The year of the bloody sock

By Ken Feltman

Hell, I never vote for anybody. I always vote against.
– W. C. Fields

So do most people.

That is the crux of the Democrats’ problem. District by district and state by state, the Democrats have given voters reasons to dislike them. They are testing the voters’ patience as well as the old political axiom that people vote against, not for. Voters take a dislike to a candidate or elected official and then overlook the flaws and shortcomings in an opponent. In January, Massachusetts voters took a dislike to Martha Coakley, the Democrats’ senate candidate. She thought that Curt (“Bloody Sock”) Schilling, who pitched the Red Sox to key victories over the hated Yankees, was a Yankees fan. One of Schilling’s victories came as he pitched with blood seeping from an ankle wound, staining his sock, shoe and trouser leg. Is it possible to be more out of touch in Massachusetts?

There is something primal in sports fans’ romance with their teams, something tribal in the fans’ banding together, wearing the team colors, swilling beer and shouting. The rituals of being a fan keep everyone together in support of their team – and against the other team. The chauvinistic behavior is excused because it’s a game. Political leaders years ago harnessed the excitement of sports to bring fan-like loyalty to politics. They learned that rites similar to those of sports fans could unite supporters of a political party or movement. Banners, parades, songs, symbols: All the things that appeal to sports fans appeal to supporters of the political parties, too.

Sadly for Coakley, the rituals that unite also divide. Her failure to recognize a Boston baseball hero was just another good reason to dismiss her.

What’s happening out there?

Look around and you see that other Democrats have done the same thing, never realizing at the time that they were making a symbolic mistake. Now, as they hear from disenchanted voters and read the polls, some long-time Democratic officeholders are beginning to wonder why they did it. In other years, with a better economy, relatively minor gaffs would pass unnoticed. Not this year.

Take California: Senator Barbara Boxer should have no difficulty winning reelection. But she is in trouble. Why? Basically, she committed a Coakley. She told a general who was testifying before her committee to call her “senator” and not “ma’am” because she had worked so hard to earn that title. Her display of ego disgusted voters. They let Boxer hear about it in letters to the editor, talk radio and television shows, comments to pollsters, etc. Suddenly, her race is considered a toss-up.

Pennsylvania: Senator Arlen Specter switched to the Democratic Party when his polling showed that he was likely to lose the November election if he ran as a Republican. Loyal Democrats were offended that Specter assumed that he could have the Democratic nomination simply by changing parties. Republicans were miffed at his departure, of course. Specter was left with independents and they are not enthusiastic about voting for any incumbent, regardless of party. Specter is in trouble.

Delaware: This open seat belonged to Vice President Biden. The Democrats thought that they could anoint Biden’s successor. Not so fast, say the voters. Analysts agree that the seat is likely to go Republican.

Illinois: The Democrats nominated a flawed candidate. His campaign stressed his financial management skills. His family bank, where he was head of the loan committee before he became state treasurer, just folded and was taken over by the federal government. So much for his financial credentials. The Republicans nominated a moderate. Now, the Democrats are planning to scuttle their nominee and replace him if the polls continue to show that Democratic voters are drifting away. The Republicans have Illinois in the “pick up” column. Democratic insiders are confident that they will replace the tarnished primary winner with an acceptable candidate who will win in November. Political consultants say the election leans to the GOP.

Arkansas: Senator Blanche Lincoln has always had an image as aloof, even imperious, but pro-Arkansas. Now, Democrats from the left and Republicans from the right are hammering at her record. Probably too late, Lincoln is trying to become folksy. Arkansans are wise and wary of condescension. Lincoln has been written off by the White House.

Nevada: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has just made a rare swing through his home state. He was greeted so harshly that his staff restricted media coverage. Some Nevadans were turned away from Reid’s rallies because they were thought to be Tea Party members. The word went out: Reid will not talk with us, just at us. Analysts figure Reid is a goner. In fact, he is now suffering the indignity of reading about the efforts of two senators who are openly vying to replace him as Democratic leader in the Senate.

The problems continue in Washington State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Colorado, North Dakota and elsewhere. The voters are irritated to incensed at Obamacare, less because of the new law and more because of the brutal way it was passed. A block of voters who seldom create waves started to speak out about a year ago. They were ignored and even attacked by President Obama, which encouraged other Democratic officials to go on the attack against them. Those voters coalesced. Awakened, they are often Tea Partiers and they are energized to vote – probably against.

The House is slipping away from the Democrats

The problem in the House has spread from vulnerable Democrats in marginal or traditionally Republican districts to Democratic fixtures in solidly Democratic areas. At least three venerable chairman are now vulnerable chairman. For example, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), first elected to Congress in 1968, finds his polling numbers falling. He will have to run an aggressive campaign to avoid ending his career with a defeat. He remains popular in his district. His voting record has not changed. Except for healthcare, he is doing what his district favors. But that healthcare vote sent a powerful message.

Democratic officials in Washington have defended the healthcare bill on the grounds that if you take the legislation apart, provision by provision, Americans favor most of the individual provisions. Voters find that explanation silly. Beside, it was the way the bill was passed that triggered the most recent antipathy to healthcare reform and the Democrats.

When the pendulum swings back, it swings first past the numbers it just passed going the other way. A decade ago, the Mountain States began to crumble for Republicans. That bastion of conservative voting went quickly from red to blue. Today, the Republicans are not doing that much better than before. They have not improved in voters’ minds. They have not articulated a more acceptable philosophy. In fact, fewer people in the Mountain States say they are Republicans now. But Democrats throughout the region are in trouble, often because of seemingly minor miscues – and healthcare reform.

Did the game change after Obama started playing?

In a way, this swing is unfair to the President and the Democrats. Obama campaigned on change and he is trying to deliver it, albeit with a heavy hand. Obama has not changed. The voters have. The economy occupies their attention and they want the Democrats to focus on the economy, too. The Democrats have not moved quickly enough and the voters have found their Coakley obliviousness.

Voters think the Democrats do not get it. Obama, professorial and defensive, has begun to convey to voters the impression that he thinks it is the voters who may not understand.

Yes, it is bad for Democrats this year. Their best chance may be that the Republicans usually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Suddenly, for example, the Florida senate race could be within the Democrats’ reach with one of the Republican candidates quitting the GOP to run as an independent.

Bottom line: The Democrats have lost control of their own destiny.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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