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Growing disenchantment with the tea party movement will keep President Barack Obama and Democrats afloat in 2012 despite a teetering economy and persistently high unemployment, Sen. Charles Schumer insisted Wednesday.
Republicans strongly disputed the New York Democrat’s interpretation of the tea party’s poll numbers and what they portend for an election likely to be defined by the presidential contest, particularly the incumbent. But Schumer — in a rosy rollout of his new Senate Democratic messaging strategy — was unabashedly optimistic, even predicting that Democrats would win a couple of GOP-held seats on their way to maintaining the majority.
“We are going to be labeling ‘tea party economics,’ ‘tea party double-dip recession,’ ‘tea party gridlock.’ And we think that that is going to have a real effect,” Schumer, the majority’s Conference vice chairman and chief messaging strategist, told a breakfast roundtable hosted by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “It’s sort of a sword and a shield. A sword is our effort to create things on jobs and a shield pointing out that what is preventing us from moving forward on jobs is tea party economics.”
According to information compiled by the Democratic Policy and Communications Center run by Schumer, recent polling shows that negative views of the tea party are rising.
Some Republican political operatives concede that voters have mixed feelings about the tea party. But they ardently dismiss Schumer’s argument that a Congressional messaging strategy — even if jointly pushed by the White House — can obscure a 9 percent unemployment rate and stagnant economic growth under an administration and Senate that is controlled by the Democrats. Schumer, however, asserted: “We don’t control the Senate, and you write that, and it’s false.”
Democrats hold a four-seat advantage in the chamber. And with an electoral map that favors the GOP and the president’s approval rating hovering around
40 percent, Republicans laughed at Schumer’s tea party strategy while expressing confidence in their prospects for flipping the Senate.
“He’s the message meister for the Ds and I know he’d love to have that stick, but it’s just not consistent with reality,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I think things are moving in the wrong direction for Democrats to stay in the majority. ... I definitely see a pathway to a majority.”
Democrats are defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012, including several in swing and Republican states. Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), both running for re-election, appear to be feeling the heat, as they broke with their party Tuesday and joined Republicans in opposing a modified version of Obama’s jobs bill because it raises taxes and spends too much.
Conservative angst in states such as Montana and Nebraska could pose a problem for Democratic incumbents who, GOP operatives argue, will be tied to the president. Other states with Democratic-held seats up for election that Republicans lump into this category include Florida, Missouri, North Dakota and Ohio.
Schumer, who led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2006 and 2008 cycles — and flipped 14 seats — said the Republicans’ Achilles’ heel is their focus on spending and debt at the expense of jobs and economic growth.
He attributed this contention to what he claims is the tea party’s stranglehold on Congressional Republicans. Schumer said even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wouldn’t be able to change this dynamic if he wins the GOP presidential nomination.
“Mitt Romney doesn’t have any plans for the economy either. He has the standard tea party line,” Schumer said. “The tea party might not like him on social issues; the tea party may not agree with his view on health care. But on the basic economics, he’s following the tea party line and I don’t think he can shake it.”
Republicans strongly disagreed with Schumer’s assertion and suggested the point is moot, not only because the elections would be characterized by Obama and the GOP nominee, but because Congressional Republicans have a jobs agenda voters will be very aware of between now and December — the same period during which Schumer said their lack of attention to the issue would help boost Democratic fortunes.
“We need to make people understand what it is that we’re for, and we’re going to be offering amendments to various vehicles that come through the Senate that demonstrate that,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), Republican Policy Committee chairman. “We were not for their big debt, big spending, big tax increase proposal because it wasn’t serious. It was clearly a political ploy by the president and his party.”
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who hails from a state that in 2010 saw the Republicans pick up a Senate seat and two House seats, declined to assess Schumer’s strategy.
Whether blaming the tea party is successful would depend on whether the facts bear that out, he said. Pryor sounded hesitant to pronounce the tea party dead as a formidable force that can boost Republicans, as the movement did in several Congressional and gubernatorial races last cycle.
“My impression is the tea party has not run its course, but it’s not as strong as it was,” Pryor said. “The American public has become used to the tea party, and it’s not necessarily a new and fascinating thing any more. But nonetheless, it’s still a very important part of the Republican Party.”