Senate Democrats struggle to define a message that can save their majority


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), flanked by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), left, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), discuss the Democratic legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Democrats are going into the 2014 midterm elections with their control of the Senate greatly imperiled and with the prospect of an Obama presidency completely hobbled in its final two years.

In response, the president and his party are struggling to come up with a broad economic message that can rebut, or at least deflect, the continued GOP assaults on the president and his health-care law.

Thus far, what they have produced is a smaller, more targeted approach — one that seeks to gin up the enthusiasm that has been lacking in key parts of their base, but that strategy is a gamble because it targets many voters who historically spurn midterm elections.

Senate Democrats’ latest effort in that regard is a 10-point plan for legislation they intend to bring to the floor over the spring and summer.

The issues are familiar ones for Democrats, and poll well among Americans generally.

Inside the 36 Senate contests of 2014

Yet they are top priorities to narrower slices of the Democrats’ constituency — particularly those who showed up to vote for President Obama in 2012, but who do not have a history or voting in off-year contests.

The first items up for Senate debate will be increasing the minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, and a bill to ensure paycheck equity between male and female workers.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that those are measures that would have their greatest impact on young people, unmarried women, Latinos and African Americans — all of whom can be difficult to turn out in years when there is no presidential election.

“This doesn’t replace a broader economic message. In the long run, we have to do that. But in the short run, this is very helpful,” said Lake, who has warned that the Democrats face a large turnout disadvantage in a year when Republican voters appear to be more motivated.

GOP pollster Neil Newhouse said the Senate Democrats’ targeted strategy echoes that of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, in which he emphasized a number of “niche group” issues such as the Dream Act, mandatory contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, student-loan expansion and support for same-sex marriage.

“This is all about turnout. They’re not doing this to win swing voters,” Newhouse said. “They’ve got to do this. Otherwise, they’re totally doomed.”

Although endangered Democrats support the measures, they also appear skeptical that those issues will be the ones that carry the day in their home states, many of which lean Republican.

“Raising the minimum wage, I think, is the right thing; it’s an important thing to do,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is battling for reelection. “But the real goal should be to create thousands of jobs in Louisiana that pay between $50,000 and $100,000.”

Indeed, she said that she plans to be more focused on her support for policies that put her at odds with some in her party, such as increased domestic drilling and energy production.

“I’m not going to spend all my time talking just about the minimum wage,” Landrieu said, “because as chair of the energy committee, I want to focus on creating more jobs that pay 60, 70, 80, 100 thousand dollars a year.”

Her views are shared by other vulnerable Democrats in conservative states, such as Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), who is publicly opposed to his party’s minimum-wage proposal, and Mark Begich (Alaska), who has joined Landrieu in pushing for more drilling.

Among the other measures the Democrats have promised: a proposal to make college more affordable, to make it more difficult to cut Medicare benefits or boost the eligibility age, to discourage businesses from moving operations overseas, to lower the cost of child care, and to put more money into infrastructure.

None of the Senate Democrats’ proposals stands much of a chance of becoming law this year because they are unlikely to get through the Republican House. Instead, they are aimed at defining the message, and their consideration on the Senate floor is expected to be coordinated with campaign swings by Obama.

Republicans mocked the new legislative agenda that Democrats are calling “A Fair Shot for Everyone.”

“When they release a poll-tested, campaign-crafted Obamacare distraction ‘agenda’ packed to the brim with lefty show votes — I think middle-class families can tell whose side Washington Democrats are really on. And it’s not theirs,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a speech Thursday on the Senate floor.

“I mean, how will show votes help our constituents?” McConnell added. “How will they help the people who’ve been writing to me about the impact of Obamacare on them and their families?”

Democrats saythat they are making a larger point, reinforcing the public perception that their party is more in tune with the concerns of average Americans.

“If they think that college affordability just applies to Democratic base, or jobs going overseas applies just to Democratic base — every one of these has a large amount of support among Republicans,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the leadership strategist who worked with campaign operatives to craft the agenda.

But Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who advises a number of Senate candidates, said that the direction of the economy and the president’s popularity are likely to be the biggest factors in the election’s outcome.

Trying to craft a message that can surmount those larger forces “is not easy. You do the best you can,” Mellman said. “This is one of the tools that’s available.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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