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Morning Jay: Dem Triage, White House Partisanship, and more...

6:30 AM, Sep 6, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Happy Labor Day!  Easily the most ironic holiday on the American calendar, today is the day we all celebrate work by ... taking off work!  

1. Democratic Triage?  The New York Times reviews the Democratic strategy to hold the House: 

As Democrats brace for a November wave that threatens their control of the House, party leaders are preparing a brutal triage of their own members in hopes of saving enough seats to keep a slim grip on the majority.

In the next two weeks, Democratic leaders will review new polls and other data that show whether vulnerable incumbents have a path to victory. If not, the party is poised to redirect money to concentrate on trying to protect up to two dozen lawmakers who appear to be in the strongest position to fend off their challengers...

With the midterm campaign entering its final two months, Democrats acknowledged that several races could quickly move out of their reach, including re-election bids by Reps. Betsy Markey of Colorado, Tom Perriello of Virginia, Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio and Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, whose districts were among the 55 Democrats won from Republicans in the last two election cycles.

Yikes.  This kind of "incumbent party makes hard choices" story is inevitable in a year like this, but it is really something to see it come out in early September.  Sizeable numbers of incumbent Democrats lack a "path to victory," even this far out?

Note the mention of Mary Jo Kilroy.  She's the representative from OH-15 (Columbus), which in past cycles has been rightly touted as the quintessential swing district.  As goes Columbus, so goes the nation.  

And if Columbus is gone in September...

Lest we think that the New York Times is too bearish on Dem prospects, the AP also reports that Democratic insiders are writing off not only Kilroy, but Steve Driehaus of OH-1 (Cincinnati) and John Boccieri of OH-16 (Canton).  Though Obama won OH-1 by 11 points and OH-15 by 9 points, and split historically Republican OH-16, these three Dems are "all but certain to lose," according to the AP's Democratic sources.  Dems are also worried about Betty Sutton of OH-13 (Akron), Zack Space of OH-18 (Chillicothe) and Charlie Wilson of OH-6 (Marietta).  

For those of you keeping count, Dem strategists think 6 of Ohio's 10 House Democrats are in danger.  The only safe Democrats are from districts centered in the party strongholds of the industrial northern tier - Toledo, Cleveland, and Youngstown, i.e. the Dukakis coalition

That recent PPP poll showing Ohio voters preferring Bush to Obama by 8 points is starting to make a lot of sense.  

2. A Divider, Not A Uniter. At the APSA meeting in Washington, D.C., scholars debated how and why President Obama has become such a polarizer.  I wonder if comments like this from David Plouffe were mentioned as a cause:

"Right now — and this is a problem for them — I do think Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, they are the leaders of the party," Plouffe said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "There is an intolerance in that party and an extremism that I think is where the real energy is, and so I think you'll see in '11 and '12 with that presidential primary, those are going to be the people who come out to vote."

Jabs like this come from top presidential advisors with great regularity, sometimes even from the president himself, and they started very early in the president's term.  The White House set up the "Party of No" meme in the first quarter of 2009 as an attempt to de-legitimize policy disagreements from conservatives.  The implication is always the same: while a handful of the president's opponents have legitimate differences of opinion, the bulk of them are either hacks or radicals.  

In other words, if you disagree with the president, it's evidence that something is wrong with you.

Is it any shock that this would inflame passions on the right, and further degrade the political discourse? 

3. House Polls. SurveyUSA has some brutal numbers coming out of WA-2 (Bellingham, Everett).  Incumbent Democrat Rick Larsen trails GOP challenger John Koster by 4.  This is a district that Barack Obama won by 14 points. John Kerry won it by 4.

These numbers explain why we're getting "Dem triage" stories when it's still 90 degrees in the nation's capital. Think of it this way: Obama won WA-2 by 14 points. A poll by a non-partisan, reputable firm shows it at +4 GOP, for a total swing of 18 points.  Apply that to the 435 districts across the country, and you have over 100 Democratic House seats in potential jeopardy.

Meanwhile, in VA-9 (Bristol, Radford) SuveyUSA finds incumbent Democrat Rick Boucher holding a 10-point lead over challenger Morgan Griffith, 50-40.  That's down from a 52-39 lead in mid-July.  The difference might simply be statistical noise, but it is possible that Griffith is closing the gap.  Griffith is no fringe candidate.  He is the Republican leader in the Virginia House of Delegates, and as of late July he had about $300k in the bank. Boucher voted against health care reform, but he supported cap-and-trade, which is noteworthy because about 18,000 people in the district have jobs tied to the mining industry.  If Griffith can raise the dough, this should be a tight race down the stretch.  

4. Democrats Run from Health Care. It has been interesting to watch supporters of health care struggle to explain the bill's political consequence.  At various times, I've seen different rhetorical strategies:

-Promote the fact that individual items, like the "public option," are ostensibly popular.

-Emphasize that the unpopularity is mostly about the messy process, and that when voters appreciate the benefits, they will come around.

-Selectively cite polls that are notably good for the reform, like the Kaiser poll.

-Most recently, argue that the bill's massive, sustained unpopularity has not contributed to Democratic decline, or at least that it can't be "proven."

Ultimately, polling data is going to remain sufficiently "ambiguous" so that, if the will to believe is strong enough, it will "vindicate" the view that health care has been neutral, if not positive.

The tie -- to the extent that there is one -- should be broken by the actions of strategic politicians, the ones whose jobs depend upon the question.  And their actions point pretty unequivocally to the idea that health care is a midterm problem for Democrats:

A handful of House Democrats are making health care reform an election year issue — by running against it.

At least five of the 34 House Democrats who voted against their party’s health care reform bill are highlighting their “no” votes in ads back home. By contrast, party officials in Washington can’t identify a single House member who’s running an ad boasting of a “yes” vote — despite the fact that 219 House Democrats voted in favor of final passage in March.

One Democratic strategist said it would be “political malfeasance” to run such an ad now.

I respect many of the commentators who have argued that health care reform hasn't contributed to the Democratic malaise, but that thesis becomes more and more strained every day.

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