Democrats Embrace Populism

Lately, the president and his allies have sharpened their rhetoric. Can the party win back blue-collar white voters by bashing Wall Street?

Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren is challenging Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) with an anti-Wall-Street message.

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Democrats have been rediscovering their inner populist lately. President Obama is calling on the wealthiest Americans to pay their "fair share" in taxes. Elizabeth Warren, campaigning for the Senate in Massachusetts, has become a rising star by bluntly criticizing the business class. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a petition last month aimed at leveraging the Occupy Wall Street movement against the Republican Party.

But the clearest test for whether Democrats can sell a message centered on income inequality won't be in the presidential race, where Obama's chances of victory depend heavily on the mood of upscale, white-collar professionals. Rather, the battle for the hearts and minds of the working-class will take place in the House race battlefields, where Democrats can't afford to write off blue-collar voters if they hope to win the 25 seats they need to recapture the majority.

It wasn't long ago that Democrats were highly competitive with that demographic. In 2006 and 2008, their greatest gains came in heavily white districts with relatively small concentrations of college graduates. Former DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel aggressively recruited culturally conservative candidates, recognizing that the party couldn't handicap itself by ceding Middle America to Republicans. The ability to compete across the country is what allowed the party to forge a congressional governing majority for four years.

Democrats suffered their biggest losses last year in blue-collar territory, as Obama's approval ratings with blue-collar white voters plummeted. White voters without a college education voted for Republican House candidates nearly 2 to 1, according to last year's Edison Research exit poll. The party's bulwark of Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom had held onto seats in deeply conservative districts no matter the political climate, collapsed.

While Democrats aren't going to win back many of those seats given the districts' conservative orientation, they're betting that a message decrying income inequality can put some of them in play.

Republicans still hold a healthy edge in support among white voters without a college education--47 percent to 34 percent, according to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. But their advantage has narrowed significantly since 2010, when they led 63 percent to 33 percent in exit polling. The GOP agenda of spending cuts and entitlement reforms isn't a natural sell with this constituency, which has been hard-hit by the recession.

The Democrats' ability to win back a House majority may well lie with candidates like Brendan Mullen, an Iraq veteran who's running in a working-class, solidly Catholic battleground district in northern Indiana. He's pro-gun and anti-abortion rights, but identifies with the Democratic Party's traditional connection to the working class. Mullen is a convincing representative of the public mood because his biography is authentic to the message he's preaching. He grew up in South Bend and worked for his father's unionized lumberyard, moving Sheetrock and handling deliveries. He attended West Point, went to Army Airborne School and Ranger School, and served in Iraq during the war. He's running for office for the first time.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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