Democrats Boost Campaign Attack Strategy

Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:46pm

Senate Democrats are conceding that their signature legislative accomplishments could fall flat at the polls this fall and are endorsing a strategy that places a higher priority on raising fears among voters about Republicans and their agenda.

Attacking the opposition is an effective and necessary part of most successful political campaigns. And Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) argued that Democratic incumbents and challengers would embrace the majority’s legislative record and use it to illustrate the differences between themselves and a reactionary, insensitive Republican minority.

But some Democrats contend that high unemployment and the slow pace of economic recovery are poised to overshadow any positive message they offer, not to mention their work reforming health care and overhauling Wall Street, requiring a greater emphasis on communicating to voters what would happen if Republicans regained control of Capitol Hill.

“I think it’s to the Democrats’ advantage to compare the Republicans to the Democrats, versus just a pure referendum on the Democrats,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “But if you really compare the two, and you look at where the Republicans are in terms of where they actually vote, they say one thing, but how they actually vote sometimes is very different. You compare that with what Democrats are trying to get done, and I think that’s a more favorable comparison.”

Pryor is a moderate whose home-state colleague, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, is among this year’s most vulnerable incumbents. He acknowledged the difficult political environment for Democrats and said a midterm campaign that revolves around his party’s agenda and that of the White House is a losing proposition for the majority.

Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.), whose fellow Democrat, Rep. Joe Sestak, has trailed former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) in most public polls of the Keystone State Senate race, offered a similar assessment. Casey said it is important for Democrats to remind voters where Republicans stand on potent issues such as Social Security and Medicare.

“We’ve certainly been frustrated by either our inability to or our lack of success in translating legislative achievements. So, we have to do better on that,” Casey said. “But I think it has to be more than that. You have to be able to make it very clear to people, if you vote for them and they take over the House or make gains in the Senate, here’s what’s going to happen.

“And the good news for us is, it’s not theory,” Casey continued. “We know when they had power in 2005, for example, they tried to privatize Social Security. We know that they’ve got a vouchers-in-Medicare proposal in their health care plan. There are some very important public policies that they’ve weighed in on.”

Other than sounding the alarm about the rising cost of entitlement spending, most Republicans have not advocated specific action to address the issue in either the 110th or 111th Congresses. But earlier this decade under President George W. Bush, the GOP backed the creation of personal Social Security accounts, which Democrats have argued amounts to privatizing the system.

On the House side, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has publicized the “Roadmap,” a blueprint to reduce spending on Medicare and Social Security. Democrats have seized on it to resuscitate charges that Republicans want to privatize Social Security and reduce access to Medicare for seniors. Ironically, Republicans leveled similar charges at Democrats after they cut $500 billion from Medicare to help pay for health care reform.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has charged that Democrats, knowing the weakness of their political standing, have no choice but to convince voters that Republicans are unreasonable and out of the mainstream.

“That’s why you can’t pick up a newspaper these days without reading about some Democrat trying to convince people that their opponent is a crazy person,” he said in a speech to young GOP activists earlier this month.

Menendez, the Senate majority’s chief campaign strategist and fundraiser, hasn’t denied his intention to make the Nov. 2 elections about a choice between pursuing progress with Democrats and going back to the Bush era with Republicans. But he said this contrast portion of the Democratic message only works when paired with the majority’s positive record of legislative success.

“I think we need to use the legislative record as part of the contrast; who stands on your side?” Menendez said. “Republicans stand with BP and Big Oil against the people who were harmed by them and harmed our collective environment. We stand for the citizens and making sure the taxpayers don’t pay. Republicans stand with the insurance companies who want to deny you coverage because of pre-existing conditions; we stand with the consumer.”

Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.), who faces an unexpectedly competitive re-election fight, said she has no qualms about running on the majority’s legislative record. Still, Murray indicated that how voters feel about the economy could serve as the ultimate arbiter of Election Day.

“I know what’s in those bills, and I know how they’re going to help us grow,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we are still focusing on jobs and the economy.”