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Western Dems brace for 2010 election pitfalls

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

DENVER | President Obama's approval rating is slipping. Republicans are preparing red-meat ballot initiatives to get out conservative voters. Democrats have a negative "tax-and-spend" image.

That's not a Republican summary of Democratic vulnerabilities or the outcome of GOP opposition research into how to gain seats in the midterm elections. Rather, it's a list of the potential pitfalls that Democratic bigwigs saw for themselves at a brainstorming session here last week.

Democratic strategists at Project New West's 2009 Western Summit were preparing counterpunches, including legal fights to keep hot-button GOP issues off the ballot.

They also talked about using social networks to reach new voters and expanding the party's base by targeting the rising number of newly naturalized Hispanic immigrants.

Despite the rugged terrain, Democrats insisted that the immediate future is rosy. Jim Messina, Mr. Obama's deputy chief of staff and former campaign chief, predicted that Democrats would pick up four more Western congressional seats in the next election cycle.

Other top Democrats at the gathering at the Colorado History Museum said the party is attracting voters on issues such as renewable energy, natural resources and education.

Still, strategists see a number of pitfalls for the party as it heads into the 2010 election, including a likely array of conservative-themed ballot initiatives, a loss of momentum among the "surge" of voters who backed Mr. Obama in 2008, the shifting Hispanic vote and the party's struggles on issues involving taxes and national security.

Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, told the assembled Democrats to "brace yourself" for a flood of ballot measures likely to draw Republicans to the polls in 2009 and 2010.

Two states -- Washington and Maine -- already have placed anti-tax measures on the 2009 ballot, while the Arizona Legislature has approved a measure against affirmative action. Other states could be looking at anti-abortion measures and right-to-work proposals aimed at curbing union influence.

Ms. Wilfore recommended countering with initiatives designed to lift Democratic voter turnout, such as a minimum-wage measure popular in some states in the past few election cycles. "We're looking for the next minimum wage," she said.

She also advised Democrats to focus on "ballot integrity" -- nipping conservative measures in the bud by challenging ballot language in court. She warned them to watch out for groups that try to skirt the process with invalid signatures and misleading language.

She noted that conservative initiatives can backfire, citing Colorado's 2008 anti-abortion initiative, which created a schism in the state's pro-life community. Still, she said, such efforts are often worth the risk.

"Especially in midterm elections, ballot initiatives can increase turnout as much as 3 percent," said Ms. Wilfore. Even if the turnout increase is smaller, she added, "in close races like we're going to have in 2010, it makes a difference."

Another concern for Democrats is the potential loss of enthusiasm among the party base in congressional races, compared with the energy inspired by Mr. Obama's 2008 race.

Before they worry about the next election, however, Democratic activists need to devote the next month to rescuing Mr. Obama's embattled health care plan. In union circles, officials said they worry that a defeat of health care reform could sink the rest of the president's agenda.

Democrats see a rich source of votes among Hispanics, whose growing numbers could provide a bonanza for the party that reaches them first. But Hispanic voters haven't completely aligned themselves with Democrats, and neither party has done enough to reach them, said Marcelo Gaete of Mi Familia Vota, which focuses on registering Hispanic voters in Colorado and Arizona.

"Whenever I hear about the 'sleeping giant,' I want to vomit because it implies there's something wrong with Latino voters," Mr. Gaete said. "Latino voters behave just like everyone else does when they're ignored."

He recommended focusing on naturalized Hispanic citizens, whom he called "citizens by choice," noting that they vote in higher numbers than U.S.-born voters. Naturalized citizens represent 45 percent of registered Hispanic voters but 51 percent of those who cast ballots, he said.

The Democratic analysts agreed that tax increases are a tough sell with Western voters, particularly in lean budgetary times, on everything except education. Still, they said, Democrats need to counter GOP arguments depicting government as a negative.

"We don't have the right language when it comes to these debates. We're Democrats, or progressives, if you will," said Andrew Myers, president of Myers Research and Strategic Services. "We can get away with it on education, but in the long term it's a losing strategy."

He added that "connecting with people is the challenge for both parties."

"There's a tension about public services more generally," said Mr. Myers. "The conundrum is the states [are] having budget shortfalls when public services are most needed."