Scott Murphy, the incumbent Democrat who represents New York’s 20th Congressional District, has a slick campaign ad that hit the airwaves in September. The ad features four small business owners who support Murphy’s reelection to Congress because the congressman helped them resolve various business issues, from obtaining a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to negotiating with the state gaming authorities. It has all the makings of a convincing argument for a second term in office. It’s a strategy that would work most election years, but this year it is a gamble.
Main Street messaging is a perpetual happy-place for congressional Democrats, as Main-Street-not-Wall-Street has been a reoccurring theme for the party since the 2008 elections. It’s a favorite crutch, because it embodies everything that progressives would like to project in the minds of voters: a party that is small-business friendly and detached from the swamp of Washington politics. Best of all, it looks nice on TV.
However, there is a serious problem with the strategy. While Main Street messaging has been a consistent theme for Democrats, Democrat policies have been a mixed bag for small businesses, damaging the credibility of the brand. Well publicized, landmark legislation like health care reform, financial reform and cap and trade have created hurtles for incumbent Democrats.
For example, while Scott Murphy boasts having helped The Chocolate Mill, a local business, obtain government financing through the SBA, his vote in favor of Obama’s financial reform bill casts a pall over the future of small business lending at financial institutions. Andrew Busch, global currency and public policy strategist at BMO Capital Markets, concluded that the new regulations would create less credit for small- and medium-sized firms. Don’t think that business owners don’t know it.
In a September town hall, Murphy invited SBA director Karen Mills to a small business forum. The event was supposed to play into Murphy’s small-business-friendly campaign narrative. However, the event became a disaster when small business owners pointed out the onerous government requirements involved in obtaining government funding.
It is not just an issue for Scott Murphy. Democrat Bill Owens of NY-23 felt the heat radiating off the voter magnifying glass in a small business visit with Oneida-Madison Electric Co-op. The congressman caught an earful when touting the Democrat Party talking points on energy policy, only to receive questions and concerns about Obama’s agenda in return. While Owens lectured the co-op about using more renewable energy, the company board complained about stimulus dollars that they were promised but still hadn’t received and the pending energy bill in Congress, which they argued “mandates what science and technology” cannot yet accomplish. Owens ensured the group that, when it comes to the energy bill, he listens to “the experts.” Omitted from his list of confidants who bend his ear on energy policy were the very voters he was speaking with.
Tim Bishop of NY-1 took a different approach in a shared town hall with Republican challenger Randy Altschuler. After defending Obama’s tax plan and the TARP bailouts, he left the event early. The political snub did not go unnoticed by the audience. One businessman stood up, disgusted, and asked challenger Altschuler what he thought of Congressman Bishop’s early departure.
Main Street’s disillusionment with the Democrat Party is not a new development. In fact, it is remarkable that this messaging could ever have been the central theme in so many embattled Democrats’ campaigns. In June, NPR conducted a poll of battleground districts regarding the popularity of certain campaign messages. Please note that all three districts I listed above were included in the poll. One part of the survey matched Democrat “Main Street” messaging against the Republican “failed Democrat policies” messaging. The Republican messaging polled 9 to 14 points better.
I suppose with polls looking like this, Democrats need to find somewhere for cover. But for certain, the Main Street foxhole that incumbents believe they are climbing into is looking more and more like the barrel of the election gunfire that they are trying to avoid.