Why House Democrats are campaigning against the tea party

October 3, 2012

In politics, everyone seems to be searching for a bogeyman – an object of fear and blame for the woes of a district, a state, or the country. For House Republicans trying to win back the majority in 2010, it was then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). For House Democrats trying to accomplish the same feat this cycle, it’s the tea party.


(Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

It may seem an odd choice, since the movement’s influence has faded since the 2010 midterm elections. Why are Democrats focused on a diminished movement and not, say, a current Republican figure? Two reasons appear plausible. One, the tea party is not popular. Secondly, there simply aren’t many other broad targets. 

Let’s start with the first explanation. The tea party’s popularity has taken a hit since 2010. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, just 32 percent of voters said they had a favorable view of the tea party, while 46 percent said they had an unfavorable view of the movement. The latest favorable rating is a new low point since polls on the issue started in early 2010.

Just 23 percent of adults said they consider themselves supporters of the movement, while 63 percent said they do not consider themselves supporters, according to an AP-Gfk poll released last month.

The tea party's unpopularity means it’s also harder to find evidence of widespread tea party enthusiasm driving many congressional races. Unlike in 2010, where many more candidates were embracing the label, it’s not been as big a factor across the 2012 landscape. Yet House Democrats have zeroed in on it as a talking point during the stretch run of the campaign.

“For more than 20 months, this Republican tea party majority has put millionaires and special interests ahead of Medicare for seniors and jobs for the middle class,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) wrote in a Sunday Politico op-ed. Israel held a news conference with top recruits last month, where he encouraged voters to “fire” the tea party Congress.

Republicans counter that it’s an out-of-date attack that isn't likely to register with voters the way Democrats hope it will. “Like most of what comes out of Steve Israel’s mouth, it is a pathetically hyperbolic charge that is well past its expiration date,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Paul Lindsay.

Outdated or not, when it comes to the search for a punching bag, there are not many other feasible options for Democrats. That’s the second plausible explanation for their attack pattern.

Republicans routinely attacked Democratic House incumbents in 2010 by tying them to Pelosi. But current Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) hasn’t been the target of many Democratic attacks. Boehner isn't the polarizing figure Pelosi was in the 2010 midterms, nor is he as well-known.

What about Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (Wis.)? His proposal to revamp Medicare as a voucher system for Americans currently 55 and under has been the subject of repeated Democratic attack ads. But going after Ryan personally doesn’t appear to be a fruitful proposition, as polling shows voters in key swing states view him positively.

And Mitt Romney? Congressional Democrats have used Romney in attacks on a targeted basis. But even as he has struggled lately in the presidential race against Obama, he’s not an overwhelmingly unpopular national figure.

Republicans' control of the House majority appears to be safe as the campaign season heads down the homestretch. But Democrats haven't given up hope yet. And they're hoping a broad attack pattern can boost their chances  -- even if the attack doesn't center on any one figure. 

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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