Salena Zito
As both political parties consider how to gain the fickle support of Tea Party activists and independent voters in the 2010 midterm elections, another increasingly dissatisfied tribe exists for both to lure: Hillary Democrats.

No other candidate has captured their frustration better than U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Democrat trying to take out one-time Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in the state’s May primary.

A campaign web-ad for Sestak shows real Democrats who voted for Obama, set in a stark black-and-white backdrop, voicing their collective dissatisfaction with the president’s support of Specter: “That's not change we can believe in."

It is exactly how prickly voters across the spectrum feel about this administration’s choices. Yet it is particularly telling when Democrats go in-your-face with it.

Last week a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey showed 59 percent of voters dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in this country, leaving just 40 percent satisfied. In a country basically split 50/50, you could wager that at least some dissatisfied Democrats are in that mix.

Sean Hannity FREE

Enter the Hillary voters – the ones everyone feared would not show up for the 2008 general election but who did.

When Clinton began her quest to become the Democrats’ nominee in 2008, she was the establishment, insider, elitist candidate. The presumptive nominee, if you will.

Obama was this annoying guy, bored after just one year with the constraints of the U.S. Senate and taking a long-shot at making history – the anti-establishment candidate.

He went to Iowa, went populist, earned the love of leftist activists at time-consuming caucuses who felt unrepresented by Washington élites, and won.

Hillary got her game back in New Hampshire with more skeptical independent-thinking voters but fell down in a string of caucus primaries. All of a sudden, Obama possessed the elite mantel, had the super-delegates (mostly Washington insiders and party élites) and the caucus voters (mostly proud intellectual, leftist activists).

In a stroke of pure political irony, Clinton switched gears and became the darling of populist Democrats: From February through June, she won nearly each successive primary and, eventually, the party’s popular vote.

When she made her exit on a stage in the National Building Museum in Washington, the emotion was so raw in the room (and in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana) that many pundits decided there was no way “her” Democrats would become “Obama” Democrats.

They did, sort of. With Hillary, they felt an emotional connection; with Obama, they felt connected to a movement, to history. This is probably why support from Democrats for his policies has waned.

Somewhere out there, some pundit will remark that Democrats peeling away from Obama is race related, an old excuse heaped upon anyone who balks at supporting him. It’s a ridiculous, too, considering that Obama the man remains in the high 60th percentile of approval within his party.

One of the problems with long, tough primaries, according to Republican strategist Brad Todd, is that your opponent's voters get vested in your demise: “If their anger against the other side is greater, you can overcome it. But it is something that has to be overcome.”

Obama is losing part of that “other side” – traditional "Jacksonian Democrats" whom Clinton brought back into the party after Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won them over to the Republican Party. So, if they remain unimpressed with Obama, where will they go?

Todd thinks the 2010 congressional elections will be a gas pedal-brake pedal election, and a problem for the president regarding Hillary Democrats: “The fundamental question is whether or not voters want to send him a Congress to let him go farther and faster … or send him a Congress that will slow him down.

“Given the fact that they had doubts about his preparedness to begin with, I'm betting they send him some supervision,” he predicts.

Todd says the relevant comparison to Republicans happened in Reagan’s successor’s re-election campaign; the George H.W. Bush-Pat Buchanan primary battle left Buchanan loyalists lining up with Ross Perot in the general election.

Back during the town-hall dog-days of August, political handicapper Charlie Cook shocked the Netroots Nation conference in Pittsburgh when he and 538’s Nate Silver gave dire predictions for the 2010 congressional midterms.

Those have only become more dire: Cook said last week that it is "very hard to come up with a scenario where Democrats don't lose the House."

Analysts can argue effectively that Democrats normally lose Republican and independent support in a midterm cycle.

Add to that the party losing traditional bread-and-butter Democrats, however, and you definitely have a “Houston, we have a problem” moment.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.