits.
And in another sign of better coordination between congressional Democrats and Obama’s team, Organizing for Action, a grassroots action group created to support the president’s agenda, has helped coordinate events around the country this week to pressure GOP lawmakers to support extended unemployment benefits.
Outside groups such as the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME and MomsRising have also participated in the coalition targeting GOP lawmakers. They helped organize events targeting Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on Wednesday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on Thursday and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) on Friday, according to Democratic aides briefed on their activities.
— This story was posted at 6 a.m. and updated at 9:26 a.m.