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The Sunday Take

Sunday Take: Democrats Face Threats From 3 Directions

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich says voters are unhappy with Democrats but don't trust the GOP.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich says voters are unhappy with Democrats but don't trust the GOP. (By Steven Senne -- Associated Press)
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By Dan Balz
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three forces threaten Democrats in the 2010 elections: populist anger on the right, disaffection in the middle and potential disillusionment on the left.

Little more than a year out, the political landscape for the coming midterm elections looks decidedly more favorable for Republicans than in either of the past two elections -- hardly a surprise, given the shellacking they took in 2006 and 2008. Whether their expectations for 2010 are met or exceeded, however, depends on the confluence of the political forces that have been building since President Obama's inauguration.

Today, Republicans expect gains across the board. As GOP pollster Neil Newhouse put it, "In the last two election cycles, our candidates have been campaigning into the wind. Assessing the political environment right now, it sure looks like we're going to have a nice little breeze at our back."

But strategists aren't certain whether that breeze will turn into a political gale. Whatever problems Obama and the Democrats are having, Republicans aren't wildly popular, either. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped engineer the 1994 GOP victory, offered an astute analysis when asked to compare the climate today with conditions heading into 1994.

"People are more frightened than they were in '93 and '94 -- both by the radicalism of the administration and by the economy," Gingrich said. But he added: "They're more skeptical of Republicans than they were in '93 and '94. The aftereffect of '06 and '08 is there's not a rush to Republicans."

The most demonstrable political uprising of the past few months has been the populist anger seen at town hall meetings during the August congressional recess and expressed through conservative talk radio, television and blogs.

For Republicans, this energy has been a welcome pick-me-up after the demoralization that set in during the last two years of President George W. Bush's administration. One likely effect of it will be to boost conservative turnout and produce an electorate potentially quite different than that of 2008.

There are aspects of this movement that could dampen the potential benefits for Republicans. One is the Perot-like quality to some protests, which is to say that some of the anger among these Americans is aimed at both parties and at Washington, rather than just at Obama. Republicans were skillful in 1993-94 in catering to the Perot voters. But Republican leaders today cannot automatically count on all the angry populists for enthusiastic support.

Some of the loudest voices on the right are virulently anti-Obama and see the world in starkly different terms than much of the rest of the electorate. The Democracy Corps, a liberal organization headed by Democrats Stan Greenberg and James Carville, sponsored focus groups among very conservative Republicans and concluded: "The Republican base voters are not part of the continuum leading to the center of the electorate; they truly stand apart."

Republican leaders might discount any conclusions that come from such partisans as Greenberg and Carville. But there is no doubt that a small portion of the electorate sees Obama in the most extreme terms. Channeling the anger on the right in a way that doesn't turn off voters in the center will be one of the GOP's challenges.

Possible disaffection among independent voters may be even more critical in shaping the 2010 political landscape. "Right now, I believe we as Democrats must be most concerned about disaffection in the middle," said strategist Tad Devine. "Middle-class voters put their faith in our party and its leaders in the last two elections, and that faith needs to be vindicated by concrete results."

Independent voters were instrumental in giving Democrats victories in 2006 and 2008. Over the summer, they shifted away from Obama. His approval rating in June was 65 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. By September, just 49 percent of independents approved of the job he was doing.


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