How Senate Democrats Are Getting Ready for November, in Three Easy Steps

Telling positive anecdotes about Obamacare, demonizing “dark money,” and using the Senate floor are all part of the plan.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) answers questions following a weekly policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on March 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Reid commented on allegations made by Sen. Dianne Feinstein regarding the CIA and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
March 12, 2014, 5:05 p.m.

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.

AD­DRESS­ING OBAMA­CARE

“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.”

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