Democrats Face Threat From Their Own Base

May 18, 2010

NANTICOKE, Pa.—Democratic leaders have long expected a challenging election year, with polls showing an energized Republican base and rising voter anxiety over President Barack Obama’s agenda. Now, the Democratic Party also faces a brewing rebellion among the white, working-class voters within its ranks—people it needs to form a national governing majority.

Some white, working-class Democratic voters say they are ready for a change in Washington, and some say they may leave the party in November. Peter Wallsten discusses. Retailers Wal-Mart and Home Depot posted stronger earnings than expected, and Emma Moody points out the similarities of the ‘Flash Crash’ with Black Monday in 1987.

Lloyd Briggs said he is “fed up” with Washington over the Wall Street bailouts. Peggy Cendarski frets that the Democrats’ “unfair” health-care overhaul will punish those who already have good insurance coverage.

These and other Democratic voters in this blue-collar town said they are ready for a change in Washington. Some are open to backing Democratic challengers to lawmakers the party has supported for many years, and some said they may leave the party entirely come November.

In the economically hard-hit neighborhoods here, near Scranton, Democratic voters on Tuesday will decide whether to keep 13-term Rep. Paul Kanjorski on the ballot in November or replace him with Corey O’Brien, a 36-year-old waging an anti-Washington campaign from an RV. Mr. O’Brien, a Lackawanna County commissioner, said he has a better chance of keeping the district in Democratic hands because Mr. Kanjorski, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, is so closely tied to the Wall Street bailouts.

“The Democratic Party better wake up, or we’re going to get blown out in November,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The only way we can win is by putting in new faces, fresh faces.”

Mr. Kanjorski and his supporters say he, like lawmakers in both parties, was working to save the economy from collapse and had few options when the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program was passed. Supporters point to his record of helping the district, including saving the local veterans hospital from closure. “He’s been a true friend of the area, and it’d be a shame if we lost him because of the situation that we’re faced with in this economy,” said Tom Leighton, mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Already this month, Democratic voters have rejected one longtime incumbent, West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan, in a party primary. On Tuesday, Democratic voters in Arkansas and Pennsylvania will render judgment on two Senate incumbents, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Democratic strategists said their party faces great peril if it is unable to find candidates this year who can shore up the connection with white, blue-collar voters who are trending toward the GOP. Mr. Obama won election in 2008 thanks largely to highly energized minority voters and liberal whites, but white voters like these in northeastern Pennsylvania were crucial to building a majority.

Mr. Kanjorski, 73, narrowly won re-election in 2008 after his Republican opponent, Lou Barletta, accused him of improper behavior in directing federal money to a firm owned by the congressman’s relatives. Mr. Barletta is running again, and GOP strategists consider Mr. Kanjorski vulnerable. But with more than $1 million in the bank as of March 31, Mr. Kanjorski’s campaign chest dwarfs that of both Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Barletta.

No reliable public polling is available to test the congressman’s true vulnerability. Kanjorski spokesman Ed Mitchell acknowledged that “it’s a tough atmosphere out there,” given voters’ anger at incumbents. “We’re fighting uphill against that,” he said. Mr. Mitchell said the issue regarding the family firm had been fully aired in the last election and that Mr. Kanjorski was never investigated for wrongdoing.

Mr. O’Brien spent much of Friday walking the streets of Nanticoke, a small town of mostly Polish descendants that is also Mr. Kanjorski’s hometown. Many voters he found were receptive to his campaign.

“Everything’s a mess,” said Chester Prushinski, 63, a retired postal worker, who was working in his garden. “We had to bail out the banks? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Mr. Prushinski, a Democrat, said he voted for Republican John McCain in the presidential race in 2008 but also voted for Mr. Kanjorski. When it comes to supporting his congressman this year, he said, “I’m on the fence.”

Ms. Cendarski, a 70-year-old retiree, shook her head when asked about Messrs. Kanjorski and Specter. “I voted for Paul for years, but now I’m not too happy with him,” she said. “It just seems he’s not working for the people anymore.”

Hurlow Rowlands Sr., whose family owns a local trucking business, said he would vote for GOP candidates this fall if Democrats on Tuesday fail to pick the challengers he wants for Congress—Mr. O’Brien for the House seat and Rep. Joe Sestak for the Senate seat held by Mr. Specter.

He, too, expressed frustration with the government’s decision to bail out Wall Street, and with the investment banks’ large bonuses to their executives.

“I want the people who are going to do the right thing, rather than just a particular party,” said Mr. Rowlands, 60.

There is no sign that Democratic voter anger has spurred anything resembling the tea-party movement, which is marshalling opposition to a number of candidates backed by the Republican establishment across the U.S. But surveys do show anger brewing among Democrats at their own party leaders.

More than a third of Democrats, for example, feel their own party members in Congress are “more concerned about the interests of large corporations” than those of average Americans, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week.

As a group, blue-collar voters have moved into the Republican column, the poll showed. At this point in the 2006 midterm-election campaign, blue-collar voters had wanted Democrats to control Congress. Now, they favor GOP control, the poll found.

Keith Frederick, Mr. Mollohan’s pollster, said he had tried to sound the alarm within the campaign that the landscape was changing under the party’s feet.

“It is no surprise that West Virginia voters [in Mr. Mollohan’s district] are anti-Washington,” he wrote in an internal campaign memo in March, “but even Democratic Primary voters show high levels of anger and frustration.”

Most striking, Mr. Frederick said in an interview, was that voters no longer placed a value on seniority and their local representative’s ability to bring home federally funded projects. The typical voter felt that Mr. Mollohan “had been there a long time, and my life isn’t any better, so why should he have this good job?”


Click here to read the full story.