Democrats and The Tea Party: Beware of Anger, Take Advantage of Anxiety


For Democrats, the growing debate over how to vanquish the Tea Party movement is analogous to a family fracas over how to best get rid of your sister’s latest crummy boyfriend.

Do you repeatedly point out all the perceived flaws of the new suitor, hoping that they resonate? Or do you insist that the new guy is just like the ex, and suggest that repeating the pattern will only lead to misery?

Democrats from the White House down to the party’s central committee office in Multnomah County, Ore., say they are debating the best way to leverage the victories of scores of Tea Party candidates who prevailed in primary races, like Christine O’Donnell, who surprised many last week by winning the Republican nomination for United States Senate in Delaware. Beyond the dozens of candidates running in House and Senate races, Tea Party hopefuls — defined here as candidates who have been endorsed by one of the movement’s major sponsors — are also competing in at least seven races for governor, according to the Democratic Governors Association.

Many Democrats have chosen to run against the Tea Party — as opposed to the Republicans in Washington — by repeatedly pointing out positions they believe general election voters would not cotton to, like privatizing Social Security, abolishing entire federal departments, upending certain civil rights laws and outlawing abortion, even in the case of rape. Not all Tea Party candidates share these positions, but many have spoken in favor of one or more of them.

“Our strategy is to help voters understand that what these folks are talking about is so far out of the American mainstream that they represent a clear and present danger to the political health of the country,” said Mark Alan Siegel, chairman of theDemocratic Party in Palm Beach County, Fla. The county is partly in the 22nd Congressional District, where a Tea Party candidate, Allen West, is challenging a Democratic incumbent, Ron Klein.

This tactic was employed early on by Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who is in a tough fight against Sharron Angle to keep his Nevada seat. Mr. Reid’s campaign has consistently portrayed Ms. Angle as, in the language of one advertisement, “just too extreme,” a person who would attempt to dismantle entitlement programs and an advocate of “armed resistance.”

It also may help Democrats that the Tea Party, while attracting the enthusiasm of many Republican primary voters, may lack broad support. In a New York Times/CBS poll released last week, only 19 percent of respondents said they considered themselves supporters of the movement.

“Voters get very taken aback with anger in politics,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “They may rail against the deficit, but moderate, middle-of-the-road Americans reject politicians who flash anger — especially women, and they are still the majority of the electorate. Women in this country are not angry. They are anxious.”

But a growing group of Democrats believe that their best move is to yoke the Tea Party to the policies of the Bush administration, Newt Gingrich and other Congressional Republicans whom President Obama has said drove the nation into a ditch before he was elected.

“I think it is necessary to associate them with the Bush administration and the Republican Party,” said Jim Burn, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. In that state, Pat Toomey, a Tea Party candidate, is in a tight race for the Senate seat held by Arlen Specter, who was defeated in the Democratic primary by Joe Sestak.

If they want to succeed in turning Tea Party candidates into everyday Republicans with crazy hats, Democrats have some math in their favor. In the New York Times/CBS poll, 30 percent of respondents said they approved of the way Democrats in Congress are handling their jobs — but only 20 percent approved of Republicans.

Pennsylvania’s governor, Edward G. Rendell, said Democrats could argue that even a non-Tea Party candidate could soon become a Tea Party lawmaker. “The refrain that I would take,” he said, “is if you vote for a Republican you are probably taking a step toward ensuring that the Republican Party is going to get control of the reins of the House, and the party itself is going to be influenced by the Tea Partiers.”

Then, there is always the foot-in-mouth factor, especially with inexperienced candidates on the stump. “You can use their own words,” said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

The party spread the word, for instance, when Dan Maes, the Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate, said the mayor of Denver’s plan to promote a bicycle-sharing program was a “strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.” (Video cameras are helpful in this effort.)

The Obama administration’s record is another matter entirely. Do you run from it or embrace it? Strategists involved in the ground game say that Democrats who are able to highlight popular administration policies, while distancing themselves from the rest, may do fine.

Inevitably, there is a lot of parsing. “People here know that Gerry Connolly does support the president and speaker if that is what the people of Fairfax County want,” said Rex Simmons, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, referring to Representative Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who faces a Tea Party challenger, Keith Fimian, in the 11th Congressional District race. “But he is proud that he was responsible for making sure health care reforms were paid for. He has stood his ground when necessary.”

But that kind of fine-tuned message may not play well against the Tea Party’s more straightforward message about fiscal responsibility, which is enchanting to many. So, in the end, in an interesting twist on political messaging, Democrats, who ran in 2008 on the slogans of “hope” and “change,” may best energize the base by co-opting the fear-mongering that they accuse Tea Party-backed candidates of partaking in.

“You have to show these people are not only at odds with the mainstream values of moderate voters, they are a threat to them,” said Mr. Belcher. “I think you paint the picture by unfolding the extremist vision.”