The Democrats' Scare Out The Vote Drive

They tried hope. They tried recounting Bill Clinton's economic accomplishments. They even managed to engineer a Presidential peace mission to the Mideast. But increasingly, the Democrats' hopes of staving off big losses in the mid-term elections have come down to one word: fear.

With key constituent groups in a funk, party strategists reckon that the only thing that can prevent a GOP takeover of Congress is raising the turnout among minorities, union members, and feminists. So they've pulled out all the Halloween goblins, charging that the GOP would bring back Reagan-style tax goodies for the rich, shred the social safety net, and menace women's rights.

Republicans are furious with Clinton, but few issues stir Democratic passions. Democrats are paying a price, activists say, for a President who fought for free trade rather than a bill banning replacement of strikers, and pushed deficit reduction rather than social spending. "When you walk away from your base, your base walks away from you," says labor consultant Victor S. Kamber.

EYE OF NEWT? Black turnout is particularly worrisome: Voting by African Americans in this year's primary is below the norm. Yet without strong black turnout, Democrats could lose close races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, and elsewhere. In New York, Governor Mario M. Cuomo's reelection bid could be dashed if black voting dips even slightly. But David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, says blacks are turned off by the perception that white office-seekers seem to be "running away from being associated with black voters."

Some black leaders are making direct appeals to African American voters. Black House members such as New Jersey's Donald M. Payne and Michigan's John Conyers and Barbara-Rose Collins are campaigning for white Democrats in their states. Former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder is stumping for old rival Senator Charles S. Robb. The message: GOP control of Congress would devastate the black social agenda.

The AFL-CIO is trying several approaches to fire up the rank-and-file. Union operatives have sent local officials a horror film that depicts a grim life under Republican rule. In Pennsylvania, labor pols are charging that House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" is "snake oil" economics that would gut social programs and lead to tax increases for workers. Labor officials say the campaign has boosted incumbent Senator Harris Wofford's approval rating with union members. Still, unionists remain a dispirited bunch. "There is a lot of skepticism and cynicism out there," says Karen Keiser, an organizer for the Washington State Labor Council. "It's a pox-on-everyone kind of attitude."

Women's groups, who have noted lower turnout in primaries, have also taken to the barricades. In Minnesota and Oregon, female Democrats are running against archconservative challengers. Feminist groups, through phone banks and direct mail, are spreading the message to working women that decades of hard-won gains may be halted by the religious right. "We need to show moderate women what the stakes are," says Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, a fund-raising group for women Democrats. "[Conservative] opponents are trying to put women back in the home."

It's too early to tell if such tactics will shake the Democrats out of their languor. But a vigorous counterattack could save some Democrats from extinction. "Turnout is the wild card," says political strategist Kevin P. Phillips. "If Democrats boost it by even a few percentage points, they could scramble the polls showing Republicans winning everywhere."

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