It is hard to pick an analogy here — throwing things at the wall? grasping at straws? plugging holes in a dam? — but the point is the same: Democrats are running through a variety of messages and issues that they hope will prevent electoral doom in 2014.
November promises to be bleak for Democrats. Yes, there are seven months before election day, nearly a third of each member of the House's two-year term. But the combination of low Democratic turnout, embattled incumbents, and an unpopular president has the party trying to figure out how to at least ameliorate the first two problems. The only real question is whether Republicans can retake control of the Senate; House Speaker John Boehner is already looking forward to their doing so.
Here is an almost-certainly incomplete list.
Straw 1: Pork will protect incumbents.
Remember pork? Pork is back. Well, not that it really went anywhere. The process of sneaking local projects into appropriations bills and other projects just sort of splintered and became more difficult. And as the Washington Post reports on Tuesday, some of the Democratic Senate incumbents facing tough races this fall have appealed to the Obama administration to help out with some goodies.
Using "control of the federal bureaucracy to deliver local projects or delay new regulations that might stifle jobs has become a critical part of Democratic efforts to maintain control of the Senate," the Post's Paul Kane writes. He looks specifically at Alaska's Mark Begich and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, both of whom are in trouble. So Begich is hoping the administration can approve a highway linking a small town in remote Alaska to its airport — a project weirdly reminiscent of the much-derided Bridge to Nowhere. He's pushing for an expansion of oil-drilling in the state. Landrieu successfully lobbied to keep a call center located in Louisiana that employed 600 people to help Obamacare enrollment.
It's worth noting that what Begich and Landrieu are doing is basically exactly what an elected official is traditionally supposed to do: get jobs and resources for his or her state. It's just that both very much hope those things are delivered far enough before November that they can make some TV ads bragging about them.
Straw 2: The Ryan Budget will mobilize Democrats.
The release of Paul Ryan's 2015 budget proposal earlier this month provided Democrats with the newest iteration of a standard talking point: House Republicans want to gut social safety net programs. It's an argument that has merit; 69 percent of the cuts in the budget come from assistance programs for the poor, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Capitol Hill Democrats have seized on the proposal as a way to mobilize Democrats, as The Hill reports. On Sunday, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer called the budget "a gift." An unnamed Senate leadership aide declared that "Ryan did his guys running for Senate a real disservice by putting forward a budget" this year. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi weighed in, saying that Democrats will use the budget as an opportunity to debate the issues.
And then there's New York Rep. Steve Israel, who runs the party's House election arm. In a speech last week, Israel called the budget a "defining issue" for the midterms, according to The Washington Examiner. He also said that the Ryan budget would cost Republicans the House — except he said that in April 2011. In the 2012 elections, with heavy Democratic turnout, the Republicans did not lose the House.
Straw 3: Other economic issues will bring Democrats to the polls.
Democrats aren't focused solely on the Ryan budget as a vehicle for ginning up outrage in their base. As The Wire has noted before, economic issues of all stripes are being floated as ways to improve expected low turnout.
It's one reason that the party may see a silver lining in the almost-certain failure of the House to consider extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, as Politico reports. "Senate Democrats opened the year with a focus on the jobless bill to highlight their election-year theme of reducing income inequality," Politico's Lauren French writes. As long as the Republicans fail to take up the issue, it gives Democrats a chance to hammer on the point.
Democrats are also continuing a long-standing push to reduce the difference in salaries between men and women. Tuesday is "Equal Pay Day," the date following January 1, 2013, when women finally earn what men earned by December 31 of that year. As they do every year, Democrats are highlighting the discrepancy. This year, though, there's the added incentive of getting women voters to the polls in November. As The New York Times points out, Democrats are focused on a series of "gender-related issues" for the midterms, including "pay equity, family leave, preschool and child care." The Times also notes a point of trickiness for the administration: women who work for Obama earn only 88 percent of what their male peers do.
Straw 4: Democrats will vote against the Supreme Court and the Kochs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hyperactive fixation on the Koch brothers is not a psychological tic. He's betting that Democrats will be so enraged at the pollution of politics by the wealthy that they'll turn out in droves to reject Koch-backed candidates.
As The Hill reports, this tactic is not new. Following the 2010 citizens United case at the Supreme Court, Democrats made wealthy donors a key target of their electoral efforts, using the prospect of megadonors shifting elections as a way to tap into the class frustrations of their base. With the court's decision to remove the overall cap on donations earlier this month, the argument got new legs.
The problem the Democrats will see is two-fold. First, that the argument didn't appear to work very well in 2010 or 2012 — although Citizens United didn't play a very large role in the former. The second problem they face is similar to the one they face on gender pay: It's trivial to rebut with opposing anecdotes. As the Times' Nick Confessore reported over the weekend, Pelosi's fundraisers were on the phone within hours of the Supreme Court decision, trying to wring more money out of donors.
That's not hypocrisy, it's politics. And the Obama pay gap doesn't mean that the gender pay gap across the country isn't real. But for Democrats hoping to figure out what argument can help them hold onto the Senate this November, that both-sides-do-it rebuttal means they probably need to keep looking.