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Obama and Democrats appeal to new voters in midterms

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; A04

President Obama will declare his stake in the November midterm elections for the first time on Monday as his Democratic Party announces an ambitious strategy to appeal to independent voters in its quest to maintain control of Congress.

Obama plans to issue a call-to-action video message to his supporters on Monday, the first in a series of personal efforts designed to rekindle the grass-roots magic that propelled him to the presidency in service to his party's congressional and gubernatorial candidates, Democratic officials said.

The keystone of the Democratic National Committee's $50 million plan for the midterms is persuading the roughly 15 million people who voted for the first time in 2008 to return to the polls this fall. Although such voters historically do not cast ballots in midterm elections, party leaders think their participation this year could help lift Democrats over the top in close contests.

The DNC's plan, which will be announced Wednesday, calls for reaching those first-time voters -- most of whom are registered independents and are young or minorities -- through the same vehicles Obama employed in 2008, according to internal party documents provided by the committee. The DNC is focusing on staff and volunteers in all 50 states, personal communication with the president via new media, and sophisticated voter-targeting technology.

In the video message to his supporters, Obama said his administration's success depends on the outcome of this fall's elections and warned that if Republicans regain control of Congress, they could "undo all that we have accomplished."

"This year, the stakes are higher than ever," he said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by Democratic officials. "It will be up to each of you to make sure that young people, African Americans, Latinos and women who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again.

"If you help make sure that first-time voters in 2008 make their voices heard again in November," he added, "then together we will deliver on the promise of change, hope and prosperity for generations to come."

In addition to direct communication with supporters, Obama is stepping up his fundraising efforts and plans to crisscross the country this fall stumping for Democrats, according to DNC Chairman Timothy M. Kaine and White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

Kaine said Obama plans to frame the elections as a choice between continued Democratic control or a return to Republican power. "Our story begins with: Democrats are results people and the Republicans are political obstructionists," he said in an interview. "Do we want to continue the direction that sees us climbing out of the recession or do we want to go back to the same policies that put us in the ditch in the first place?"

Kaine and Pfeiffer acknowledged the difficulty of transferring the grass-roots supporters that Obama cultivated over a historic two-year presidential bid to an array of other Democrats. "I don't think the magic has evaporated, but you have to acknowledge that the 2008 election was so historic and cathartic that you just don't hit that pitch in elections that often," Kaine said.

Confounding their effort is a toxic political climate six months before the elections that polls show favors Republicans. There is evidence, including recent high-profile GOP victories, that Obama and his party have lost the support of some of the independent voters who carried them to victory in recent years.

With the unemployment rate still high and deep divisions over health-care reform persisting, many political handicappers have suggested that Democrats could suffer substantial losses in both chambers, with Republicans within reach of regaining control of the House.

Democrats are struggling not only in perennial swing states but also in traditionally blue states, including Illinois and Delaware, where the party is in jeopardy of losing the Senate seats once held by Obama and Vice President Biden.

"Independent voters have given up on that key Obama word, 'hope,' " Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye said. "One of the challenges [Obama] faces is that he's not as popular in certain places. We've got a number of Democratic candidates who have to decide whether they want to campaign with President Obama" and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he added.

The DNC intends to spend more than $50 million, an unprecedented sum for a national party, Kaine said. The former Virginia governor said his "community-by-community" plan builds upon former chairman Howard Dean's 50-state strategy that helped Democrats win majorities in 2006.

"I wanted the plan to be more than 'Here's how many checks we're going to write for folks,' " Kaine said. "It has to build on the grass-roots energy that fueled the 2008 campaign." Kaine said it is critical to draw a "very personal" connection between Obama and this fall's elections.

The plan lays the groundwork for Obama's own reelection bid, as it helps grow the party's campaign infrastructure and keeps his volunteer network engaged and functioning in advance of the 2012 race. The strategy relies heavily on Organizing for America (OFA) -- a 13-million member grass-roots network that remains after Obama's 2008 campaign -- to help congressional and gubernatorial candidates reach new voters.

The plan will not benefit all Democrats equally, as party leaders and OFA volunteers are likely to prioritize lawmakers who cast controversial votes in favor of Obama's agenda on health care, climate change and other issues. "We will do more work with our friends than our sometimes friends," said one party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The DNC, together with OFA, has been building a robust field operation beyond its Washington headquarters, with nearly 300 staff members in 75 offices nationwide, and 10 million volunteer hours pledged. In the most closely contested races, party staff and volunteers will call or knock on the doors of every first-time voter from 2008 and direct as many as five robo-calls and two direct-mail pieces to their homes.

DNC calculations suggest that if these voters turn out, they could make a difference in tight contests. In Colorado, for example, more than 400,000 people voted for the first time in 2008. If just 8 percent of them cast ballots again this fall, they would make up 2 percent of the total turnout there in the 2006 midterm elections.

Many of Obama's supporters were drawn to him personally, however, and do not have the same connections to their members of Congress or governors. It was not enough, for instance, for Obama to tell his supporters to vote for R. Creigh Deeds, Jon S. Corzine or Martha Coakley. The three Democrats lost recent statewide races in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

"This simply doesn't work when the president goes out and says, 'Turn out for Candidate X,' " Pfeiffer said. "There's a special relationship between Obama and his supporters. It was always a two-way relationship, bottom-up and not top-down, which is pretty rare in Democratic politics. We fully understand that it's not automatically transferable to other candidates. It's going to take a lot of work, and that's what we're doing."

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