When Does It Make Sense to Make Voters Mad?

Democrats are giving Republicans a run for their money in practicing the politics of grievance.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a stop of the 'Give America a Raise' bus tour at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers and low-wage workers spoke about the challenge of living on minimum wage and the potential economy-wide benefits of an increase of the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
April 15, 2014, 3:03 p.m.

For dec­ades, Re­pub­lic­ans have been the un­dis­puted mas­ters of what might be called the polit­ics of griev­ance, the sow­ing of dis­har­mony among the elect­or­ate in or­der to drive turnout. Think of Nix­on’s Si­lent Ma­jor­ity. Or the Re­agan Demo­crat. Or, more re­cently, the cease­less fear-mon­ger­ing over Obama­care.

But Demo­crats, in­creas­ingly, have re­sor­ted to sim­il­ar tac­tics. And this year, faced with a dif­fi­cult midterm map, they’ve fash­ioned a strategy built around stok­ing the fires of re­sent­ment among base voters in a bid to make them care about Novem­ber’s elec­tions.

With that strategy comes some risk of over­heat­ing. Take the fur­or over House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi’s com­ments last week that op­pos­i­tion to im­mig­ra­tion re­form was steeped, in part, in ra­cism. And then Rep. Steve Is­rael, the man charged with help­ing Demo­crats get elec­ted to the House, piled on over the week­end, say­ing that, “to a sig­ni­fic­ant ex­tent, the Re­pub­lic­an base does have ele­ments that are an­im­ated by ra­cism.”

His re­marks came after a week of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id ac­cus­ing Re­pub­lic­ans on a daily basis of en­dors­ing pay­ing wo­men less than men, be­cause a bill spe­cific­ally tailored to al­low Demo­crats to use the is­sue as a cudgel did what it was de­signed to do: fail on the floor. The White House hasn’t shied away from em­bra­cing the strategy, either. Last week, it hos­ted a care­fully timed “Equal Pay Day.” It’s done the same for is­sues such as in­creas­ing the min­im­um wage and ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance.

Demo­crats struck a sim­il­ar note in 2012, of course, with the cries about a “war on wo­men.” But the midterms present a great­er mes­saging chal­lenge. Last month, Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan Green­berg soun­ded a red alert when his sur­veys sug­ges­ted that the core of the so-called rising Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate, the one that pro­pelled Barack Obama to two terms as pres­id­ent, wasn’t plan­ning to show up in 2014.

That has forced the party to find reas­ons for people to come out and vote, and they’ve se­lec­ted is­sues that tar­get slices of the elect­or­ate. Hence, equal pay, an is­sue that es­pe­cially res­on­ates with single wo­men; the min­im­um wage, which may an­im­ate minor­ity voters; and im­mig­ra­tion re­form, which gal­van­izes His­pan­ics. And likely com­ing soon to a Re­id press avail­ab­il­ity near you: stu­dent-loan modi­fic­a­tion, teed up for the hard-to-get youth vote.

At the same time, Re­id’s re­lent­less ham­mer­ing of the Koch broth­ers has been, viewed from a dis­tance, less about the in­flu­ence of money in polit­ics and more about the no­tion that the rich are prosper­ing while the less for­tu­nate struggle. It’s what Demo­crats did so suc­cess­fully two years ago in ty­ing Mitt Rom­ney to Bain Cap­it­al. All of it has been wrapped in a cam­paign Demo­crats say is aimed at en­sur­ing “a fair shot for every­one,” dir­ectly aimed at dis­af­fected voters who be­lieve they’re on the short end. And it may help ex­plain why Pelosi and Is­rael were so com­fort­able as­sert­ing that parts of the Demo­crat­ic base are vic­tims of ra­cism.

Nev­er­the­less, Demo­crats re­main hobbled by the lack of a large, uni­fy­ing mes­sage, es­pe­cially with one of their own in the White House and the eco­nomy still strug­gling. There’s noth­ing to rally the base en masse like George W. Bush and the Ir­aq War did in 2006, and noth­ing that mo­tiv­ates large swaths of their voters like op­pos­i­tion to the Af­ford­able Care Act does for con­ser­vat­ives.

Mi­chael Mc­Don­ald, an ex­pert on voter turnout at George Ma­son Uni­versity, is du­bi­ous that the Demo­crats’ is­sue-tar­get­ing ef­fort will spark a dif­fer­ent mix of midterm voters. “They’re ba­sic­ally try­ing to reen­gin­eer the elect­or­ate,” Mc­Don­ald said. “His­tory is not on their side.” The poor Demo­crat­ic turnout in a Flor­ida swing dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion last month only seemed to re­af­firm that.

But there is a sliv­er of hope for the party, one that was backed up by Green­berg’s re­search. There is some evid­ence, Mc­Don­ald said, that eco­nom­ic is­sues such as the min­im­um wage could con­vince low-in­come voters who would oth­er­wise stay home to vote. Moreover, the mes­saging out of Cap­it­ol Hill is be­ing aug­men­ted by a ground-based get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tion, spear­headed by the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, that is modeled on the Obama turnout ma­chine.

Mor­gan Jack­son, a Demo­crat­ic strategist in North Car­o­lina, be­lieves the niche ap­proach could work, that a por­tion of the elect­or­ate in his state feels vic­tim­ized by the GOP both na­tion­ally and loc­ally. (The state Le­gis­lature has passed, among oth­er things, a voter-ID law.) “I think here it has some strength. There’s real en­ergy on the ground,” he said. “You’ve got this feel­ing among the Demo­crat­ic base that they’re be­ing gone after.”

Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­ans have been eager to paint the Demo­crat­ic plan as noth­ing but elec­tion-year theat­er. “Their gov­ern­ing agenda is ac­tu­ally a polit­ic­al doc­u­ment draf­ted by the cam­paign staff,” Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell groused on the Sen­ate floor last week.

But un­like in 2010, there has been a great­er ef­fort this cycle to try and com­pete for the demo­graph­ic that com­prises the Obama co­ali­tion, es­pe­cially wo­men. It was ap­par­ent last week in the dis­pute over the Paycheck Fair­ness Act, when Re­pub­lic­ans talked about their own ef­forts to help wo­men in the work­place. In Michigan, Terri Lynn Land, con­sidered a strong con­tender to wrest Carl Lev­in’s seat from Demo­crats, waded in­to the equal-pay de­bate by ar­guing for work­place flex­ib­il­ity. The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee this week launched a pro­gram called “14 in ‘14” which is aimed at en­ga­ging and mo­bil­iz­ing wo­men in the 21-to-40 demo­graph­ic ahead of Novem­ber.

“We have to be more ag­gress­ive in talk­ing to wo­men. We have to ask for their vote,” said RNC spokes­wo­man Kirsten Kukowski. “It’s not something that we’ve been do­ing the last couple of cycles.”

The new ap­proach was also evid­ent in re­marks made by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a po­ten­tial 2016 con­tender for the GOP nom­in­a­tion, last week­end at a New Hamp­shire polit­ic­al event. Cruz talked about “vic­tims” of the Obama eco­nomy in terms that soun­ded ripped from the Obama cam­paign play­book — with a little Harry Re­id Koch-bait­ing mixed in.

“It’s young people. It’s His­pan­ics. It’s Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. It’s single moms,” Cruz said. “The rich and power­ful, those who walk the cor­ridors of power, are get­ting fat and happy un­der the Obama eco­nom­ic agenda.”

Cruz’s re­marks made clear that both sides be­lieve there are swaths of the elect­or­ate hold­ing griev­ances against Wash­ing­ton. The midterms may well be de­cided by which side can best ex­ploit them.

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