The base wants more from its leaders: Democratic activists desire a stronger challenge to President Bush’s Iraq war policies and economic agenda, while GOP faithful want more accomplishments and smaller government.
Heading into a midterm election, which has no presidential race to drive turnout, both parties will rely more than ever on their core supporters in the 2006 cycle.
“Base turnout is critical in a midterm election. The reality is there is a drop off between the presidential election and the midterm election,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
Democrats last week ramped up their push for increasing the minimum wage and have assailed Bush on the Iraq war. The National Republican Senatorial Committee responded by accusing Senate Democrats of “Panderfest 2006” for proposing defense authorization amendments that called for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.
That criticism comes just as GOP leaders have slated debates this month on such “red meat” issues as a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and flag burning, as well as estate tax relief. Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs said GOP leaders are smart to schedule such politically potent issues for the floor because they motivate her members.
“You know how this works. When it comes close to the elections, you bring the issues to the floor,” Combs said. “The base of the Republican Party is social conservatives.”
However, both parties face grumbling from their activist ranks. For example, House Republicans are adamantly opposed to Bush’s proposals for an immigrant guest-worker program.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said last week the base feels disgruntled that Washington has not done enough to fight illegal immigration. He said it is probably better for Congress to approve no bill rather than one he said provides amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Whether the pending debate is enough to appease the base depends on whether voters feel their particular representative is serious about the problem, he said.
“If it is talked about in the [campaign] and people feel frustrated about it … it is something that keeps them at home,” Tancredo said. “When they see it as the issue, it drives them … out to the polls.”
Tancredo said the June 6 special election of Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., shows the potency of the immigration issue. He said Democrat Francine Busby lost the election because of the impression she suggested individuals without paperwork could cast ballots. He said GOP candidates can also burnish their immigration stance by running against the White House position.
If Republicans are conflicted about immigration, Democrats are at least as divided about what to do in Iraq. Robert Borosage, co-director for the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, said Democrats ought not to fear the Republicans’ “cut and run” attack on withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.
Borosage earlier this month presided over a CAF conference at which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was booed for not taking a fixed position on Iraq. He said a Democratic candidate can prevail on Iraq as an issue by taking an unambiguous stance and arguing it well.
“You have to have conviction, stand up and argue [the] case. That’s the lesson people drew from the last election,” Borosage said, adding that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., failed in his 2004 presidential campaign to take clear stances. “He was injured by not being upfront about what he was for.”
In spite of party division on Iraq, Democracy for America Chairman Jim Dean said the party’s wide-ranging Iraq debate has engaged his activists. Dean also points to Democrats’ vigorous opposition to Social Security privatization last year as the model for battling Republicans on such issues as education, jobs and health care.
“That’s where they stood up to the president. I’d like to see them do some more of that,” Dean said.
Some conservatives are equally frustrated that Republicans have not delivered on their priorities, even as GOP leaders have made floor time for what they say are largely symbolic votes on social issues.
Rob Jordan, campaign director for the grassroots group FreedomWorks, described his members as upset that Republicans have increased federal spending and not carried through on overhauling Social Security.
“It would seem that part of the internal political calculation is to cater to radical segments of the base with issues like gay marriage,” Jordan said. “It’s not real substance. I don’t think these are the groups who are going to help them in the election.”
Committee for Justice Executive Director Sean Rushton said the confirmations of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito to the Supreme Court were important victories, but he lamented that GOP senators seem content to leave other “good nominees, attacked and … undefended.”
Democratic strategists, who face the burden of unseating Republican House and Senate majorities, note the political climate and tactics also matter in midterm elections.
Borosage said the Republican National Committee’s powerful turnout apparatus can help counteract the GOP’s poor poll ratings and lethargic base. He said Democrats cannot rely on the turnout machinery they had in 2004 because of the dissolution of America Coming Together and a split in the labor movement.
Mellman said the Democrats’ stronger poll numbers and the party’s “desire to change George Bush’s policy” are not necessarily enough to overcome GOP advantages, such as incumbency.
“There is a large anti-Republican wave that is breaking, but that wave is going to crash on a stable political structure,” Mellman said, adding that election results depend on the size of the wave and the strength of the structure. “The answer will become apparent on the Wednesday after the election.”