The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats are talking about race and the Republican Party an awful lot lately. Is it a smart midterm strategy?

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When Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Steve Israel (N.Y.) was asked Sunday whether he thinks his Republican colleagues are racist, he responded with a frankness that is rare in politics and even less common when it comes to sensitive issues like race. "Not all of them, no, of course not," Israel said on CNN's "State of the Union." "But to a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism. And that's unfortunate."

Israel's not the only high-ranking Democrat to advance some version of that argument recently. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Republican reluctance to take up immigration reform is explained, in part, by race. Attorney General Eric Holder said Republicans have engaged in "ugly and divisive" attacks against President Obama and him -- both of them, notably, being black. 

So what to make of Democrats' rhetoric? Regardless of motivation, they've elevated the question of whether strains of racism exist within the GOP and that is far from a risk-free proposition, strategists in both parties say.

"Very risky to accuse the GOP of outright, overt racism," said one Democratic strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. "Midterms are about motivating your base, so perhaps that is what's going on. I think more Democrats should take their cues from President Obama, who to my knowledge has never accused his opponents of being racially motivated."

Saying outright that elements of the Republican Party are racist could potentially spur minorities -- who vote overwhelmingly Democratic -- to turn out in larger numbers and give them something to rally against. But it could also have the opposite effect: Energizing the Republican base to voice their disagreement at the polls with what Democrats are saying about their party.

Midterm voters "don’t turn out to vote for something, they turn out to vote against something," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "Republicans have their motivation, but the Democratic leadership is casting about for ways to get their base to the polls. Maybe it’s one of their blind data tests; Harry Reid is crying about the Koch Brothers, while the House side has been assigned 'Republican racism' as their meme. It’s a pretty thin gruel the Democrats are trying to serve to their voters."

Democrats are working every day to to get as many African Americans and Hispanics as they can to vote this year. Battleground elections that could decide control of the Senate are happening in states like Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina and Georgia, where the minority population -- especially African Americans -- is very substantial. Democrats' success or failure there lies heavily in how successful they are in boosting turnout among minority groups.

Democrats are leaning heavily into issues like income inequality and voter ID laws in the hopes of spurring Hispanic and black voters to turn out. Their messaging is also geared at young people, another reliably Democratic pool of voters that don;t turn out as much in non-presidential years. (Voters under 30 made up 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 and 18 percent in 2008. In 2010? Just 12 percent, exit poll data show.) "Our voters are younger, more unmarried women, more African-American and Latino voters," Obama said at a Houston fundraiser last week. "They get excited about general elections; they don't get as excited about midterm elections."

He's right. The African American share of the electorate was 13 percent in 2008 and 2012, but 11 percent in 2010, according to the exit poll data. Hispanics -- a quickly growing share of the electorate -- made up 10 percent of the vote in 2012 but eight percent in 2010, down from 9 percent in 2008. A recent Democratic poll showed that a collection of voters including young people, unmarried women and minorities is significantly less likely to vote than other voters, who tend to favor Republicans. A percentage or two, it's worth noting, can make a big difference in the most competitive and high-stakes contests of 2014.

Whether the emerging  rhetorical battle over race and and the Republican Party opened up by Democratic leaders in recent weeks complements Democrats' midterm strategy or hampers it is the big question.