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Democrats: There’s Plenty of Work Still to Be Done This Year

By now, every political junkie knows the current electoral environment favors the Democrats, but 98 days is a long time. Anything could happen and yes, I would caution everyone to hold the champagne. There’s too much at stake to simply rely on polls. Voters honestly want change and a new direction, but we must also remember the old adage that all politics is local.

[IMGCAP(1)]True, the voters are in a foul mood and for now they are prepared to take it out on the Republicans. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is gradually winning over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) supporters, and the Democratic National Convention appears increasingly ready for prime time. Even better, Democratic Congressional leaders are still raising large sums of money, and the progressive, liberal-leaning base seems more content and enthusiastic than its right-leaning, more conservative counterpart.

But it is still early in a season that seems to have started so long ago, and the issues are shifting. The economy, rather than Iraq, is looking increasingly like the threshold issue for candidates at every level on the ballot. And it is going to be the admission ticket as well to the White House in this political season. Both Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have a lot they need to show voters in order to win their confidence that they are the best candidate to fix the job market and lower prices for gas and groceries.

I predict the contest between Obama and McCain will remain tight until the last presidential debate, and those much-anticipated downballot races will have to fight for precious air time. So while everyone is placing bets on whom both McCain and Obama will select as their running mates, Congressional Democrats should start laying the foundation for the fall races. At the end of the day, the presidential race will be so close and so contentious that downballot Democrats might have to bring home the victory — and that means they must do everything they can to get out the vote.

Although Congressional Democratic leaders have plenty of seats in play thanks to the unexpected retirements of many Republicans, national issues that favor the Democrats as well as an unpopular president, the party that quickly motivates independents and other swing voters this fall will surely be in a better position to win. To paraphrase my old Cajun friend, James Carville, it’s the ground game, stupid.

The Democratic Party must come to terms with the fact that to win back the White House and expand its legislative majorities, it is going to have to play tough and hard in a lot of very difficult states and districts. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said last week at a joint news conference with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), “We’re really going into some tough territory.” Van Hollen is right.

For Democrats to make appreciable gains in the House of Representatives, the party must seriously compete in some ruby red districts. This would include not only winning the weekly message war (how to translate legislative victories into a convincing message that resonates with voters deeply worried about the economy), but also having a credible ground game to help enlarge the party’s base by registering new voters excited at the prospects of voting for Obama.

The field program that both Van Hollen and Schumer have pulled together should offset some of the distinct advantages the Republicans have enjoyed because they invested in those states for so long. But there are still signs of caution. As Schumer noted in that same news conference, “We’re moving into redder seats.” He was referring to races in places like Virginia, Alaska, Colorado and Mississippi, where the Democratic Party’s brand suffered for many political seasons because the national effort meant focusing only on the “battleground” states.

For now, Democratic Senate candidates actually match up very well with the states Obama ran strong in during the primary season. The exception is Kentucky, where Obama didn’t seriously contest Clinton or spend much of his political capital.

Of the 11 states Schumer is targeting for pickups, Obama won eight of them in the primary (Colorado, Virginia, Mississippi, Alaska, Minnesota, Oregon, Maine and North Carolina). Of the three states Obama lost, two were close.

If Obama is successful in registering tens of thousands of African-Americans, this could help Democratic Senate challengers in North Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia. Who knows if Georgia will be in serious play, and of course a strong black turnout in my former neck in the woods, Louisiana, could help Sen. Mary Landrieu (D).

For now, Obama seems to be ahead in Oregon, Minnesota and Maine and should be a help for downballot races. His incredible war chest should also help Democratic candidates — even in states like Alaska, which I just recently visited.

In Alaska, polls have shown Obama trailing McCain, but it’s within single digits. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost there in 2004 by 25 points! So even if Obama lost by, say, 10 points, that’s much, much better than a Democratic presidential candidate has done there in a long time, and it helps Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who is running a great campaign for Senate in the Last Frontier.

Again, my caution to Democrats both inside and outside the Beltway: Hold the champagne and get to work. The stars must all be aligned for the perfect storm to occur, starting with the Democrats’ investment in a serious field program to tap potential new voters, as well as motivate the base for record turnout.

The party — and by that I mean the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, plus the various House and Senate committees — that organizes the best field program that can motivate new voters to show up on Election Day will surely be in a better position to win this fall.

Just remember, 98 days is a long time in politics.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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