Dems running scared — even when they shouldn’t be

The cascade of worsening polls, more districts in play, unprecedented outside money pouring into battlegrounds to widen the GOP's margin of victory on Nov. 2 — the midterm campaign of 2010 grows worse for the party in power by the day. Embattled Democrats are running scared, and even running their own ads against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) “energy tax,” with scripts they could have borrowed from Republicans.

Vulnerable incumbents aren't taking credit for their votes on the stimulus package, the healthcare reform law or even financial services regulation. There is instead much talk about Christine O'Donnell, the Chamber of Commerce potentially mixing foreign money with political donations, the dangers of the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Karl Rove's secret fundraising.

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But why are Democrats running from the tax-cut debate? On this potent issue the voters are on their side, according to The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll, which found that voters in 10 battleground districts strongly favor extending the tax cuts only to those making less than $250,000 a year.

Fearing they would be blamed for a vote in favor of new taxes, Democrats adjourned Congress and left town last month without voting to sunset the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest earners. All the tax cuts are set to expire Dec. 31, 2010, and Democratic leaders said they would extend tax relief for those earning less than $250,000 per year when they return to Washington for a lame-duck session in mid-November. We haven't heard much more about the tax cuts since.

The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll, conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, sampled likely voters in competitive districts with open seats in Tennessee, Hawaii, Illinois, Arkansas, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Washington state and West Virginia. The survey found 63 percent of likely voters said they supported an extension of tax cuts for those making less than $250,000, which was more than double the percentage of people opposed. Among the respondents, Democrats supported the “middle-class tax cuts” by 65 percent, Republicans supported them by 64 percent and independents supported them by 63 percent. The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll’s findings on tax cuts are similar to responses in other polls conducted in August and September on the tax-cut issue and show that voters aren't responding to the GOP argument that small businesses, and therefore the economy, would be hit hard by increased taxes on the wealthy.

Unlike congressional Democrats who are attempting to localize their races, President Obama — who is campaigning for Democrats across the country in the final weeks — is busy nationalizing the election. He should be highlighting the differences between the parties on tax cuts. After all, ending the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 was a promise he made during his presidential campaign, and one he has insisted he is keeping in order to reduce the deficit. Instead of talking about all of the spending outside groups are doing with secret money, Obama should talk about why he thinks America can't afford to spend $700,000 on tax cuts for the wealthy, since it turns out a majority of likely voters agree with him. Voters will pay far more attention to a message about their money or deficit reduction than they will to Obama's latest message about money in politics.

Much of the findings from The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll spells bad news for Democrats. They are losing in 19 of 22 battleground districts and face a substantial voter-enthusiasm gap unlikely to change by Election Day. In addition, the poll finds that opinion of President Obama will play a significant role for likely voters who view him negatively.

But on tax cuts, Democrats appear to have found consensus with most likely voters. You would never know it from their messaging.

Stoddard is an associate editor at The Hill.