Democrats have been rediscovering their inner populist lately. President Obama is calling on the wealthiest Americans to pay their “fair share” in taxes. Elizabeth Warren, campaigning for the Senate in Massachusetts, has become a rising star by bluntly criticizing the business class. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a petition last month aimed at leveraging the Occupy Wall Street movement against the Republican Party.
But the clearest test for whether Democrats can sell a message centered on income inequality won’t be in the presidential race, where Obama’s chances of victory depend heavily on the mood of upscale, white-collar professionals. Rather, the battle for the hearts and minds of the working-class will take place in the House race battlefields, where Democrats can’t afford to write off blue-collar voters if they hope to win the 25 seats they need to recapture the majority.
It wasn’t long ago that Democrats were highly competitive with that demographic. In 2006 and 2008, their greatest gains came in heavily white districts with relatively small concentrations of college graduates. Former DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel aggressively recruited culturally conservative candidates, recognizing that the party couldn’t handicap itself by ceding Middle America to Republicans. The ability to compete across the country is what allowed the party to forge a congressional governing majority for four years.
Democrats suffered their biggest losses last year in blue-collar territory, as Obama’s approval ratings with blue-collar white voters plummeted. White voters without a college education voted for Republican House candidates nearly 2 to 1, according to last year’s Edison Research exit poll. The party’s bulwark of Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom had held onto seats in deeply conservative districts no matter the political climate, collapsed.
While Democrats aren’t going to win back many of those seats given the districts’ conservative orientation, they’re betting that a message decrying income inequality can put some of them in play.
Republicans still hold a healthy edge in support among white voters without a college education—47 percent to 34 percent, according to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. But their advantage has narrowed significantly since 2010, when they led 63 percent to 33 percent in exit polling. The GOP agenda of spending cuts and entitlement reforms isn’t a natural sell with this constituency, which has been hard-hit by the recession.
The Democrats’ ability to win back a House majority may well lie with candidates like Brendan Mullen, an Iraq veteran who’s running in a working-class, solidly Catholic battleground district in northern Indiana. He’s pro-gun and anti-abortion rights, but identifies with the Democratic Party’s traditional connection to the working class.
Mullen is a convincing representative of the public mood because his biography is authentic to the message he’s preaching. He grew up in South Bend and worked for his father’s unionized lumberyard, moving Sheetrock and handling deliveries. He attended West Point, went to Army Airborne School and Ranger School, and served in Iraq during the war. He’s running for office for the first time.
Mullen is running for the seat being vacated by Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., one of the few targeted Democrats to survive the 2010 wave. Republicans redrew the lines this year to make the district more favorable for them, but Obama still would have narrowly carried it. Mullen is expected to face Donnelly’s 2010 Republican challenger, former state representative Jackie Walorski, an outspoken tea party supporter. If the tide has changed in the Democrats’ favor, Mullen should have more than a fighting chance.
Even more than the Massachusetts Senate race, the Indiana contest is shaping up to be a referendum of whether working-class voters identify more with the Occupy Wall Street movement or the tea party. Mullen has close ties to labor and said he feels a connection with the protests taking place across the country.
“The middle class are the ones getting left empty-handed as Wall Street and corporations are getting shored up,” Mullen said in an interview, echoing Democratic talking points.
Mullen isn’t the only Democratic recruit preparing an unabashedly populist campaign. Party officials are optimistic about winning a rural, northeastern Arkansas district that Republicans hadn’t carried since Reconstruction—until 2010, when now-Rep. Rick Crawford won the open seat. The district is one of the poorest in the country, and it has one of the lowest concentrations of college-educated whites in the country.
Crawford faces a serious challenge from state Rep. Clark Hall, who Arkansas political columnist John Brummett described as a “good ol’ boy farmer with a country style and common wisdom, at home on a tractor and feasting on barbecue and catfish.”
A third major test of the Democrats’ focus on income inequality will be in Wisconsin, which has already been a battlefield between labor and conservative Republicans. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., who represents the rural northern part of the state, has been a supporter of the GOP’s economic agenda. He backed Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan and voted for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare-reform proposal. His opponent, former Democratic state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, has accused him of declaring war on the middle class.
In another sign that Democrats think a class-warfare message will resonate in 2012, the Democratic super PAC, House Majority PAC, aired an ad last month pointing to Duffy’s enjoyment of sushi and steak as telltale evidence that he’s out of touch with the district’s values. The culture-war jibe is straight out of the traditional Republican playbook.
President Obama can’t help these Democratic recruits next year, but his party’s newfound message could give them a lifeline. If working-class voters have an appetite for a more activist government, these are the types of candidates who should be able to capitalize on it against Republicans. If they don’t, expect Thomas Frank to author a sequel to What’s the Matter with Kansas?
This article appears in the November 2, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.