POLITICS
10/30/2014 06:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Liberal Lurch: Both Parties Find Progressive Jesus In Dying Moments Of Campaign

WASHINGTON -- While the GOP has effectively locked down the campaign for the House and is in a good place to win control of the Senate, the contours of the midterm election have taken on a decidedly liberal edge as candidates make their closing arguments.

From the Deep South to the frontiers of Alaska, candidates from both parties are one-upping each other in support of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, positioning themselves as populists, and standing up for the minimum wage, renewable fuels and, at least rhetorically, some modicum of reproductive freedom.

In North Carolina, GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, whose victory in the Republican primary rested on his ardent opposition to expanding Medicaid, is now saying he would "encourage" the Republican-controlled state legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory (R) to consider expanding the program.

In Georgia, Republican Senate candidate David Perdue has seen his political fortunes stumble as the focus of the race has turned to his history of outsourcing and offshoring jobs, while Democratic rival Michelle Nunn has campaigned more as a populist than as a conservative Democrat. Nunn spokesman Nathan Click argued that Perdue "said it himself, he said he spent most of his career outsourcing.” Click added, “Georgians are rejecting that.”

Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said that Nunn is launching “false and personal attacks” on Perdue’s successful business record because she is out of touch with what matters to Georgians. “Michelle Nunn's allegiance to Barack Obama and Harry Reid continues to hold her back with Georgia voters who want a new direction in Washington,” Whittemore added.

In Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is pushing for an increase in Social Security benefits, while in Louisiana, embattled Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has become the program's staunchest defender.

Begich "gets that running on expanding Social Security has real value to his constituents. Being for something matters, giving people a clear choice when they're voting," said Matt Morrison, political director for the labor nonprofit Working America.

Meanwhile, Republicans across the country are changing their tune on the old-age and disability insurance program that was the heart of the New Deal. As The Washington Post put it:

Cutting federal health and retirement spending has long been at the top of the GOP agenda. But with Republicans in striking distance of winning the Senate, they are suddenly blasting the idea of trimming Social Security benefits.

How it could come to pass that Republicans would best Democrats in a contest fought on such a liberal playing field says much about our political system, in which elections often serve as a referendum on the direction of the country more than a choice between competing visions. And few Americans think things are headed in the right direction.

To win a midterm election with an unpopular president in office, the other party's first task is to yoke its opponents to the president. It is only the second -- or third or fourth -- task to spell out an agenda. Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, disputed the notion that GOP candidates had gone liberal in their rhetoric, but argued that the defining issue is how close a candidate is to President Obama.

"The defining issue in this election is the fact that Democratic senators who promised to be independent voices for their states have voted in lockstep with Barack Obama, whose policies are overwhelmingly unpopular within their home states," Dayspring said. "If there were even the slightest 'liberal lurch,' as you suggest, Democratic candidates would be embracing Barack Obama rather than pretending they’ve never heard of him."

Dayspring highlights a central challenge for Democrats: namely, how to affirm support for a broad Democratic agenda without embracing the leader of the party -- or, in the case of Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, even admitting that one has voted for him.

Democrats are not helped along by their own controversial efforts to trim Social Security and hike the retirement and Medicare eligibility ages as part of a "grand bargain," in which they offered spending cuts in exchange for Republicans' agreeing to tax hikes. No bargain was struck, and now Democrats are being hammered by Republicans for proposing the entitlement cuts.

From the outside, it might seem strange that Republicans could beat Democrats by running on liberal issues. It may be, however, that the popularity of those issues is the only thing standing between the GOP and a wave election. After all, Obama's approval rating is at landslide-loss levels, yet the race for the Senate remains a nail-biter and voters may well end up casting more ballots for Democrats in the House than for Republicans -- though the latter will retain control of the lower chamber due to the last redrawing of congressional districts.

It has all led to the spectacle of Karl Rove and other national Republicans attacking Democrats for wanting to cut spending.

The dynamic allows the National Republican Congressional Committee to run an ad that hits Georgia Rep. John Barrow, a Democrat, for backing a plan that could raise the Social Security retirement age to 69 and criticizes his Obamacare vote by arguing it cut Medicare by hundreds of billions of dollars. While thus attacking Barrow for being too conservative on Social Security and Medicare, the GOP is also drilling him for backing "taxpayer funded abortions" and wasteful spending.

Republicans, of course, are not unique in seizing opposition turf if there's political advantage. Daniel Scarpinato, national press secretary for the NRCC, noted that some Democrats have been similarly masquerading as Republicans. He sent The Huffington Post a dozen campaign ads to demonstrate his point. One is from Montana Democratic House candidate John Lewis, who brags about his high National Rifle Association approval rating and attacks his Republican opponent for supporting gun control. Another shows Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) denouncing the Environmental Protection Agency. Democrats in red districts, Scarpinato noted, have been quite willing to bash the "war on coal" or call for tax cuts.

But in red states, plenty of blue messages are being trotted out. An ad from Rove's Crossroads GPS batters Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) for proposing to "overhaul" Medicare and Social Security, noting that he floated an increase in the retirement age. Pryor’s challenger, GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, who supports repealing Obamacare, ran a campaign ad promising that “every vote I’ve cast and will cast on Social Security and Medicare protects and preserves benefits for seniors.”

Democrats are on safer ground with the minimum wage, as Republicans have taken flak for stonewalling recent attempts to raise the federal minimum. But in battleground states, GOP candidates are nonetheless trying to soften their rhetoric.

In September, Cotton said he would vote for a ballot initiative to raise the Arkansas minimum wage, distancing himself from his own opposition to a federal wage hike. GOP Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan has spoken up in support of a state minimum wage increase as well, despite opposing it during his primary campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported. And Republican Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst denied ever calling for abolishing the minimum wage, even though she previously said, "I do not support a federal minimum wage."

Some Republicans in tight races have gone green, too. Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, who denies that humanity is causing climate change, still produced an ad in front of a wind farm.

In addition to flipping on Medicaid, North Carolina candidate Tillis, who had previously vowed to repeal renewable energy standards and voted to defund biofuels, is championing both in his campaign.

Republicans have also tried to appeal to female voters on health issues, an area in which Democrats usually reign. Gardner, Tillis, Mike McFadden in Minnesota, Rob Maness in Louisiana and Ed Gillespie in Virginia all have said they support making birth control pills available over the counter, a position that’s mostly political posturing since that decision is up to the Food and Drug Administration. Other Republicans have tamped down their language when talking about abortion. For example, in response to a question about abortion access, Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez told Colorado Public Radio last week, "I respect people's opinion, women's right to that choice.” But Beauprez’s voting record is staunchly anti-abortion.

In October, pro-life Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) ran a campaign ad in which he defended a highly restrictive abortion bill he had signed by contending, "The bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor." (That is, if she can find one. The law would force at least one clinic to close, pro-choice advocates say.) Ernst also waffled this month on her prior support for a personhood amendment, brushing it off as a "statement" that wouldn't have immediate consequences for abortion access. "These folks know that they can't win from an anti-choice place so they are defecting, obfuscating, and backpedaling to get ahead," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

"It's a sweet irony," said Working America's Morrison, referring to Republican candidates who once opposed Medicaid expansion now either supporting it or refusing to take a position. "Once people hear about expanding Medicaid, it's kind of a no-brainer. If you talk to people about the issues and get around the chatter, they hear it, they see the substance of the candidates' stances, and it makes a difference."

Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), told The Huffington Post that North Carolinians “won’t be fooled” by Tillis’ change of heart. "Speaker Tillis is desperate to cover up his record in North Carolina that includes cutting education by $500 million and rejecting health care for 500,000 people,” she said.

Weiner's hope that voters won't be fooled aside, the race for the Senate is still up for grabs. Whatever happens, it'll be hard for voters to know what they're going to get once the candidates take office.

Scarpinato, the NRCC spokesman, said that candidates who betray their principles ought to be ashamed of themselves. "Clearly these Democrats are so callous and opportunistic that they’d rather sell out their true beliefs just to get elected than stand beside their principles,” he said. “The last thing Congress needs are a bunch of politicians who say one thing in TV ads and do another thing when no one is looking.”

Samantha Lachman contributed reporting. This article was updated after publication with additional context.

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