Wednesday, May 28, 2003

There is growing fear among Democratic strategists that George W. Bush is making gains in their party’s base, especially with minorities and labor. If true, this could be the most important political sea change in America in 70 years.

Donna Brazile, the black turnout specialist who ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, has been telling the Democratic National Committee and anyone else who will listen, “don’t take African-Americans for granted” because their loyalty is eroding and Mr. Bush is courting them aggressively.

A survey last summer by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on black issues, found black partisan identification with the Democrats declining. Only 63 percent of black voters now call themselves Democrats, down from 74 percent in 2000. Self-identified independents were up 20 percent. Ten percent now identify with the GOP, up from 4 percent in 2000, as I reported last year.

Notably, internal polls conducted for the DNC in preparation for 2004, reveal similar signs of partisan erosion among younger black voters, a party adviser told me this week.

This slippage is even more evident among heavily Democratic Hispanic and Latino voters. Some 35 percent of all Hispanics voted Republican in 2002, according to postelection surveys. Gov. George Pataki of New York won 50 percent of their vote. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida won 40 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry won 35 percent against an Hispanic challenger.

This erosion in the Democrats’ base, plus increased Republican turnout of its own voter base, led to Democratic losses in governors and Senate races in Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Missouri, Minnesota and elsewhere.

The AFL-CIO and its labor unions have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the Democratic labor vote, but without much success. A third or more of labor union rank-and-file are regularly voting Republican and some union surveys suggest the shift is growing, a union campaign strategist told me.

All this suggests the Democratic voter base is shrinking.

Blacks, Hispanics and organized labor represent three of the Democrats’ biggest and most loyal voting blocs. Peel away even a relatively small percentage, say 5 percent to 8 percent more among minorities and union members, and the Democrats become a permanent minority party.

What’s driving this black and Hispanic shift to Republicans? It is hard to say, but polls show growing support among minorities for school choice vouchers where inner city schools are failing. Many like Mr. Bush’s idea for personal Social Security investment accounts and his faith-based initiative to help the needy, much of which will go to black Baptist and evangelical churches.

Mr. Bush’s 2003 legislative agenda is reaching out aggressively to black voters: There is his $15 billion program to combat the AIDS epidemic in Africa; a sizable increase in assistance to historically black colleges; and a special voucher school choice program for the District of Columbia that D.C.’s Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams now supports.

A Democratic filibuster to prevent an up-or-down vote on U.S. Appeals Court nominee Miguel Estrada is also fueling a backlash in the Hispanic and Latino communities. The news media have given the Estrada story little attention lately but the GOP has been flogging the story for all its worth in the less-visible, under-the-radar Hispanic media.

However, the Democrats’ political troubles run much deeper than this.

House Democrats, who lost their majority control in 1994, have been in decline for the last 22 years. Their numbers fell from 273 in 1980 to 267 in 1990 to 207 in 2002. Senate Democrats saw their seats shrink from 58 to 48 during this same period.

Democrats ruled the governorships for decades, but slipped from 31 to 24 over the last two decades. Republican governors, numbering only 19 in 1980, held 31 statehouses by the late 90s — dipping to 26 last year, though still in the majority.

Perhaps the most far-reaching changes are in the state legislatures, the farm clubs for the two parties. Democrats held nearly two-thirds of all seats in 1980, but the GOP closed the gap over the next 22 years. The Republicans gained an unprecedented 195 seats last year.

“Something very significant is going on down there at the bottom of American politics,” White House political adviser Karl Rove told me.

No doubt unforseen factors may lead to short-term, ups and downs, but I believe these broader electoral changes are part of a longer-term trend in the political life of our country.

A party that repeatedly loses the presidency is seriously out of touch with the national problems that concern voters most. The Democrats have elected only two presidents in the last three decades.

But when a party also loses its majority in Congress, the governorships and the state legislatures, and is losing its base, it has lost touch with every level of American politics. That means it no longer has anything relevant to say and is headed toward extinction.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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