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Democrats Hopeful Majority Won’t Slip Away

Congressional Democrats aren’t convinced that their fortunes have turned for the worse this August, despite a recent poll suggesting that Republicans have opened up a double-digit lead in a generic ballot matchup.

Senior aides in both the House and Senate on Tuesday downplayed the implications of a Gallup poll released Monday that showed a 10 percentage-point edge for Republicans among registered voters, the largest generic ballot lead the GOP has ever enjoyed in Gallup’s history of conducting such polling ahead of midterm elections.

One House leadership aide characterized the results as “an outlier,” and senior aides disputed the notion that recent polling would prompt Democrats to alter their election-year strategy. Republicans need to pick up 39 seats to retake control of the House and 10 to regain control of the Senate.

The House aide acknowledged that Democrats were in a tough environment but added, “None of our decisions are going to be driven by one poll.”

Democratic aides pointed out that both Democrats and Republicans have led this year in Gallup’s generic ballot poll and that some of those leads have been within the poll’s margin of error.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said that Gallup’s generic ballot poll has been “swinging wildly” this year, adding that Democrats should primarily be concerned about the “enthusiasm gap,” not the generic differences.

Monday’s poll showed that Republicans are twice as eager to vote as Democrats and independents in this year’s midterms.

In an environment that is rife with voter discontent and anti-establishment sentiment, Democrats have embraced a strategy that centers on drawing a contrast to Republicans, including trying to link them to the policies of President George W. Bush, while working to localize individual races.

“The bottom line is there’s not a generic Democrat or a generic Republican on the ballot in these races,” one Democratic strategist said, adding that House Democratic candidates were “going to be making a strong case” in the coming months “about what the stakes are in these elections,” in large part by painting Republican candidates as out of the mainstream and casting them as in favor of policies that would privatize Social Security, outsource jobs and preserve Bush-era tax cuts for the very wealthy.

In the House, Democratic aides said they planned to continue in September to hammer on efforts to help small businesses, namely on Republican opposition in the Senate to legislation that would expand small-business lending. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already set up the chamber’s schedule so that the Senate will continue debating the small-business bill when Members return to session Sept. 13.

House lawmakers also will continue to push their “Make it in America” manufacturing jobs initiative and will try to move legislation that would repeal a small-business reporting requirement established under the health care law.

“It is going to be a combination of emphasizing the jobs and small-business-related bills that we’ve done and drawing even sharper contrasts with the Republicans,” the House Democratic leadership aide said.

But ultimately, there is little that can be done from Washington to move the needle one way or another, the aide acknowledged.

“I am fairly convinced that we are going to win or lose based on what our Members do back home,” the aide said. “What we can’t afford is unforced errors. … My sense is, at the national level, we need a fairly error-free September.”

The aide said incidents such as President Barack Obama’s comments about the proposed mosque near ground zero and the ethics cloud hanging over Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) are distracting from the messages Democrats were working to sell in their districts.

At home this August, vulnerable Democrats have been distancing themselves from the most controversial planks of the Democratic agenda and even, in a growing number of cases, from their leadership. In an extreme example, freshman Rep. Bobby Bright (Ala.) quipped on Aug. 25 that there were numerous circumstances that could end Pelosi’s speakership, including that she “might even get sick and die,” according to a report in the Montgomery Advertiser. In a recent campaign ad, Bright calls himself “the most independent Member of Congress” and touts his votes against the “massive government health care” law, the stimulus, Troubled Asset Relief Program funds and the Democrats’ one-year budget blueprint.

Republicans are growing increasingly emboldened. On Tuesday, they touted a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that showed slipping support for Democrats’ new health care law. The Kaiser poll showed 43 percent of the public having favorable views of the law, down from 50 percent in July.

“Washington Democrats are desperate, but they don’t seem to realize that the problem isn’t their sales pitch — the American people have simply rejected their job-killing agenda,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Republicans are listening to the American people, and they’re telling us we need to end the spending spree, stop the tax hikes and create jobs.”

Democrats remain fairly optimistic about their chances of keeping the majority, which they have held since 2006.

The Senate aide cautioned that unlike the GOP sweep of 1994, Republicans this year do not have a clearly articulated platform a la the “Contract With America,” nor a dynamic leader such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) to spearhead their efforts.

Additionally, the aide said Democrats learned their lesson in 1994 and will not let the enthusiasm gap be their downfall. “Democrats have a good campaign structure that will help us deliver people to the polls on Election Day,” the aide said.

Another senior Senate Democratic aide said the party’s message must also be succinct and focused, in order to prevent Gallup’s findings from becoming a trend.

“There are still a few weeks left to make an impression with the voters, and we need to use that time to heighten the contrast between ourselves and the Republicans,” the aide said. “The best way to do that is by keeping the focus on jobs measures, which they will reliably block. We are crazy if we focus on anything other than jobs in the final stretch before November, both because it is what the public most wants to see us doing and it is the thing that makes the Republicans look the worst when they block it.”

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