WASHINGTON -- Democrats and their campaign strategists have been underestimating the political power of tea- party activists ever since they packed into town halls in the summer of 2009 to protest Obamacare.
They were dismissed as thugs, extremists and racists -- people on the fringe of American politics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi compared some of them to Nazis. Democrats dismissed them as an embarrassment and predicted they would hurt the Republican Party, and they are still predicting that today.
Senior White House political adviser David Plouffe was dissing them in the past week, telling reporters that tea party-backed Senate candidates like Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada were boosting enthusiasm among Democrat voters and will have a "pronounced effect" -- particularly in 2012 -- on Democratic turnout.
Plouffe, Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager, who is now poorly advising the president on his midterm election strategy, thinks GOP Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell, Delaware's tea-party insurgent, is the best thing that could happen to the Democrats. "She was ... the icing on the cake in terms of this," Plouffe said of O'Donnell, who once admitted she "dabbled in witchcraft" in her youth and recently ran a campaign ad that proclaimed, "I am not a witch." O'Donnell has her problems and has been running well behind her Democratic opponent, but she is not going to be a factor in next month's nationwide midterm elections, no matter how hard Plouffe wishes it so. The Democrats have much deeper troubles of their own.
What Plouffe and most of the nightly news talking heads refuse to recognize is that the major tea party-supported Senate nominees are running ahead of their Democrat rivals, often by double digits.
In Nevada, Angle -- who Democrats and their friends in the media said would hurt the GOP's chances of knocking off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- has led narrowly in each of the past four weekly Fox News polls. She raked in a near-record $14.2 million in campaign contributions in the last three months. Rand Paul -- who was dismissed early on by the Beltway liberal-pundit set as too conservative -- is leading by 10 points in a campaign that was fueled by novice tea-party activists from the beginning. Their energy and enthusiasm can be seen working in Senate races across the country where the GOP is leading, often by comfortable margins: in Florida, Colorado, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Utah, Kansas, North Dakota, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and elsewhere. Can the GOP take control of the Senate? It's increasingly possible they might, depending on two unlikely tossups in California and Washington state, where incumbent Democrats Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray are on the ropes.
The same phenomenon is occurring in the bare-knuckle battle for the House, where projections show the GOP ousting the Democrats from power. A turnover of 39 seats is needed to put Republicans back in the majority, and current forecasts show the GOP in line for a net gain of at least 40 seats or more.
"At this point, only 198 House seats are Solid, Likely, or Lean Democratic, while 197 seats are Solid, Likely or Lean Republican, and 40 seats are in the Toss Up column," says the Cook Political Report, which closely tracks all 435 congressional elections.
This is shaping up to be a wave election of historic proportions, possibly at a tsunami level -- driven by intense Republican voter turnout in record numbers and disappointed, dispirited Democrats who are failing to cast their ballots.
Plouffe and the Democrats don't like to talk about it, but they saw the handwriting on the wall in the party primaries, where the tea party-fueled energy sent GOP primary turnout off the charts, while Democratic participation plunged to its lowest level on record.
That's what Curtis Gans, the veteran voter-turnout expert who directs American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate, reported last week.
"In another sign that the Democratic Party is in deep trouble in the 2010 midterm elections, the average Republican vote for statewide offices (U.S. Senate and governor) in the primaries held through Aug. 28 exceeded the Democratic vote, the first time this has happened in midterm primaries since 1930," Gans said.
"Republican turnout in their statewide primaries exceeded Democratic turnout in theirs by more than four million votes. The average percentage of eligible citizens who voted in Democratic primaries was the lowest ever. The average percentage of citizens who voted in the GOP statewide primaries was the highest since 1970," he said.
The huge enthusiasm gap that is driving the Republican vote and depressing Democratic turnout is not only going to grow larger in the weeks remaining before the Nov. 2 elections but also in the 2012 election, too. "All indications are that this situation will get worse if it ever gets better," Gans says.
"All of which is to suggest that the odds favor the GOP in both 2010 and 2012, if they are careful," he concludes.