President Obama is raising lots of money to help stave off Republican control of the Senate, but the only thing that can really save Democrats is a larger voter turnout than the typical midterm election attracts. This November’s election will never approach presidential-year numbers, but if Democrats can add a percentage or two—and in some deep red states, more than that—victory could be within reach.
To boost turnout, Democrats have to make voters believe the stakes are high, and one of the best ways to do that, as history has shown, is persuading people that if Republicans are elected, they will scale back programs such as Social Security and Medicare. “It’s an oldie but goody,” says Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, noting that Democrats won the Senate back in 1986 in large part on the strength of their promise to protect those programs. “You have to have some issue to excite the voters,” he says. “If anything upsets the apple cart, this might.”
Republicans are widely favored to pick up the six seats they need to gain the Senate majority, but race by race, it may not be the slam dunk the GOP anticipates. Sabato recently switched the Senate race in Arkansas from leaning Republican to tossup based in part on incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor’s attacks on his challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, for his votes for the Ryan budget and a more draconian Republican Study Group (RSG) budget for those who thought the Ryan budget didn’t go far enough to cut spending.
“The RSG budget is a travesty, and any Democrat who can use it should,” says Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs and a cofounder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group whose support for entitlement reforms has taken flak from more traditional Democrats. On the study group budget, there is no divide.
Voted on with little fanfare in March 2013, just before the Republican-controlled House passed the Ryan budget, the RSG budget is what MSNBC host Rachel Maddow called the Democrats’ “secret sauce” in a recent segment that featured the Pryor-Cotton race. “It does all the same things [as the Ryan budget], but it does them sooner and does them worse,” says Erik Dorey, Pryor’s deputy campaign manager. While Ryan increases the retirement age to 67, RSG takes it to 70 and hastens the transformation of Medicare into a voucherized system. “It’s a great vote to cite because it gives you some punch to TV ads,” says Sabato. “It’s not just rhetoric; it’s an actual vote.”
The RSG budget is particularly effective against Cotton, as he was the only member of the Arkansas congressional delegation to vote for it. He also was alone in his vote against the farm bill earlier this year, which hurt him. “Cotton hasn’t roared out of the gate the way people thought he would, and the Pryor name is golden there,” says Sabato, adding that while the Democratic incumbent may not win in the end, the race is going to be much closer than anyone anticipated when Pryor was called “toast” just a few months ago.
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