Campaign kickoff: Can Democrats win on economic populism?

In their fight to keep the Senate, Democrats say they can win by pushing to raise the minimum wage and extend unemployment benefits. And they're getting more comfortable defending Obamacare.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas, here attending a Veterans Day observance in Little Rock on Nov. 11, 2013, has said he would vote against a bill to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. He one of several red-state Democrats, up for reelection this year, who are wary of the issue, even though Democratic Party leaders see it as a winner.

As primary season kicks off for the 2014 midterm elections, campaigns are raising money, identifying supporters, and honing their messages. For Democrats – desperately trying to hold onto the Senate, with little chance of retaking the House – there’s an added challenge: an unpopular president at the head of their party and an unpopular new law that informally bears his name, Obamacare.

President Obama will campaign in some states, but not others. No hard feelings if you don’t want his help, the president told Senate Democrats recently. But on the issues, Democrats say they have winning themes.

“One is gridlock and obstructionism by Republicans, whether it’s shutting down the government, or refusing to compromise, or refusing to pass legislation,” says Democratic strategist Mark Mellman.

Flowing from that will be economic issues like the push for a higher minimum wage, “to tell voters that we understand their economic problems, and we’re focused on doing something about it,” says Mr. Mellman. “Republicans – even Republicans who have voted in the past to raise the minimum wage – are stopping any action on the issue.”  

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama heads to Connecticut to push for his proposed hike in the federal minimum wage – from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 over three years. It is the centerpiece of a larger economic populist message that also includes a push for extended benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Republicans charge obstructionism right back at the Democrats, especially Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who the GOP says won’t allow amendments on legislation, including on a measure to extend unemployment benefits.

While Senate Democrats are united on extending those benefits, Senator Reid may have a hard time keeping some of the most vulnerable members of his caucus on board with the higher minimum wage. Sens. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana are both leery of such a big leap in the federal minimum wage.

Democrats say the public is on their side, pointing to polling data that show sky-high support for a higher minimum wage among Democrats, a solid majority among independents, and either a 50-50 split or slight majority support among Republicans.

A new poll out Tuesday by ABC News gives the Democrats fodder on the issue landscape in general, and specifically on the minimum wage.

“In one important shortfall, the Republican Party trails the Democrats by 13 points in trust to help the middle class,” writes ABC pollster Gary Langer.

“In a specific land mine for the Republicans, Americans by a vast 31 points, 50 vs. 19 percent, say they’re more likely rather than less likely to vote for a candidate who supports raising the minimum wage. That gives the Democrats some potential pushback against the GOP’s economic argument.”

And what about Obamacare, a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act? The ABC poll calls the issue a wash. Some 36 percent of Americans say they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who favors the law, but essentially as many, 34 percent, would be more apt to back such a candidate. The rest say it would make no difference. Reactions were more negative in November, amid the botched rollout, Mr. Langer notes.

Democratic strategists suggest their party’s candidates have turned a corner on Obamacare.

“They’re not leading with it, but now, with 4 million Americans successfully enrolled, they're certainly willing to engage on it more than they were six months ago,” says Brent Blackaby, a Democratic consultant in San Francisco. 

Another Democratic consultant, speaking on background, says his party’s candidates have fashioned a potent, two-part message on the faulty rollout – that with any big program there are problems that need to be fixed, and second, the nation can’t go back to the days when insurance companies could exclude people for preexisting conditions or kick them off when they got sick.

Obama can help boost the ACA’s image, the consultant says.

“I think it’s fair to say I would certainly like to see the president articulate the message that I just outlined,” he says. “Fix the problems, no going back to the old days. Focus on the benefits. He’s the one that promised that nobody would lose their insurance, so he should find a way to make good on that promise.”

In fact, The Hill newspaper reported Monday, the Obama administration is set to announce a new directive allowing insurers to keep offering plans that don’t meet ACA criteria through the fall. That will prevent a new wave of policy cancellations on the eve of the Nov. 4 midterms.

Immigration reform and climate change could also figure into Democratic messaging – as part of the theme of “Republican obstruction” – but they’re not seen as top-tier issues.

Democrats have also been handed a policy wish list, in the form of Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, released Tuesday. From more spending on education, infrastructure, and research to tax increases on the wealthy, it’s a liberal document that skips the cost-savings in Social Security that were included last year.

But Obama’s budget won’t be every Democrat’s cup of tea. And with Democrats competing in high-profile races in as diverse a collection of states as Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Colorado, and Iowa, local issues will also shape the discussion.

“Each individual race will have its own dynamic and its own arguments, especially with Senate races,” says Mellman.

This is the first of two articles on campaign issues of 2014. Next: the Republicans.

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