It's no secret Senate Democrats are in for a tough election. They started the cycle with more vulnerable seats than Republicans, the economy still lags in parts of the country, and some will have to answer for Obamacare.
But Democrats are lining up their counterpunches, a one-two-three combination that will highlight positive anecdotes on the Affordable Care Act, demonize Republican "dark money" in contested races, and rally the base from the Senate floor, with legislation on the minimum wage and equal-pay protections — and this week's overnight talkathon on climate change.
While lawmakers are sometimes reluctant to lay a political lens over what some say is simply sound policy, it's clear Senate Democrats are doing everything they can in the chamber to pull the odds in their favor.
"Look, I'm not gonna say people aren't thinking about the elections," said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. "But issues have to be measured ultimately by whether they're good policy. Good policy is good politics."
Senate Democrats are defending 21 seats, seven in states won by Republicans in 2012, while Republicans are defending considerably less territory, risking only Georgia and Kentucky. Republicans need to net six seats to retake the majority.
Obamacare is perhaps the largest liability for Democrats, and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut has taken the lead in trying to rebut Republican rhetoric with positive anecdotes about the law.
"I think there's been a real desire within the caucus to go on the offense, especially after last fall when Democrats spent much of the time on defense, in part deservedly because of the condition of the website," Murphy said, adding, "Democrats have been looking for a means through which to tell the really positive stories."
Lawmakers in tough races and those from states where the law is unpopular are not playing a big role, but Murphy nevertheless encourages Democrats not to run away from the law.
"I've run in one close contested election as a supporter of the law, and I think time has shown that supporters of the law who try to pretend as if they didn't vote for it end up losing more often than not," he said. "I do think that Democrats who support this law should be out front, talking about the benefits even while they make the case for common-sense changes."
THE ECONOMIC MESSAGE
Democrats are adding to their Obamacare efforts with an economic message. They have made no secret of their intention to pursue economic issues that motivate their voter base, including a minimum-wage increase, equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation, and an extension of long-term unemployment-insurance benefits.
This week, they added climate change to the list of issues. Led by Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Democrats talked overnight on the Senate floor about the perils of man-made climate change. Unlike with the other economic efforts, though, there's no accompanying legislation, and Republicans roundly criticized the event as a public-relations ploy.
Whether the talkathon produces any meaningful debate or legislation seems dubious. But the issue is popular with Democratic voters in some states. In Virginia, where Democratic Sen. Mark Warner faces Republican challenger and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, Kaine says he has taken voters' temperature on the issue and found it to be a winner.
"Virginians want to be leaders in this stuff," Kaine said. "When I was running in 2012 I asked people — because I'm such a strong believer [that] we've got to do something about climate — I asked people what they thought, and Virginians agree, not surprisingly."
DEMONIZING DARK MONEY
The Koch brothers, the conservative billionaires who are pouring millions into Senate races in states like North Carolina, Louisiana, and Michigan, are also increasingly at the receiving end of Senate Democratic campaign rhetoric. Majority Leader Harry Reid famously said on the floor that the GOP is "addicted to Koch."
Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, perhaps the biggest target of so-called "dark money" spending, regularly headlines emails with a disparaging remark about the Kochs. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has made reference to the Koch brothers in no fewer than 77 emails in the last four months. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, whose retirement is opening up a seat now being contested by Democratic Rep. Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land, said economic questions are likely to be the top issue in the Great Lakes State, but that outside spending could also tip the scales. That explains why Reid has been shining a light on the spending, Levin said.
"There's a real question about the way in which huge gobs of outside money try to come into the states to try to influence the outcome," he said. "The Koch brothers are the biggest example of it."
But will the Democratic response — essentially talking about it through a megaphone — help in the election?
"Well, I'm optimistic," he said. "But it's gonna be a close race."