Almost every election year has a driving narrative that determines how voters (and, just as importantly, those who choose not to vote) are thinking headed into the election. Four weeks from November 4, the narrative of this election remains muddled. There are so many issues, so many contradictory trends in play, that no one knows for sure what election day has in store for us or what the key voters will come to view as the story of this election. That is especially true in presidential election years, but it is also true even in most off-year elections.
In 1994, the early missteps of Clinton and the perceived corruption of Democrats who had been a majority in the House fired up Republican base voters and depressed Democratic turnout: Republicans swept into control of both the House and Senate. In 1998, the over-reach and obsession of the Republican House with the Lewinsky scandal allowed Democrats to make a compelling case that it was time to move on and deal with the country's real problems. The result was that for the first time since 1823, a president's party picked up seats in the House in the 6th year of his presidency. In the wake of 9-11 in 2002, security against terrorism drove the election discussion, and the Republicans had a good year. In 2006, the combination of Bush's incompetence and Republican corruption made for a big Democratic year. And in 2010, the rise of the tea party to "take back the country" was the dominant narrative, firing up a Republican base that turned out in big numbers.
The closest thing to a narrative today is that President Obama is facing a world of troubles. Pundits are assuming there will be low Democratic turnout and a bad year for Democrats. But things are more complex than that. In a fascinating memo from Stan Greenberg and James Carville's Democracy Corps and Page Gardner at Women's Voices Women's Vote Action Fund, they suggest that there is a modest but nonetheless quite significant trend toward Democratic candidates in the battleground Senate races. Obama's approval rating is beginning to go up; the Democratic base is more engaged; and key constituencies like unmarried women are starting to move toward the Democrats. They argue that a populist message especially focused on women voters' top economic concerns and attacking the big money corporate interests that want to "make sure CEOs paid no higher taxes and that their loopholes are protected, while working men and women struggle" moves these razor-tight races an average of 4 crucial points, from -2 to +2.
Driving that kind of populist message, while focusing heavily on getting out the vote among Democratic base voters, may well give all those pundits predicting a big Republican day four weeks from now a big surprise. But messaging is not the same thing as narrative in the same way that tactics are not strategy. Democrats should be driving the story of the corrupting influence of big money in politics. As the DCorps memo states: "It is hard to understate the intensity of the response to the role of big money."
I think the message the DCorps memo suggests is a great message for Democrats, but we can't only have a good message: I also believe that we need a narrative based on what is happening in the news. The narratives I listed above were driven by real world events: the massive failure of health care reform and the check overdraft scandal in 1994; the impeachment fight in 1998; the response to 9-11 in 2002; the failures of Katrina and the Iraq war, and indictments of several House members in 2006; and the noisy demonstrations and town hall confrontations of the Tea Party in 2010.
The real-world narrative Democrats should tell is about the spending of the Koch brothers and their agenda, which they laid out at their secret meeting in June: no minimum wage, no Social Security, no public education or student loans, lower taxes for the wealthy, and less regulations. "Because we can make more in profit," said their so-called "grand-strategist" Richard Fink.
The story is powerful and intriguing: secret meetings at a luxury hotel with the most powerful Republicans in the country; crazy speeches about bizarre and extreme secret agendas; hundreds of millions flowing into vicious attack ads; secretive front groups of all kinds funded with the billionaires' money. This is like one of those Star Chamber kind of movies, a secret cabal of billionaires trying to take over our government. But this is real, and it is on tape.
While it is true that Democrats have seized on messaging against the Koch brothers, they haven't developed an overall strategy for attacking their agenda that is resonating with the media, which in turn would mobilize voters.
Now most voters don't know who the Koch brothers are, but they are the ultimate personification of big money with a bad agenda. What candidates across the country have been finding is that they can quickly explain who they are, what their agenda is, and how the candidate they are supporting supports that agenda. There are already a bunch of states where the Koch money is the biggest message point the Democrats have been using. The four GOP candidates for Senate and the candidate for governor in Arizona, who all spoke to the Koch secret meeting in California have faced an enormous amount of Koch-related local news stories, discussion by Dems in speeches and debates, and at least 13 different TV ads. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's ties to the Kochs have been hugely detrimental to him in his bid for re-election. And in the MI and AK Senate/Gov races and NC Senate race, the Koch agenda has been a huge part of the on-going campaign debate for a variety of reasons.
Beyond these individual races, a lot of groundwork has been laid to allow us to make this a national narrative even at this late date, due to the work of Harry Reid, other Democratic legislators, and many groups to make the Kochs an issue. The series of stories on the Koch audio tapes that The Undercurrent and other major media publications broke and all the ensuing campaign ads and demonstrations are crucial to this effort.
In the states mentioned above, this narrative is already working. In a challenging cycle where Democrats have been fighting tough trends, we are holding our own in part because of the story being told about the Kochs and their ties to the candidates. The day the big McConnell/Koch story first came out, there was a poll out showing Grimes down seven points, and other polls showing her in trouble. But three recent polls now show her up by one, two, and four points. Before the original news broke in June that Tom Cotton had gone to the Koch retreat, Mark Pryor was thought to be in very tough shape. A lot of people were on the verge of giving up on the race. Now, Pryor is back to an even playing field, and new Koch-related ads are hitting Cotton all the time.
In Iowa, Braley has made a lot of mistakes and has had a very tough time, but with the Koch issue out there gaining traction, he seems like he is back in the ballgame. And in Colorado, with NextGen and other environmental groups leading the fight on the Kochs, Udall is still very much in play against a candidate Republicans and pundits thought would be incredibly tough to beat. In another heavily Republican state, Alaska, Begich has stayed close by repeatedly pounding on the Kochs. In Michigan, what was supposed to be a very tough Senate race has opened to a solid lead for the Democrat because he has successfully tied the Republican to the Kochs. It is clear that in this final month, the controversy over the Koch brothers is going to be one of our best chances, if not the best chance, for winning these races.
One final important thing to note: The DCorps memo notes that McConnell is far better known nationally and his favorability ratings have gotten worse, evidence that all the news about his secret speech to the Kochs is not playing well nationwide.
We have a great message going into these final four weeks. What national Democrats need to do is tell the story about the big money spent by the Kochs to further their awful anti-American agenda, so that we give this election a narrative that fires up our base and discourages Republicans.
Check out this video of the highlights of all the news about this Koch brothers' meeting. It has become a big national story, and we should keep pouring fuel on the fire.