Political circles are abuzz over Robert Draper's New York Times Magazine story about young Republicans in despair over their party’s deep-seated problems with branding, demographics, and campaign technology. In the story, a conservative campaign tech expert describes his lengthy postelection slide presentation as a “cavalcade of pain”; a Republican strategist pores over her focus group notes “like a homicide detective gazing into a pool of freshly spilled blood.”
They see the GOP heading for unplanned obsolescence if they don’t recreate Lee Atwater’s diverse, inclusive Big Tent party. But, as Draper writes, Atwater “did not have to worry about freelance voices like [Rush] Limbaugh and Todd Akin offending whole swaths of emerging demographic groups. Nor during the Atwater era, when Ronald Reagan was president, did the party’s most extreme wing intimidate other Republicans into legislating like extremists themselves....”
Here’s another cause for GOP concern: What if the 2013 and 2014 electorates are more Democratic than is usual in non-presidential years?
Democrats are facing a steep path to holding their Senate majority in 2014, and it will be even more of a challenge to net the 17 seats they need to take over the House. The maps for both chambers favor the GOP. Republican governors are less secure, with nine seats rated vulnerable or potentially vulnerable by Governing magazine, compared with five Democratic seats.
Democrats have a few advantages in a tough year. President Obama has said he will do eight fundraisers for House Democrats this year, and help recruit candidates as well. On the nuts-and-bolts front, Democrats will be able to count on some extra union help in addition to Obama's national advocacy and campaign operations.
The new Organizing For Action group will be stoking support for Obama’s agenda among people who helped him win last year, including minorities, young people, and women. The aim is that they will be more engaged than usual and ultimately motivated to vote next year to oust Republicans who block Obama’s proposals.
The Obama campaign operation, meanwhile, plans to share its sophisticated voter data with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We look forward to partnering with them” to identify voters who were critical to Obama’s success in 2012 but who often sit on the sidelines in midterms, said Jesse Ferguson, deputy executive director of the DCCC.
Beyond that, the AFL-CIO will be reprising the expanded turnout operation it is now permitted to conduct under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Before Citizens United, unions were allowed only to target union members. The ruling -- while best known for unleashing floods of money into the political system -- lifted those restrictions on union contacts with voters. In 2012, the AFL-CIO used sophisticated targeting tools and its new latitude to turn out voters in blue-collar neighborhoods that often are “underserved” by the two parties because they are not predominantly Democratic or Republican, said AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer.
There are no statistics yet on how much the AFL-CIO was able to increase turnout in such neighborhoods, Podhorzer said. But he said the group was most active in Ohio and Wisconsin, and its efforts were one reason Obama’s blue-collar vote in those states was several points higher than it was in the rest of the country. The AFL-CIO’s expanded get-out-the-vote operation has not been road-tested yet in an off-year election. The Virginia governor's race this year will likely be its first outing, followed by 2014 contests for governor in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin.
The upcoming races for governor, House, and Senate will measure how far Democrats can get on the strength of newly empowered unions and the turnout tools that are Obama’s political legacy to his party. They'll also give Republicans clues as to how much ground they need to make up before 2016.