The prospect of war with Iraq is dealing Democratic candidates a triple blow. It's pushing their best issues, such as health care and the economy, into the background, while also damaging two crucial campaign operations -- fundraising and voter turnout -- among key liberal constituencies disillusioned over the party's failure to challenge President Bush more forcefully on his bellicose posture toward Baghdad.
With the House and Senate elections less than four weeks away, several Democratic officials cite a troubling drop in contributions from disaffected groups and they fear a sluggish Election Day turnout from minorities, women, suburban professionals and others.
"Our liberal base wants us to stand up and challenge Bush on the war," said Donna Brazile, who runs the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute and managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. She said loyal Democrats in low-income areas and black neighborhoods, along with many women and liberal suburbanites, are bitterly complaining that "no one is talking to us, no one is addressing our issues" on the economy and preparation for war. "There is a real danger out there."
For weeks, Democrats have acknowledged that the Iraq matter's dominance of the news has helped keep voter attention on an issue generally seen as beneficial to Bush and his fellow Republicans. Party insiders, however, are increasingly worried about the potential impact on fundamental mechanics that win or lose elections: fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Direct-mail donations to the DNC took a nosedive in August and September, party officials acknowledge. Several of them say a major cause is discontent over the acquiescence of many Democratic leaders to Bush's preparation for war with Iraq.
One Democratic strategist familiar with the situation said, "Democratic donors want the leadership to fight harder on Iraq. Instead, people see Democrats are not raising questions."
The most recent Washington Post survey conducted at the end of September shows that opposition to taking military action against Iraq is most intense among voters who constitute a significant portion of the Democratic base: those who strongly disapprove of Bush, liberals, blacks and, to a lesser extent, women. While 34 percent of all Americans oppose going to war against Iraq, the figure is 76 percent among those who strongly disapprove of Bush -- a group Democrats must rely on for donations and high voter turnout.
DNC Chairman Terence McAuliffe played down the role of the Iraq debate in the August-September drop in direct-mail contributions, contending "it could be the economy, it could have been a bad mail piece." Looking at all of 2002, he said, the DNC is headed toward a direct-mail fundraising record for a non-presidential election year.
McAuliffe declined to provide month-to-month figures on direct-mail contributions. But another source close to the DNC said McAuliffe has "been on a tear about the direct mail. He is complaining to everyone who will listen."
Overall, McAuliffe said, the DNC has raised $21.3 million from direct mail through the first nine months of this year. During the same period, Republican National Committee officials said they had raised three times as much: $66.1 million from direct mail, with $7.4 million raised in August and $8.6 million in September.
A fundraising specialist said, "The people who give to the Republican and Democratic parties are the ones with the strongest ideological viewpoints. They are strong conservatives in the case of the Republicans, and strong liberals in the case of the Democrats. The Democratic donor base is inclined to oppose the president's actions in Iraq, and if the party is not doing that, it causes some problems."
The direct-mail drop at the DNC has not been replicated at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, officials said. Many donors view the Senate -- where Democrats hold a one-vote majority -- as the party's last bastion in Washington, and fundraising at the DSCC has been on a record-setting pace.
"In August and September, we raised $2.3 million through direct mail, $1 million more than last cycle and $250,000 more even than in 1998 which, due to impeachment, was the golden age of Democratic direct mail," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the DSCC.
Officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- the party's political arm for House races -- said mail donations fell off "slightly" in August and September.
Direct-mail donations are important this year as a source of campaign cash and as a barometer of activist support. But building a large base of mail donors is even more important for the Democratic Party after the election. Beginning on Nov. 6, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law will prohibit the parties from raising "soft money," large contributions from unions, corporations and rich people. Democrats have relied on big soft-money checks much more than have Republicans, so it's vital that they cultivate thousands of supporters willing to send checks in the $25 to $200 range, party activists say.
Voter turnout, meanwhile, is critical to both parties on Nov. 5. All the signs so far point to significant voter disinterest in the election. If Democrats can't energize their base -- especially liberals, many of whom want stronger opposition to Bush on Iraq -- their chances of holding the Senate or taking over the House will diminish.
"We are not broadly, nationally speaking out to the base about why they should continue to be loyal to the Democratic Party and why they should turn out," said one operative involved in several key races. "Frankly, the Democratic message is 'We support Bush in the war on terrorism.' That is not going to turn out anybody."
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney recently told reporters that economic and health issues have a much higher priority with voters than the possible war with Iraq, but voters "are really angry and frustrated that they don't see anybody running on their issues." AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal warned of a "me-too-ism" characterizing much of the political debate, with the result that voters are not being provided adequate incentives to cast ballots.
The Republican Party, meantime, has launched a campaign on black-oriented radio programs stressing Bush's education policies, arguing that African Americans should give more consideration to voting for GOP candidates.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company