How the Democrats Got Their Message Across

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In asssessing their election defeat, Republicans tried to take some comfort by noting that many of the victorious Democrats took conservative stands that had, in many cases, more in common with the G.O.P. than with the liberal base of their own party. But even in states like Kentucky and Indiana, hardly hotbeds of liberal politics, those assessments weren't borne out. Although many of the supposed new breed of Democrats opposed abortion, gun control and, in some cases, gay marriage, their stance on economic issues put them in the old-fashioned liberal mainstream.

Take the congressional race in Louisville. Despite the city's location just spitting distance from the Bible Belt — and directly across the river from conservative, rural Southern Indiana — voters veered leftward in picking an unabashed liberal to replace a popular and well-entrenched conservative Republican congresswoman. Indeed, no one in this city has ever mistaken Democrat John Yarmuth — founder and former editor of an alternative newspaper called Louisville Eccentric Observer — as a centrist, much less a conservative.

And that, Yarmuth said in an ebullient acceptance speech Tuesday night, was precisely the key to his victory over Anne Northup, who coasted to a landslide win two years ago and has spent her 10 years in office mastering pork-barrel politics from her perch on the Appropriations Committee.

"We refused to back down," Yarmuth, 59, told a wildly cheering crowd at downtown's Seelbach hotel, made famous as the site of Daisy and Tom's wedding in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. "We weren't Republican light. We weren't Democrat light. We were Democrats!"

In an interview Thursday, a hoarse and weary Yarmuth said economic issues — not his support for gay marriage or abortion rights — were what mattered most to voters during the nasty campaign. "I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of times issues like gay marriage and abortion and flag burning came up," he said. "Voters wanted to know about health care, job security, and rising tuition instead."

It was a similar story across the river in Indiana's conservative Ninth District, where former Congressman Baron Hill campaigned on a solidly Democratic platform — against a gay marriage amendment, against the war, and for expanded health care and increasing the minimum wage — and defeated the incumbent, hard-right social conservative Mike Sodrel.

Yarmuth also points to the defeats by fellow Democrats in two other hotly contested Kentucky races as proof that voters were not necessarily looking for Democrats who campaigned like Republicans. Democrats Mike Weaver and former Congressman Ken Lucas both campaigned hard on conservative credentials, but lost their respective races. "They didn't present a clear alternative and the national wave didn't catch them," said Yarmuth. "Democrats who might have been inclined to vote for them, figured, 'What's the difference?'" Even supposed conservative Democrats like former sheriff Brad Ellsworth in Indiana's 8th District, who trounced Republican incumbent John Hostettler, ran in support of raising the minimum wage and against some of the Bush tax cuts.

In other parts of the country, of course, Democrats like former football star Heath Shuler in North Carolina did win tight races after working hard to establish credentials as conservative as those of the Republican incumbents they beat. But Chuck Todd, editor of The Hotline — the National Journal's daily briefing on politics — pointed out that even conservative Democrats like pro-life and anti-gun control Bob Casey, who defeated Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, campaigned loudest on traditional Democratic themes like economic insecurity, the minimum wages and the expansion of health care.

"The Democrats across the board urged populist, paycheck messages — and they were traditional messages from the liberal end of the Democratic Party, touching on labor issues, corporate bashing. These issues are becoming more mainstream," Todd said. In fact, the Democrats' approach is similar to the issues that Republicans in the 1970s used to built voter coalitions that created the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s. "Back then, the Republican Party didn't talk about its social issues."

Now, Democrats from across the political spectrum are finding common ground on economic issues, including CEO pay and the minimum wage — populist messages that had been muffled among Democrats during the economic boom times of the Clinton Administration. "They resonated this time a lot louder than they have in a long time," Todd said.

Of course none of this means that the country has moved to the left politically. "Sure, Yarmuth won by running as a liberal in a non-liberal district," said Todd. "But the race wasn't about him. The mistake Democrats could make is to see winning liberal candidates like him as proof that a much more liberal agenda is more palatable to the public."

Yarmuth contends his liberal positions will not be any more of a problem in office than they were as a candidate. Campaign rhetoric to the contrary, he expects to spend a lot more time on economic issues than on hot-button social issues like abortion or gay rights. "One of the things that is difficult to talk about in a campaign is just how little Congress has to do with any of those things like abortion, or gay rights or prayer in schools," he said. "Maybe this time, voters just got their priorities right."