There is a general consensus that the economy and the lagging recovery will be the dominant issues in the 2010 midterm elections. This is confirmed by Thursday’s release of a Politico-George Washington University poll and a New York Times-CBS poll from Wednesday with respondents overwhelmingly rating the economy as their top election issue. But the recession is two years old and, pending significantly good news on the unemployment, housing and retail sales fronts , voters’ positions on the economy have largely crystallized. Social issues will also feature prominently the final push to get undecided voters to the polls in November.
There are not many likely voters left to convince on the economic issues. Likely Republican voters see a stagnant economy and blame Washington Democrats, while Democratic voters, with the exception of deficit spending advocates like New York Times economist Paul Krugman, see an economy that has not had enough time to react to the Democrats’ recovery-oriented policies. The economy is a non-starter, and polls suggest that more voters are drawn to the Republican position on spending and taxation.
The election’s signature issue is pretty well baked, but there are always standby issues that can attract those voters still on the fence – most effective among these are social issues. For the most part, traditional culture war battlefields have been abandoned this year in favor of more pressing economic issues, and associated issues like taxation and financial regulation, but the influence of social issues has not entirely abated as motivating factors for undecided voters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recently announced his intention to attach provisions of the DREAM Act to a defense spending bill. The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for children of illegal aliens that have attended school and would like to go to college or join the military, but are prohibited due to their lack of citizenship. There is almost no chance that this issue will see significant debate on the Senate floor, let alone be passed on to the President to be signed. Lawmakers are nervous about their election chances; already, embattled Colorado Senator Bob Bennet (D-CO), and the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), say they will oppose DREAM if debate does reach the Senate floor.
Speculation as to Sen. Reid’s motives for bringing up this contentious and likely dead-on-arrival issue just before the end of the election cycle abound. The most credible is the theory that it is an attempt to get Nevada’s large Hispanic population excited enough about the prospect of some aspect of immigration reform to go to the polls for Reid. For her part, Reid’s Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, pounced on the proposal for DREAM and released an ad this week calling Reid “the best friend an illegal immigrant ever had.” With Republicans and Democrats in Congress cemented on their positions on immigration, and in combination with Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070 immigration enforcement law still dividing partisans across the country, immigration is a social issue sure to draw a few undecideds to the polls.
Social issues do not stop at immigration. Tea Party candidates have resurrected social issues, not because they are running on them per se, but because they have taken positions in the past which Democrats know they can run effectively against – specifically abortion rights and sexual freedoms. In this past Tuesday’s primary elections, New York’s gubernatorial Republican nominee, Carl Paladino, and Delaware’s Senate Republican nominee, Christine O’Donnell, offer opportunities for Democrats to resurrect some of the social issues they have a wealth of experience positioning themselves in opposition to.
In an interview with CNN’s Rick Sanchez which aired Monday, Paladino unashamedly typified the social positions that the Democratic Party loves to run against.
Sanchez: Let me ask you your positions on some of the issues that people want to know about. Same sex marriage, where do you stand on that?
Sanchez: How do you feel about unions between same-sex couples?
Paladino: I’m fine with that. I think the – If the definition of unions is what we have right now, I’m fine with that. I have no anxiety over it.
Paladino: Carry it further into… No.
Sanchez: What is your position on Abortion?
Sanchez: Should a woman have a right to have an abortion if she has been raped?
Sanchez: She should not? She should have to have the baby.
Paladino: And the baby can be adopted – yes.
Sanchez: What if it is a case of incest?
Paladino: And the baby can be adopted – yes.
With the exception of Paladino’s views on civil unions, these are not electable positions in a staunchly conservative state, let alone New York.
In Delaware, Republican nominee for Senate, Christine O’Donnell, has a history of campaigning for abstinence in the 1990s. In a video broadcast on MTV in the 1990s, highlights of which were broadcast on MSNBC over the week, O’Donnell takes a firm position supporting total abstinence which includes masturbation. If the Democratic strategy is to distance themselves from the economy and make their opponents positions on non-economic issues unpalatable to the general public, they could not have asked for better issues to contrast themselves with.
The Tea Party candidates in New York and Delaware allow Democrats the opportunity to nationalize their positions, even if they are not shared by other prominent Tea Partiers like Alaska’s Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller and Nevada’s GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle. Their association with the Tea Party Express allow Democrats to link Paladino and O’Donnell’s positions with those of the larger Tea Party movement. In an environment with so many headwinds arrayed against Democrats in terms of economic policy, Democratic strategists will want to use every social issue they can. Anything further the “outside the mainstream” meme will be a net benefit for Democrats.
Finally, the last of the social issues left over from August, the Ground Zero mosque, refuses to go away. The issue has yet to be resolved and the backers of that project have refused to entertain the prospect of relocating the Muslim cultural center, despite the attempted interventions of a diverse spectrum of prominent individuals – from New York’s Governor Paterson to Donald Trump. The President famously backed the mosque’s construction at the White House’s Iftar Dinner on August 13th, although he would retract what seemed to be a full-throated endorsement only 14-hours later. Without the President’s intervention into this issue, it is unlikely that it would be a national factor in the 2010 midterms.
The Ground Zero Mosque has been called a “70-30” issue, due to the lopsided level of opposition. The mosque and the Arizona immigration law have become platforms which Republican candidates have used to polarize the electorate against Democrats. After a summer of 70-30 issues going almost universally against Democrats, Tea Party candidates have resurrected the social issues that progressives know can leverage against conservatives. The “values” debates that have been dormant in the last two election cycles, due to the primacy of economic issues, are set to resurface in the next few weeks. It remains to be seen what impact they will have on the polls.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org