Stillwater News Press

Opinion

April 24, 2014

E.J. DIONNE: The key to 2014

STILLWATER, Okla. — The Democrats' biggest strategic challenge in maintaining control of the U.S. Senate involves motivating the party's base while simultaneously attracting swing and even Republican voters in contests being waged in conservative states.

The tension is aggravated for Democrats this year because they are trying to hold so many seats in Republican territory. Incumbents such as Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mark Begich in Alaska and Kay Hagan in North Carolina can't win with the base alone. The Democrats' hopes to take seats away from the GOP in Kentucky and Georgia also hinge on reaching beyond loyalists.

Compounding the Democrats' quandary: President Obama's approval ratings are particularly low in the red states with tough Senate races. This explains the ambivalence of many in his party toward the Affordable Care Act, and it's the reason Republicans insist on calling it “Obamacare.”

This is moving some red-state Democrats, notably Landrieu, to praise important aspects of the law, and private polling suggests that most voters don't want to go through the health care fight and its uncertainties all over again.

But the decisive question may be whether Democrats can find crossover issues that turn out their core constituencies while also persuading undecided voters in the red states to come their way.

 Both publicly and privately, Democrats say they are well into this quest. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York have been pushing what they call the party's “fair shot” agenda. Its components include raising the minimum wage and measures to make college more affordable. They are also aggressively seeking to tie the entire Republican Party to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who are spending lavishly on behalf of the GOP.

But the Democrats' short-term needs in 2014 point to a long-term imperative for progressives: They must embrace both an attractive set of policies to promote shared economic growth and a straightforward critique of a conservative economic narrative that sees smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation as keys to prosperity.

The 2014 elections will hang on many tactical decisions. But above all, they underscore how urgent it is for center and left alike to make a sustained and credible argument that individual prosperity requires thoughtful public action. It's a case the liberal base wants to hear and that swing voters need to find compelling.

 E.J. Dionne's email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.

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