Politics

02.21.14

Democrats’ Best Weapon for Midterms: Fear of a Red Senate

Control of the Senate depends on turnout in November. Democrats need to tap what scares their base most: fear of an unrestrained GOP.

We’ve known for a long time now that the Democrats have a lot of Senate seats to defend in red states where Barack Obama’s approval numbers aren’t much higher than George Zimmerman’s—indeed, in these states, surely lower.

But I feel like the fear has just set in here in the last couple of weeks; that is, Democrats coming to terms with the possibility-to-likelihood that they might lose the Senate this November, and after that, the utter bleakness of a final Obama two years with both House and Senate in GOP hands, saying no to anything and everything except, of course, any remote whiff of an opportunity to bring impeachment charges over something.

Republicans need a net pickup of six seats. Democrats are trying to defend incumbent status in six red states (North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Montana, West Virginia, and Alaska); also in two blue ones (Michigan and Iowa). They’re hoping for upsets in two red states (Georgia and Kentucky).

You’ll read a lot about Obamacare and the minimum wage and the War on Women and everything else, and all those things will matter. But only one thing really, really, really matters: turnout. You know the lament: The most loyal Democratic groups—young people, black people, single women, etc.—don’t come out to vote in midterms in big numbers. You may dismiss this as lazy stereotyping, but sometimes lazy stereotyping is true, and this is one of those times.

So how to get these groups energized? Because if core Democratic voting groups turn out to vote in decent numbers, the Democrats will hold the Senate. Two or three of the six will hold on, the Democrats will prevail in the end in Michigan and Iowa, and either Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky or Michelle Nunn in Georgia will eke out a win. Or maybe both—if Democratic voters vote. And if not? Republicans could net seven, eight.

The other side will be motivated: They’re older, white, angry that Obama continues to have the temerity to stand up there and be president, as if somebody elected him. This will be their last chance to push the rage button (well, the Obama-rage button; soon they’ll just start pushing the Hillary-rage button). But what will motivate the liberal side?

I call this the vampire-slayer election. I’ll explain that farther down. But first, let’s hear from Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, making his team’s most plausible case for why 2014 isn’t destined to be a repeat of 2010.

If the Republicans control the Senate, will they even give a mildly left-of-center Supreme Court nominee a hearing?

Canter acknowledges that the Democrats talk about “field” in every off-year election. But now, he vows, “This is the year we’re going to say it and mean it.” In the 10 states I mention above, Canter says, the goal is to spend $60 million on field operations alone, with an aggregate 4,000 paid staff in those states. It’s called the Bannock Street Project, after the street that housed the campaign HQ of Michael Bennet, the successful Democratic Senate candidate in that state in 2010. Bennet, you might recall, was one of the few Democrats not running against witches who held on to beat a Tea Party GOPer. The effort will be to quasi-nationalize what happened in Colorado then.

Look also, Canter says, at what happened in Montana and North Dakota in 2012. In both of those states, Obama was getting walloped by Mitt Romney—by 14 and 20 points, respectively. And yet, Democratic Senate candidates won in both states. Turnout was much higher in these two states: It was 53.4 percent nationally, but 59.4 in North Dakota and 61.5 in Montana. In both cases, Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp ran well ahead of Obama and are senators today.

Canter says the operations in those 10 states will look like this. Every voter in those states—yes, every single voter in those 10 states, he says—will be given two scores on a scale of 1 to 100: a support score and a turnout score. So if Molly Jones in Paducah is a 58 likely to support the Democrat and 38 likely to turnout, she can expect a lot of contacts from field operatives this fall.

But… contact her saying what? This is where I was a little less impressed by the things Canter had to say. I think he makes a plausible logistical argument. The Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota examples are real things. So are 60 million simoleons and 4,000 operatives. But they still need a compelling, unifying message. This is where we get to Buffy.

One of the all-time great Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes was Season 3’s “The Wish,” when a female demon grants Cordelia, the classic senior-class Queen Bee-beeyatch, one wish. Cordelia wishes instantly that Buffy Summers—who makes her life far more complicated than she wishes it to be—had never come to Sunnydale. The wish is granted. The next thing you see is, indeed, what would have happened to Sunnydale if Buffy, the vampire slayer, had never hit town. The high-school population is reduced by more than half. There’s a 6 p.m. curfew. Those who remain live in fear. The vamps have taken over. It’s a death town.

See where I’m going here? That’s Washington if the Republicans get the Senate. Vamp town. Imagine if Ruth Bader Ginsberg retires. If the Republicans control the Senate, will they even give a mildly left-of-center Supreme Court nominee a hearing? What about less high-profile federal judgeships across the country? How many of those are going to go vacant? If a Cabinet official or high-ranking sub-Cabinet member resigns, will they even permit the position being re-filled? Remember—41 of the 45 current GOP senators voted against confirming Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. And he was a former senator. And a Republican one at that!

Picture the mad Darrell Issa having a counterpart in the Senate to launch baseless investigations. It’s one thing for the House to be banging on about phony IRS and Benghazi scandals, but the Senate doing it is another matter entirely—far more serious. You really think a Republican Senate won’t? And I haven’t even gotten to regular policy. You think a GOP House and Senate combined won’t try every trick in the book to pressure Obama to fold on Social Security and Medicare?

The unique 2008 election aside, fear is a much better motivator in politics than hope. Democrats need to make their base voters see vividly the potential consequences of a GOP Senate majority and live in mortal fear of it. That and $60 million just may stem the tide.