Democrats See Improvement in Their Political Prospects for 2012 Campaign

Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama walks on the tarmac while changing Air Force One planes at Orly airport near Paris on May 27, 2011, en route to Warsaw. Close

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Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama walks on the tarmac while changing Air Force One planes at Orly airport near Paris on May 27, 2011, en route to Warsaw.

Democrats view their political prospects in the 2012 elections as improved, following a surprise victory in a U.S. House race this week and the killing of Osama bin Laden in a raid authorized by President Barack Obama this month.

National party leaders took a victory lap in Washington yesterday, continuing to spotlight Kathy Hochul’s May 24 special election win in a traditionally Republican western New York district as a sign of changing political fortunes.

“We are seeing an incredible change of our map that we didn’t expect five months ago,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said yesterday. “It’s changing, and it’s changing dramatically.”

The elections last November in which Republicans won control of the House and picked up six Senate seats spurred that party to claim an electoral mandate to pass the steep spending cuts they promised on the campaign trail. Over the last month and a half, signs have emerged that voters haven’t embraced the specifics of their plans.

At contentious town hall meetings and in public polling, voters have expressed concerns about the depth of the cuts and efforts to reshape entitlement programs, particularly Medicare - - the issue key to Hochul’s victory.

That has fed Democratic optimism that the party could win back some of the 63 House seats they lost in the 2010 midterm elections, and perhaps regain control of the chamber.

House ‘In Play’

“I fundamentally believe that the House of Representatives is in play and the Democrats can win a majority in November 2012,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the House campaign arm for the party.

Dave Wasserman, House political editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, cautioned that a lot could change before Nov. 6, 2012.

“The Democrats have had a good month,” he said. “But this isn’t necessarily what we are going to be talking about in November 2012.”

Special elections, he said, rarely prove to be precise predictors of broader electoral trends. Republicans lost a special election for a Pennsylvania House seat in May 2010, six months before posting their sweeping gains in November.

“How is an election 16 months out supposed to be predictive?” asked Wasserman, referring to the New York race.

Medicare Issue

In that campaign, Democrats hammered Republican candidate Jane Corwin for endorsing the overhaul of Medicare that was part of the budget legislation the House passed in April. Democratic strategists plan to make those attacks central to their 2012 efforts, Israel said.

“No matter how high the odds, no matter how steep the climb, we will, as Democrats, take the fight almost anywhere in American to protect Medicare,” said Israel.

The Republican proposal would replace the current government-run health program for older Americans with a subsidy to help senior citizens buy private health insurance, starting with those who turn 65 in 2022.

In a March 4-7 Bloomberg National Poll, a Medicare voucher plan was opposed by 54 percent of respondents, while 40 percent supported it.

“The voters have seen the preview. The curtain has been lifted, and they don’t like it,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told reporters in Washington yesterday.

Boost for Obama

Wasserman Shultz, who is also a House member from Florida, attributed the Medicare issue and the raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden to the rise in President Barack Obama’s job approval rating in a Quinnipiac poll of voters in her home state released yesterday. The survey found 51 percent approving of Obama’s job performance, compared with 43 percent who disapproved. That’s a reversal from last month, when the same survey, conducted before the bin Laden raid, found 52 percent rating him negatively and 44 percent positively.

“It is largely because of Medicare,” she said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “The flip in President Obama’s support in that poll can be partly attributed to the killing of Osama bin Laden, so in terms of homeland security, the economy, Medicare, the president was already popular -- people liked him -- but now his job approval rating has dramatically improved.”

As it was in the 2000 presidential election, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision halting a recount made Republican George W. Bush the winner over Democrat Al Gore, Florida could be pivotal in the 2012 race.

‘Small Part’

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the Medicare issue played only a “small part” in his party’s loss in the New York special election, and he reiterated his support for the overhaul proposal that was written by Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican.

“I could be somewhat critical of how the campaign was run, but the fact is we didn’t win,” Boehner said at a press conference to unveil a Republican jobs plan. “The small part of the reason we didn’t win clearly had to do with Medicare.”

Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said he isn’t focused on whether a political backlash to his plan costs his party seats. “Now is not that time to be worried about political careers,” he said in an interview with ABC News. “I will know I did what I thought was right to save this country from fiscal ruin.”

Murray said that in next year’s fight for control of the Senate, the Ryan plan is complicating the bids by several Republicans who are “tying themselves in knots in order not to take a position.”

Republican Senate contenders George Allen in Virginia, Josh Mandel in Ohio and Heather Wilson in New Mexico have refused to say whether they would have backed the plan if they had been in office.

Democratic Challenge

Murray in her comments made no promises about Democrats preserving their majority in the Senate, which they control 53-47. One challenge is that they will be defending more than twice the number of seats as the Republicans, 23 to 10. The Democrats’ effort to hold the Senate is made more difficult because five of their incumbents and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucuses with the party, are retiring next year, and such open seats are typically more difficult to protect.

Republicans need to explain the Ryan proposal better, said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican in charge of his party’s 2012 Senate campaign strategy.

“Part of what’s happened is people need to speak more effectively and be willing to defend their position,” he said in an interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or jdavis159@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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