Dems' 2010 Strategy to Win

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jan 10, 2010 12:01 AM
Dems' 2010 Strategy to Win

And another one bites the dust. At least that’s what it must have felt like to Beltway Democrats in one 15-hour period last week.

In a series of leaks and press releases, a domino of Democrats announced they were dropping out of races or retiring: Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota retired, as did Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter; John Cherry, Michigan’s lieutenant governor also ended his gubernatorial bid.

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You’d think that would mean Democrats are in for a whole lot of hurt in a midterm election year, which are all about candidate retention, recruitment and defections.

So far this year Democrats have suffered one defection, some surprising retirements and a deficit in the recruitment department.

Typically, any combination of these becomes toxic for a political brand.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the 2010 death of the Democratic Party are greatly exaggerated,” says Phil Singer, a Democratic political consultant and former spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 midterm coup.

The loss of Dodd may be a plus for Dems. “Richard Blumenthal, the likely Democratic nominee, is pretty popular in Connecticut,” says Purdue University’s Bert Rockman.

And, to be honest, the Republican brand isn’t that swell either.

Still, Rockman warns, Democrats probably will lose more than anyone initially thought in the 2010 midterms.

As conventional wisdom points to losses in the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and governors’ mansions, what can Democrats do to stop the political bleed?

Says a Democratic insider who was intimately part of the 2006 and 2008 national gains for his party: “I think the overarching message needs to be populist in nature and reaffirm to voters experiencing the greatest economic anxiety (that) ‘We hear you, and we aren't going to let corporate America” – such as big banks or credit-card companies – “exploit consumers after we just bailed them out.’ ”

In other words, the message can't be "anti-rich" but should focus on bad actors and outrageous behavior, forcing Republicans to defend the indefensible.

“More importantly, I think we fight for a few very specific items that the Republicans attempt to obstruct, so that these can be used as rallying cries for the fall elections,” the strategist says.

Many Dems and independents do not think President Barack Obama has core convictions that he will go down defending, win or lose.

This is a huge problem because he ran as an outsider who was going to change Washington – yet he appears to be embracing policies and procedures that were denounced under President George W. Bush.

Rockman says Democrats must look beyond issues that fire up the base, or they will fail to reel in independents.

Identifying specific items that are priorities will appeal to independents who feel the greatest anxiety. These are the same individuals who some people call “tea-baggers” but who, in reality, just want to see results and, for now, are anti-incumbent.

They’re the same voters who tossed Republicans out in 2006 and 2008 – and will do it again, this time with Democrats.

Democrats are quickly going into the fetal position and, if they don't stick together, they’ll be picked apart. This is particularly true in marginal House districts; if those members are forced to defend votes in isolation, rather than part of an overall narrative, they will be in real trouble.

In the end, all races hinge on who shows up to vote. The Dems won in ’08 by getting large turnouts from their Obama base and a huge proportion of the votes of young people and people of color.

Will they show up again in ’10? Don’t bet on it.

Nothing motivates people like being in opposition, whereas those doing the governing must demonstrate to their supporters why half a loaf (or even a quarter) is worth having, why politics is “the art of the possible.”

Unfortunately, that isn’t a great slogan for mobilizing people, especially young people who think they voted for Mr. Change – and all Mr. Change must do is snap his fingers and change occurs.

Many of the formerly enthused are not so convinced that the current health-care reforms are the stuff of their dreams, or that cap-and-trade is an adequate substitute for a carbon tax, or that we are engaged in fewer wars than under Bush.

Keep in mind that voters aren’t particularly ideological, Rockman says, “except at the upper stratum of political knowledge and attentiveness. But when things aren’t going well, they do tend to throw the bums out – and in a two-party system, replace them with another set of bums.”