Democrats face big challenge in exciting supporters, turning out vote in crucial House races

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, AP
Saturday, September 18, 2010

With House at stake, turnout is key for Democrats

DREXEL HILL, Pa. — Victoria Newman is a proud Democrat who says that when she voted for Barack Obama in 2008, it was the most excited she’d been about politics in all her 58 years. But now, Democrats grasping to keep control of Congress will have to do without her.

Newman says she’s planning to stay home on Election Day.

As she pays for a package of corn muffins at a grocery store, Newman, a retired state employee, sums up her feelings about voting in November’s congressional elections with a dismissive flick of her wrist.

To retain House control, Democrats must find a way to reactivate core supporters and re-energize the independent and new voters who handed Obama the White House and swept Democrats into office.

It’s a tall order in dozens of competitive districts where enthusiasm for the president is at a low; even some of his strongest backers aren’t motivated to go to the polls.

The challenge is boosting Republicans’ hopes of winning the 40 seats they need to seize the House in a year when a sagging economy and disillusionment with Obama have created a grim outlook for the majority party.

National surveys show Republicans are far more enthusiastic than Democrats about the election. The latest Associated Press-GfK Poll found Obama voters are much less attuned to the fall contests than are those who supported Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 presidential race.

All 435 seats in the House are on the ballot. At least 75 are at risk of changing hands, the vast majority now held by Democrats.

On the outskirts of Philadelphia, in a mostly middle-class district that until recently the GOP held, Democrats are fighting to hold on to a seat left open when Rep. Joe Sestak ran for the Senate. Obama is working to raise money and stoke excitement for area Democrats with a fundraiser Monday for the Senate nominee and a rally in Philadelphia next month.

Democratic state Rep. Bryan Lentz, a former prosecutor and Iraq war veteran, says he knows his campaign to succeed Sestak “doesn’t give you goose bumps, it doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

He’s hoping to win over voters with a practical pitch: “OK, we’re in a bad way. We need to get some stuff done on behalf of working people. … If you want to get stuff done, hire somebody that’s done stuff — and I’ve done stuff.”

It’s a far cry from Obama’s soaring rhetoric two years ago, still echoing in the ears of Sandra Greaves as she answers Lentz’s knock at her front door on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. She greets the candidate warmly as he introduces himself and hands her a campaign flier.

Once he’s gone, Greaves — who supported Obama and Democrats in 2008 — says she’s considering voting Republican this time out of sheer disappointment in the president and disgust with the government.

“I was very excited about (Obama) because I felt like, here’s a guy who really understands the people, and he was going to change things and put people back to work and roll up his sleeves. It hasn’t happened,” said Greaves, a 48-year-old nurse who works three jobs. “Now I feel very frustrated with the whole system.”

Lentz’s Republican opponent Pat Meehan, a former federal prosecutor and county district attorney, thinks he’ll win with the help of voters such as Greaves who were eager to elect Democrats out of frustration with George W. Bush’s presidency, but now are so concerned about the economy and what he calls “an activist agenda in Washington” that they’re turning back to the GOP.

“This is a swing district,” Meehan says as he greets commuters at a rail station in the upscale suburb of Radnor. “You have people who would have voted for Obama and Joe Sestak, and as I talk to them in a place like this, they’re worried about the economy, they’re worried about the direction of the country.”

For all the talk of giving voters a choice between two philosophies and comparing candidates’ records and statements on important issues, strategists in both parties know that much of the election outcome this year hinges on dry arithmetic: Whoever does the better job of finding voters they can influence, contacting them and getting them to come to the polls on Nov. 2 will have the upper hand.

“If you’re not winning the ground,” says Jennifer Crider of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “you’re not winning.”

That’s especially true this year in some three dozen districts — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, Nevada and Indiana, among others — where Obama won in 2008 and Democrats fear that the voters who helped elect him will stay home or switch teams.

Those areas include the suburbs of Cincinnati, where first-term Rep. Steve Driehaus is in a rematch with the Republican he unseated, Steve Chabot, and in central Ohio, where freshman Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy again faces former state Sen. Steve Stivers.

Lisa Y. Farmer, a 41-year-old analyst in Columbus, backed Obama and Kilroy, but isn’t sure she’ll vote this year. She thinks Obama is doing his best in a tough situation, but is dispirited about the economic downturn, which has cost colleagues their jobs and homes.

In 2008, Farmer said, she voted with “a sense of excitement that, you know, we can really see some big changes come about for the U.S. And now it’s like, I’m just a little hesitant, but at the same time hopeful that things will turn around.”

GOP officials say they’ve set up more than 300 “victory offices” to turn out voters and have made contact with more than 12 million so far — three times as many as they had by this time in 2008. They point to Republican turnout in primary elections that has far outpaced Democrats as evidence that the strategy is working.

“What we’re seeing isn’t as much of an enthusiasm gap as it is a turnout gap,” said party spokesman Doug Heye.

The Democratic Party says it’s dumping $50 million into on-the-ground organizing, sending out volunteers to contact voters and targeting “persuadable” people — including the 15 million to 20 million who voted for the first time in 2008 — to get them to cast ballots for Democrats. The party’s House campaign committee has placed field directors and an average of five staffers in 75 districts to contact voters, Crider said.

“We’ve got to knock on more doors than we have in previous midterms and make the sell at the door,” said Brad Woodhouse, the party’s communications director.

As Lentz went door to door in Woodlyn recently, a young aide rattled off the name, age and party affiliation of the person he was going after — sometimes just two or three houses on a block of more than 20 — before the knock. The campaign has a list of the 26,000 people who registered to vote between 2006 and 2008, and knows that a good many will have to show up for Lentz to win.

Such person-to-person contact may help blunt an anti-incumbent mood that has some Democrats flirting with the GOP. In Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, where second-term Rep. Patrick Murphy is running against the Republican he ousted, Mike Fitzpatrick, disillusionment with Obama and the government is making the race tight.

“I would just like to see somebody get it right for a change,” said Mike Stepek, a 62-year-old accountant who’s a Democrat but doesn’t know whether he’ll back Murphy again. “I’m almost to the point where, if you’re in, you’re out.”

Associated Press writers Ann Sanner in Columbus, Ohio, Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va., and Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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