On Wednesday, as Tea Party activists rallied against the IRS and the Senate immigration bill on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama’s campaign-turned-lobbying arm, Organizing for Action (OfA), emailed a warning about “threats on women’s health” in Congress. It urged its members to sign a petition against a “terrifying” decision the GOP “to stand between a woman and her doctor when it comes to her health care decisions.”
Meanwhile, for the past several weeks, Republicans have sent fundraising pitches to their donors expressing indignation over the IRS scandal, in which the agency targeted conservative groups on the basis of their names and views for additional, and excessive, scrutiny. They are seeking to capitalize on grass-roots outrage–outrage that is often equally directed at Republican leadership–as they ramp up campaign efforts for 2014.
The OfA email about abortion is a re-hash of the 2012 presidential campaign’s “war on women” theme–and is aided, once again, by the mainstream media’s eagerness to focus on conservative gaffes, to the exclusion of mistakes by the president or members of his party. In addition to the abortion issue, Democrats are seizing on controversy over sexual assault in the military to signal to female voters that they are fighting for them.
The abortion issue has, in fact, gained new poignancy–though not in a way that favors the pro-choice side. The trial and conviction of Dr. Kermit Gosnell for the gruesome murders of babies delivered at his abortion clinic was ignored by the mainstream media but inspired pro-life activists to press for legislation limiting abortions past 20 weeks–the bill that inspired the OfA email but which, curiously, it does not describe.
Democrats are clearly worried about a midterm lull–which is why they have not only found it necessary to re-ignite old issues, but to share, selectively, in conservative outrage. As the IRS scandal has unfolded, for example, Democrats have strained to argue that “progressive” and liberal non-profits were also “targeted” by the IRS. Some Democrats have also split openly with the White House over the NSA and Prism scandals.
Meanwhile, Republicans are buoyed by a sense that frustration at the Obama administration scandals will help bring millions of conservative voters back to the polls after many apparently sat out the 2012 contest. The redistricting that followed the 2010 elections will also help ensure the party holds the House. But the race for the Senate has pit the GOP establishment against the base, as have issues like immigration reform.
In that context, the IRS scandal represents a rare point of unity, which is why even those Republicans busily defending the NSA’s surveillance programs against the party’s resurgent libertarian wing are citing the IRS scandal as a legitimate grievance. The full extent of the IRS abuses is unknown, and questions remain about who ordered the targeting, and why. Yet the issue has already become part of the 2014 election lexicon.
Midterm elections typically have lower turnout than presidential elections, which is why the 2014 effort by both sides will be aimed at motivating their party’s base voters. Republicans already have a wide variety of new conservative grievances to harness; Democrats are, thus far, returning to themes that have worked in the past. In the thick of the fight, the actual issues at the core of these debates risk being hijacked or obscured.