Barbour and GOP resist counting gains prematurely, as Dems try to energize deflated liberal base

Jon Ward Contributor
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Washington has already moved on to analyzing the impact of a Republican-controlled House, skipping past the question of whether such a change will in fact occur. The avalanche of stories gaming out the angles of a power reversal has begun to run away with the news cycle.

But in a semi-darkened Washington D.C. theater Wednesday night, 62-year-old Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour pleaded with a crowd of about 300 conservatives not to get ahead of themselves.

“A month is a light year in politics. And with today’s news cycle, or news cycles every day, the time changes so much faster than it ever has before,” Barbour said.

Republicans are trying to ride out the storm of the 2010 midterms without screwing up or squandering a huge opportunity, while Democrats are frantically looking for ways to alter the course, or even the severity, of the storm.

Barbour, who noted that he first worked on a campaign more than 40 years ago (Nixon in 1968), was at the E Street Cinema in Washington to promote a 23-minute mini-documentary about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The Republican Governors Association, of which Barbour is chairman, invited mostly college Republicans to the event, knowing they would do the best job of promoting the slickly produced film through social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Nothing is foreordained. Its not automatic that just because we’ve had a great year, and we’ve had the wind at our back, that we’re automatically going to win on November the 2. But we have to win,” Barbour told the crowd. “That means we need every one of you doing a little more, digging a little deeper, asking one more and one more and one more friend and family member to be sure that they too are asking. Leave no stone unturned.”

In Barbour’s anxiety lies the Democrats’ greatest hope that they can avoid a complete clobbering at the polls in November. Democrats know they are in trouble, but they also know that much of the grassroots anger is directed almost as equally at Republicans as it is at them. They hope they can energize a deflated liberal base just enough to retain control of Congress, and their best-case scenario includes actually winning a few gubernatorial races in large states currently run by Republican governors.

“Closing this enthusiasm gap over the next 50 plus days is probably the most critical thing the Democrats can do. If we can do that, I think you will see a change in the dynamics of this election, possibly dramatic,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist, at an event hosted by the Democratic Governors Association on Thursday.

Kofinis added a caveat: “Not an easy thing to do.”

Indeed, 17.2 million Republicans have voted in party primaries this year, compared to 12.9 million Democrats. Public Policy Polling recently estimated that in key Senate and gubernatorial races, the enthusiasm gap between the fired up conservative grassroots and the lethargic liberal base is costing Democratic candidates an average of seven points.

President Obama has begun to devote the full force of his bully pulpit to trying to rescue his party. His Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, followed by his speech Wednesday in Cleveland, were the first two rounds from the chamber, but not the last. The president will focus on turning out younger voters and minorities in four trips during the last month before the election, traveling to Madison, Wisc., an as-yet unannounced city in Ohio, Philadelphia and Las Vegas.

White House officials say privately they believe a push by the president over the last several weeks can help Nancy Pelosi remain speaker of the House.

Paul Begala, a former Clinton White House political adviser, lauded Obama’s Cleveland speech as the perfect recipe to help Democrats regain some momentum, because it focused on attacking Republicans by linking them to some of the most extreme positions staked out by Tea Party-backed Senate candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Joe Miller in Alaska.

“It seemed to be a pivot point away from, ‘Give me a gold star for my accomplishments in my first two years,’ and toward, ‘Danger Will Robinson: Crazy people want to run your country,” Begala said.

Yet Obama is somewhat limited in his effectiveness by the fact that his own policies have proven to be one of the Democratic parties’ biggest problems. The $814 billion stimulus passed in 2009 and the health-care bill passed this year have both proven to be highly unpopular with voters. Meanwhile, unemployment has remained stubbornly just under 10 percent, and is not going anywhere.

“It sucks to be the party in power with 9.6 percent unemployment,” Begala said.

Next: How do Republicans perceive Obama’s bully pulpit assault, and how will Democrats inspire their deflated base?

Republican strategist Kevin Madden, an adviser to potential GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said attacks by the president on the GOP only undermines the core message that got Obama elected in the first place.

“Economic anxiety is the driving force behind voter anger right now. Voters are sick of the partisanship and they’re desperate for someone to take control of a seemingly rudderless capital. And yet President Obama, who asked for the job and got it, has decided to attack Republicans and blame everyone but himself for the lack of progress on the economy,” Madden said. “Every day he does that is a day that he destroys the central argument to his campaign: that he is a unifying force who can deliver change.”

Democrats are hoping that they can localize races, especially those for the House, for state legislatures and for governor.

Strategists at the DGA event pointed to gubernatorial races in California and Texas as evidence that the national mood may not dictate the outcome in elections for state offices. In California, former Ebay Chief Executive Meg Whitman has spent $120 million of her own money so far but has been unable to pull clear of former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democrat. In Texas, incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry is in a shootout with Houston Mayor Bill White that is closer than the GOP would like.

In addition, DGA executive director Nathan Daschle said that in some cases, Republicans have nominated inexperienced candidates with little state infrastructure aimed at turning out voters.

Daschle said that Democrats “are going to out organize the Republicans,” in Ohio and Florida in particular.

But behind the optimistic talk by Democrats of avoiding a wave in statewide races, there is a fear that the consequences of losing gubernatorial races and state legislatures could be just as devastating as losing the House or the Senate.

Democrats are trying to rouse their uninspired base to recognize the stakes for this fall election at the state level. It is the year that only comes every four in which 37 governors seats are up for election. And it is also the year that comes only once a decade in which most state legislatures and governors chosen by voters will decide how congressional districts in each state are redistricted.

“The stakes in particular in this election are incredibly profound because of one factor and that is redistricting,” said Kofinis.

In a remarkable but little noticed development, Republicans have two of their most skilled and shrewd leaders managing their national campaigns for the levers of power at the state level, with Barbour heading the RGA and Ed Gillespie at the helm of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

“As a general matter national Republicans understand, and have a much more profound understanding, of the importance of governorships than Democrats do,” said Harold Ickes, a former Clinton adviser like Begala who appeared with him at the DGA event.

Republicans currently holdonly 14 of the nation’s state legislatures, compared to the 27 held by Democrats. But one analyst recently said that 21 of the Democratic legislatures are in play and could flip, compared to only four of those held by Republicans. The GOP expects to pick up at least 10 state assemblies.

“They have their eyes very focused on redistricting,” Ickes said. “Haley understands that even if the Democrats hold the House this year … they are confident that if they win enough governorships they can – by way of redistricting – take the House in the 2012 elections.”

Of course, there is evidence that Obama and his closest advisers are looking ahead to 2012 as well. Time Magazine wrote Thursday that Organizing for America, which grew out of Obama’s 2008 campaign, is devoting significant resources to building an organization in states that are more important to the presidential election than they are to the midterms, such Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona.

OFA angrily denied the story in an 850-word rebuttal of the 347-word Time piece, slamming the report as “ridiculous.”

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