By Philip Rucker
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 12:39 PM
In search of an issue that will stop independent voters from rushing to the GOP, Democratic congressional candidates are attacking Republicans for wanting to abolish the Education Department and cut funding for federal student loans.
In more than three dozen Senate and House races, Democrats are seizing upon the issue, highlighting it in television advertisements and on the stump, to try to cast the Republicans as far outside the political mainstream.
Eliminating the Education Department has been a staple of the small-government tea party agenda this year, and a number of Republican candidates endorsed the idea during primary battles.
Some have retreated from those statements, but Democrats believe that emphasizing them could resonate with moderates and serve as a rallying cry for young voters.
Democratic officials in Washington are encouraging the party's candidates to play up these differences on the campaign trail this week, with national media focusing on education policy and President Obama beginning his effort to rally college students.
"What you have is Republican candidates taking the extreme tea party position of abolishing the Department of Education, and we don't think that will sit well in many of these moderate suburban districts," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
By highlighting such differences and framing campaigns as choices between two candidates, Democrats are trying to prevent the midterm elections from being a national referendum on Obama's handling of the economy. For weeks, Democrats have been going after Republican opponents who have publicly questioned the constitutionality of Social Security, Medicare and other federal entitlement programs. But those attacks do not appear to have made meaningful differences in competitive races.
Republican strategists said they believe the attacks on education policy will not gain traction because voters are almost singularly focused on the economy and jobs - an area where Democrats have struggled to break through.
"Democrats have no national message, nothing that resonates with independent voters, and as a result this is what they've been reduced to doing," said Ken Spain, communications director at the National Republican Campaign Committee. "When the unemployment rate in your district is 10 percent or higher, voters prefer talking about issues, not be distracted by clear acts of desperation."
A Pew Research Center poll last week found that among probable voters, independents favor Republicans over Democrats by 49 percent to 36 percent.
In Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) is assailing his Republican challenger, Ken Buck, for having said repeatedly during the primary that the federal government should not be involved in education or in the business of providing student loans.
Bennet's campaign aired a 60-second ad with footage, obtained by a Democratic tracker, of Buck saying, "We don't need a Department of Education," and, "I don't think our Founding Fathers ever intended for the federal government to have student loans."
Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid said these are "extreme positions that illustrate who Buck is and where he's coming from, and those positions do not resonate with mainstream Colorado voters."
Buck spokesman Owen Loftus called Bennet's ad an "outlandish attack." Despite Buck having been on the record on the issue during the primary, Loftus said, Bennet's ads take his comments out of context. He said Buck supports federal student loans and does not want to eliminate the Education Department. Rather, Loftus said, Buck wants to reallocate the department's funds to state and municipal governments.
"Ken believes that parents and teachers and local communities and states do a much better job at educating their children than anyone in Washington, D.C.," Loftus said.
More than a half-dozen other Republican Senate candidates, including West Virginia's John Raese, Kentucky's Rand Paul and Nevada's Sharron Angle, have called for eliminating or significantly shrinking the Education Department. Republican House candidates in districts in Florida, New York, Arizona and elsewhere have made similar statements, which have become fodder for Democrats on the campaign trail. In Indiana, for example, two House Democrats are attacking their GOP challengers on education issues.
Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) aired an ad with ominous music and a narrator asking: "Who will help your family afford college? Jackie Walorski wants to eliminate Pell Grants, the program that helps thousands of Hoosier families pay for college. Walorski would even abolish the entire Department of Education."
Donnelly campaign manager Mike Schmuhl said those stances go "a little too far outside the mainstream for the average voter." Walorski called the ad a "ludicrous attack" from "a desperate guy running from his record." In an interview, Walorski said that she would "absolutely not" work to eliminate the Education Department and that she has "never been a proponent of doing away with Pell Grants."
But, Walorski added, "we've got to have a national discussion about stopping the federal government form launching education programs that can't be paid for."
Meanwhile, Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), who represents Indiana University's main campus, is going after his Republican challenger, Todd Young, over the same positions. The Hill campaign's attacks, like Donnelly's, are based largely on an endorsement Young received from the Independence Caucus, a conservative group that opposes a federal role in education. Young, in a statement, clarified his position.
He said he is "not going to Washington to eliminate the Department of Education." But he also said that he believes a child's education "is the domain of families, communities and states. The Founders believed the same. Because of this, I am uncomfortable with the ever-increasing federal influence over our classrooms."