Clift: Freshman House Democrats Struggle to Save Seats

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From left: Freshman Democrats Tom Perriello and Gerry Connolly Steve Helber / AP (left); gerryconnelly.com

Two freshman Democrats from Virginia, Tom Perriello and Gerry Connolly, swept into office on the wave of enthusiasm generated by Barack Obama, are now struggling to stay afloat in a sea of discontent about the president. OK, that’s a bit melodramatic, but listening to these lawmakers and what they’re up against in defending their seats is to wonder where all the magic has gone, and what can be done to recapture enough stardust to hold on to the Democratic majorities that are the bulwark of the Obama presidency.

Their districts are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, but their challenge is the same, persuading voters that Obama’s policies are steering the country back on the right course even though their own life situations are not improving, and to rally a base that has grown lethargic and disinterested after 18 months of partisan wrangling. Connolly, a dapper, mustached fellow, represents the wealthiest district in the country in terms of median household income. His northern Virginia constituents work directly or indirectly for the government, as bureaucrats or contractors, and are mostly shielded from the recession. Still, they’re not happy.

Connolly blames it on the lost narrative, the one where Obama gets sympathy for the mess he inherited and credit for what he’s done to clean it up. Connolly, trying to talk up the stimulus bill and the 3 million jobs it’s saved or created, and the deficit-reduction component in health-care reform and Wall Street reform (validated by the Congressional Budget Office!) is a quest on the order of redeeming the secrets of the lost ark. It’ll take Harrison Ford, or his political equivalent, Barack Obama.

Polling analyst Bill Schneider, moderating the conversation, recalled an old anecdote about George McGovern’s campaign manager calling a member of Congress in Ohio to say the Democratic nominee would be campaigning in his district. The lawmaker said he’d be visiting his mother in Florida. But, wait, I haven’t told you when, said the operative. It doesn’t matter when, said the congressman, I’ll be visiting my mother in Florida. Would these freshmen Democrats welcome Obama in their districts? Yes, both replied without hesitation. Connolly later expressed amazement that anyone would equate Obama with a failed nominee. “This is not George McGovern. This man won the presidency and swept in big Democratic majorities. To say all the magic is gone is foolishness, it’s not true.”

Turnout in Connolly’s district in ’08 approached 80 percent, and he figures it will be half that in November. Do the math, he says. The minority population in his district is 45 percent. “I need the base excited, and if someone can excite the base it’s President Obama.” Is he convinced Obama is fully committed to the cause? After a long pause, he said yes, that Obama will realize what’s at stake. Connolly’s Republican opponent is distancing himself from the Tea Party now that he’s won the primary, but Connolly has video of him at a Tea Party protest outside his congressional office, which is likely to turn up in a campaign ad this fall.

The Tea Party is proving to be a welcome distraction for Democrats. In Tom Perriello’s working-class district, where the median income is well below $50,000, there are four or five Tea Parties, and they don’t always agree, which made for a pretty contentious GOP primary. “They don’t think the Republican who won is a real conservative, and they also hate me a great deal,” said Perriello, a workingman’s hero with a combative style who is more comfortable in shirtsleeves than a suit. “And they’re struggling with those two emotions,” he concluded with a laugh. Perriello is on the knife’s edge when it comes to getting reelected. He makes all the lists of top endangered Democrats, and if he survives, it will be because he’s a fighter. He mirrors his constituents’ discontent that Obama hasn’t done enough to deliver on jobs. “People want to know: do we have a plan going forward, not who’s to blame,” he says. “Focusing on President Bush is a waste of time.”

Which brings us to the main reason that Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, organized this breakfast discussion, which was to unveil a poll done by the Benenson Group (Joel Benenson is Obama’s pollster). Its central finding is the potency of Bush as a negative for the Republicans if the Democrats can find a way to reinject him into the campaign. That’s the good news. The bad news, says Matt Bennett with Third Way, “Republicans have done a spectacular job of removing the albatross of Bush.” When asked if the GOP would return to Bush policies if they gain control of the Congress, even Democrats said no, surely Republicans wouldn’t be that stupid.

But when Bush’s name is tied to the economic ideas that conservatives are promoting, and they are identical, there is a 49-point swing in favor of Obama, the biggest swing Bennett said he’s ever seen in a poll. For Democrats searching for a light to lead them through the darkness, it might help to remind voters that while Bush is gone, his ideas live on in his ideological clones, and voting out the new crowd will only bring back the old crowd.