Democrats Again Make DeLay the Issue

Posted September 2, 2003 at 5:59pm

House Democrats are once again mounting a major offensive against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R), hoping to energize their base and hurt moderate Republicans by painting the Texan as the radical right-wing face of the GOP.

The strategy to focus their opposition against DeLay began to take shape earlier this year, but has gained steam in recent weeks as Democratic leaders decided vilifying the Majority Leader could help them raise money, motivate core Democratic voters and potentially hurt incumbent Republicans representing swing districts.

The strategy, which Democrats claim is helping to further fuel DeLay’s negative name identification throughout the country, has manifested itself through press releases, fundraising letters and voter outreach.

Several key House Democratic aides said the party intends to continue and even heighten the effort, especially in light of the messy Texas redistricting battle in which Democrats believe they helped paint DeLay as arrogant and

power hungry.

“He’s a polarizing figure so it makes sense,” said a top House Democratic strategist. “DeLay personifies what the Republican majority is all about.

“It becomes a rallying cry for Democrats around the country.”

A spokesman for DeLay, however, said that while Democrats can try again to paint the Majority Leader as the villain, their plan has shown no success. Jonathan Grella said House Democrats have been attacking DeLay for five years, and his popularity has actually grown over that time.

“I don’t know that cranking up the volume on an unsound strategy is the answer,” said Grella. “This is no different from the crusade that’s been going on for several years now.”

Grella pointed to a 2002 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing voters split in their view of DeLay, with a 14 percent favorable approval rating versus 13 percent who view him negatively. A similar poll taken for USA Today in July 2003 showed 33 percent of voters holding a favorable view of the Majority Leader versus 19 percent who view him unfavorably.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has often used DeLay to make the Democratic point stick on key issues ranging from the stalled child tax credit to energy legislation to Medicare revisions. She’s even tied DeLay to California GOP gubernatorial hopeful Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying recently that with the actor’s candidacy “we now have ‘the Terminator meets the Exterminator.’” (Prior to coming to Congress, DeLay owned a pest control company.)

A Democratic leadership aide said while Pelosi likes DeLay personally, he is a good target given that Democratic voters “understand he is the face of right-wing Republicans.”

“Our base knows who he is and they don’t like him,” the aide said. “DeLay is the face of radical right-wing Republicans in a way that the Speaker is not.”

House Democrats have been complaining in recent months about being run over by the Republican majority, saying they are being muzzled and prevented from participating on the floor and in committee. Republicans, however, brush aside the criticism and argue Democrats were far worse hoarding power during their 40-year hold on the House.

Several top aides said Democratic leaders hope the strategy of attacking DeLay will help them in several ways. Beyond helping them raise money from core Democrats and progressive voters, they hope to make it impossible for DeLay to campaign on behalf of Republican Members in swing districts this cycle.

House Democrats have recently enlisted focus groups in various cities across the country to test swing voters’ sentiments about the Texas lawmaker. One Democratic leadership aide said the feedback has been that a majority of voters have a “uniformly bad view” of DeLay.

“We think that based on what we’ve heard that the message is getting across,” said the aide.

Democratic leaders hope that through their effort DeLay will gain a far-reaching reputation as an extremist who is leading the House in the wrong direction. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent out a direct-mail fundraising letter to its donors focusing on DeLay as leading an arrogant power grab in the House.

That letter, which has just started arriving in people’s mailboxes, has brought in approximately $200,000 so far, according to the DCCC.

“It’s happening and will continue to happen, there’s no doubt,” a senior House Democratic aide said of the effort to blast DeLay. “There’s reason to believe it will work. It worked with [former Speaker Newt] Gingrich [R-Ga.].”

But a Republican leadership aide said voters aren’t focused on DeLay, nor do they view him as the face of the GOP. As long as President Bush is in office, he will serve as the party’s image, and DeLay will simply help deliver his agenda, the staffer said.

The aide added that Democrats will have to put forth credible arguments against DeLay if they want to make headway with their plan, beyond “playing personalities.” House Democrats are just looking to “blame somebody” because they have failed to succeed politically and legislatively, the staffer said.

“The more they try to raise Tom DeLay’s profile, the more money Republicans raise in direct mail,” said the staffer. “He’s very popular with the base. When Democrats go after DeLay, our base responds.”

But a top Democratic aide said that while the strategy may not ensure Democratic gains in 2004, it could prove helpful later on if DeLay tries to become Speaker. Republican Members may not want DeLay to rise to the top chair if he’s viewed negatively by voters nationwide.

“We’re laying the groundwork to beat him down so he is Newt Gringrichized if he ever becomes Speaker,” the staffer said.

In the mid-1990s, after Republicans took control of the House, Democrats took every opportunity to label Gingrich as a harsh Republican partisan.

“There are similarities,” said the Democratic strategist. “Both are polarizing figures that motivate base Democrats and turn off voters in marginal districts.”