Democrats struck a similar note in 2012, of course, with the cries about a "war on women." But the midterms present a greater messaging challenge. Last month, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sounded a red alert when his surveys suggested that the core of the so-called rising American electorate, the one that propelled Barack Obama to two terms as president, wasn't planning to show up in 2014.
That has forced the party to find reasons for people to come out and vote, and they've selected issues that target slices of the electorate. Hence, equal pay, an issue that especially resonates with single women; the minimum wage, which may animate minority voters; and immigration reform, which galvanizes Hispanics. And likely coming soon to a Reid press availability near you: student-loan modification, teed up for the hard-to-get youth vote.
At the same time, Reid's relentless hammering of the Koch brothers has been, viewed from a distance, less about the influence of money in politics and more about the notion that the rich are prospering while the less fortunate struggle. It's what Democrats did so successfully two years ago in tying Mitt Romney to Bain Capital. All of it has been wrapped in a campaign Democrats say is aimed at ensuring "a fair shot for everyone," directly aimed at disaffected voters who believe they're on the short end. And it may help explain why Pelosi and Israel were so comfortable asserting that parts of the Democratic base are victims of racism.
Nevertheless, Democrats remain hobbled by the lack of a large, unifying message, especially with one of their own in the White House and the economy still struggling. There's nothing to rally the base en masse like George W. Bush and the Iraq War did in 2006, and nothing that motivates large swaths of their voters like opposition to the Affordable Care Act does for conservatives.
Michael McDonald, an expert on voter turnout at George Mason University, is dubious that the Democrats' issue-targeting effort will spark a different mix of midterm voters. "They're basically trying to reengineer the electorate," McDonald said. "History is not on their side." The poor Democratic turnout in a Florida swing district special election last month only seemed to reaffirm that.
But there is a sliver of hope for the party, one that was backed up by Greenberg's research. There is some evidence, McDonald said, that economic issues such as the minimum wage could convince low-income voters who would otherwise stay home to vote. Moreover, the messaging out of Capitol Hill is being augmented by a ground-based get-out-the-vote operation, spearheaded by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that is modeled on the Obama turnout machine.
Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina, believes the niche approach could work, that a portion of the electorate in his state feels victimized by the GOP both nationally and locally. (The state Legislature has passed, among other things, a voter-ID law.) "I think here it has some strength. There's real energy on the ground," he said. "You've got this feeling among the Democratic base that they're being gone after."