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Can the Democrats’ Ground Game Overcome GOP Fervor?

On the same weekend that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin addressed thousands of followers on the mall in Washington

On the same weekend that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin addressed thousands of followers on the mall in Washington, DC, with a religiously cloaked Tea Party message to “restore honor” to America, the Democratic Party set itself the ambitious goal of knocking on 400,000 doors to start rallying disenchanted Obama supporters to vote in November. It’s not clear yet whether they came anywhere near that outreach goal, but, ironically, there are early signs that some of the most engaged but disappointed progressive constituencies – from labor unions to the million-strong Democracy for America group founded by Howard Dean – are still willing to work hard to prevent a GOP take over of Congress. That commitment is there despite what they’ve seen as the Obama administration’s centrist sell-outs on everything from health care to jobs creation.

Yet, it’s quite an uphill battle: the poor economy, with nearly 20 percent of adults underemployed or unemployed, is no doubt the leading contributor to what’s been called the “enthusiasm gap.” One sign: Democratic turnout has lagged in several states, with the GOP in the primaries so far having generated a three million voter advantage – the complete reverse of the three million advantage angry Democrats piled up in the 2006 midterm primaries before they took back Congress that November.

Still, in some states, such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, where strong progressive candidates rallied the Democratic base, they’ve generated high turnout and some striking victories against the Democratic Party’s establishment candidate. “Our work in the primaries shows that there isn’t an enthusiasm gap,” notes Levana Layendecker, Democracy For America’s (DFA) communications director. DFA is endorsing over 30 Democratic House and Senate candidates, including high-profile progressive favorites like Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) as well as lesser-known liberal stalwarts. She also points to the insurgent victories of Democratic Senate candidates Elaine Marshall in North Carolina and Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, along with the close race Sen. Blanche Lincoln faced in the Arkansas Democratic primary from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. “When our members live in places where they have candidates who inspire them, they turn out,” she says.

In contrast, at least half the Blue Dog Democrats in the House face tough races in right-leaning districts, even after fleeing from and thwarting the Obama agenda. Not surprisingly, they haven’t generated that much support from loyal Democrats in their races. As Layendecker observes, “Democrats who run away from the progress that Democrats have made are making a huge mistake. Trying to get elected by being more like a Republican isn’t a good strategy.”

The challenge facing the progressive groups that worked hard to get Obama elected is balancing their disappointments with an acknowledgment of the real, if too limited, progress made by the administration on health care, Wall Street reform and the economic stimulus – and then somehow convincing the Democratic base and independents that things would be much worse if Republicans return to power.

“The main focus is to establish that this is a choice election,” says the AFL-CIO’s Deputy Political Director Michael Podhorzer. In mobilizing union workers and their allies, he notes, “This is not about whether you’re happy with the economy. One candidate [the GOP one] is against unions, is for privatizing social security and vouchers for Medicare, and for outsourcing more jobs. That’s a clear distinction.” He concedes that not all GOP candidates are such easy targets for their extremist views as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky, but he contends that the critique of extremism “works in most races.” He points out, “One way or another, the GOP candidates are campaigning on Bush economics. Their argument is that we are having economic problems because we haven’t cut taxes enough and the government is stifling job creation, so we should let the markets do what they want.” That, of course, was the recipe for the huge deficits and the financial crisis Obama inherited.

But by now, the “it could have been worse” argument hasn’t yet resonated sufficiently to motivate enough Democratic voters to turn out, but Democratic strategists are banking on fear of a GOP dominated by Tea Party extremists and the handy devil figure of Rep. John Boehner as the future speaker of the House to scare Democrats to show up at the polls.

To already engaged liberal Democrats who follow the news closely, those arguments can be persuasive. For instance, Jesse Lovell, a volunteer organizer with DC for Democracy, a DFA affiliate, says, “I’ve gotten outraged at Democrats, but we shouldn’t blame the Democrats in the House of Representatives: they passed decent legislation and deserve credit.” Concerned about the potential loss of the House to Republicans, he’ll be traveling to Pennsylvania to work with other DFA members to work for progressive Congressional candidates.

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Yet, the sale to most Democrats on the importance of this election still hasn’t been closed, in part because during the fight over health care and Wall Street reform the major, powerful liberal organizations and the DNC’s 13-million member organizing arm, Organizing For America (OFA), hewed too closely to the bipartisan, compromise-oriented positions of the White House until it was too late. As the Tea Party movement grew with a steady diet of Fox News-led smears and lies about Obama and his agenda, progressives were offered virtually nothing to energize them in the way of full-throated, populist “red meat” attacks against Wall Street greed or the corrupt, deadly insurance companies. On top of all that, White House officials, from Rahm Emanuel to Robert Gibbs, either on the record or privately attacked progressives seeking stronger measures such as the public option as “fucking retards” or Pentagon-destroying socialists of the “professional left.”

Along with that White House hostility to the Democratic Party’s own base, Rolling Stone headlined earlier this year another major problem facing OFA: “Obama had millions of followers eager to fight for his agenda. But the president muzzled them – and he’s paying the price.” Of course, after the White House realized that they’d been strung along in their negotiations with Republicans and the insurance industry, Democrats and the White House adopted a tougher tone on behalf of the watered-down, but still groundbreaking, health care legislation. Organizing for America demonstrated what it could do when unleashed: in the final ten days before the bill’s passage, it generated 500,000 phone calls and over 300,000 letters.

(Now, facing the November election, OFA spokesman Patrick Rodenbush says, “Our perspective is that the ‘enthusiasm gap’ is overblown. People are engaged and committed to getting out the vote. We’ve had volunteers engaged in 435 districts since the June 5th kick-off.”)

Yet, it’s also worth remembering that even as progressives snipe at Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally for its fundamentalist religiosity or racist hypocrisy or the exact turnout, no progressive groups even attempted a mass mobilization on this scale. Where was the huge March on Washington that historically generates major media coverage for legislative reform goals and spurs grassroots activism, whether for enacting civil rights or ending the war in Vietnam? But there were no comparable rallies for any of the momentous changes for which we wanted to see Obama fight: health care reform, reining in Wall Street abuses or taxing Wall Street banks and closing loopholes to pay for job programs in the recession they created.

Now, Democrats somehow are hoping that minority voters, young people, labor, and other progressives who helped propel Obama to victory will show up to vote in November.

But the tea leaves that can be read at this point aren’t encouraging. As The AtlanticWire recapped some of the grim poll numbers cited by Politico and others:

“Two different sets of data show Republicans with a big advantage when it comes to getting the base fired up for this campaign. A new Gallup Poll out this week shows 46 percent of Republicans and just 23 percent of Democrats to be ‘very enthusiastic’ about voting.” They also report that nearly 3 million more Republicans than Democrats have showed up to the polls this primary season, which doesn’t bode well for election day this November.

The election counting by independent analysts such as the Cook Political Report are just as troubling. Republicans need to win 39 seats to take over the House. In two recent reports (full text requires a subscription), the Charles Cook-run news service reported:

Today, by our count, there are a whopping 32 Democratic incumbents who have trailed GOP challengers in at least one public or private poll. At this point in 2006, there were only 11 Republican incumbents who trailed in at least one public or private poll, yet 22 went on to lose. It happens every time there is a wave: as challengers get better known and voters start to zero in on their choices, the lion’s share of those undecided falls to the surging party …

The severe headwind facing Democrats today means there are far more Democratic open seats at risk of falling to the other side. Democrats maintain that they have a realistic chance to win eight of their 16 at-risk open seats, and that as a result Republicans will be forced to knock off 35 Democratic incumbents to reach a majority. From today’s perspective, the more likely outcome is a Republican pickup of at least 10 Democratic open seats, not counting whatever seats Democrats are able to eke out of the GOP’s column.

All told, that means that over 40 House seats are in serious jeopardy, the Cook report indicates. A more optimistic view is held by Hotline on Call, which points to Democratic superiority in money, spending for turnout operations, and opposition research and ads to paint Republicans as dangerous extremists. Yet, even with labor unions expected to add another $200 million in spending to support Democratic candidates, the coffers for corporate America’s GOP donations following the Citizens United decision could be even greater: “unlimited,” as one knowledgeable progressive advocate says.

But the various polling numbers reflect a real discouragement and lack of excitement on the ground in too many races. As McClatchy News recounted last week:

Two years ago today, the Democratic Party gathered in Denver – energetic and confident of victory – to nominate Barack Obama for president.

What a difference a deep recession, two wars, a yearlong argument over health care, a tea party movement, a massive deficit, a minor scandal or two, a muddled message and partisan gridlock can make.

That 2008 enthusiasm, many Democrats acknowledge, has turned to anger and disillusionment in 2010, threatening midterm chances for scores of their candidates.

“My gosh, it’s like night and day,” said Anne McGregor, a field organizer for Obama, comparing the attitude of his supporters now and then.

“Young people have no reason to be excited,” observed Doug Gray, a political consultant and liberal organizer in the Kansas City area. “They feel like it doesn’t matter, it’s just more of the same.”

The contrasting dynamic between an energized right-wing and this seemingly demoralized Democratic base was anatomized in June by James Vega in the Democratic Strategist:

Large numbers of the voters who comprised the Obama coalition in 2008 simply do not see the 2010 elections as a vast do-or-die battle between two contending political armies struggling for control of the country and the future of America. They see it as a conventional off-year election where a patchwork variety of opposing candidates with different philosophies compete for office. As a result they simply do not have the high morale and fighting spirit of conservatives and Republicans. The broad and unifying “yes we can” spirit that was created during the 2008 campaign dissipated soon after the election. The massive Obama for America online organization sharply narrowed its focus to building support for specific elements of Obama’s agenda while other progressives redirected their efforts to promoting specific progressive issues and causes – a focus that frequently brought them into conflict with the administration. Both of these trends substantially diluted and dampened the broad “yes we can” unity and enthusiasm of the 2008 campaign.

The inevitable result was lowered morale …

A partial solution, he suggests, is sharper messaging that makes clear to unenthusiastic Democrats why they should vote: to prevent a GOP assault on “people like you.”

But there is no communications cure-all that will guarantee Democrats victory in November.

At the same time, in the wake of the national collapse of ACORN, the left-leaning voter participation groups that played an important part in the upsurge of 15 million new voters in 2008 for Obama, especially among minority and young voters, have gotten relatively little in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) backing from donors this time around. So, their ability to reach out and energize voters who have the most to lose if the Republicans return to power has been severely compromised. “I am not seeing the financial resources going into voter education and getting out the vote for low income and minority Americans like we’ve seen in earlier election cycles,” says Michael Slater, the executive director of the voting advocacy group Project Vote that contracted with ACORN for voter turnout programs.

Unfortunately, those potential voters are the ones whose voices most need to be heard at the polls. “Low income and minority voters – and a large portion of them are under 30 – have been the people most devastated by this recession,” he observes. Going beyond registration to actually knocking on doors before an election can raise turnout by up to five percent, Slater notes, and those voters were an important part of Obama’s victory in 2008.

As a briefing paper by Project Vote’s election expert, Lorraine Minnite, “What Happened to Hope and Change?,” points out: “The 2008 electorate saw a significant – and perhaps decisive – shift among key demographic groups. Young people and minorities – and particularly young Americans of color – voted at record rates in 2008. Two million more African-Americans, and 2.3 million more voters under the age of 30, voted in 2008 and 2004.”

If these voters are to be reached this time around, Slater suggests, there is a basic message that could work with them: “Politicians won’t listen to you unless you show that you are voters.” That’s a useful reminder to progressives and other discouraged Democrats who may be thinking about sitting out this upcoming election.

Indeed, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka reminded union leaders earlier this year, giving in to apathy and discouragement will be the ultimate victory for the right wingers dominating the Republican Party:

“They just want you to sit this election out. They figure that if they can mobilize the rightwing radicals, the corporate conservatives, the Tea Party fanatics and the talk show fans, and if they can anesthetize the rest of us, then they can win this election in a walk,” Trumka said. “It’s up to us to mobilize the working Americans who have the most to lose from going backwards and the most to gain from moving forwards …”

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