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Vulnerable House Democrats Say Party Isn’t Building a Narrative for 2010

Freshman House Democrats Gerry Connolly, who represents Northern Virginia’s eleventh district, and Tom Perriello of the rural fifth district are in a tough spot. Elected to office as part of the Obama wave, they are now selling themselves to voters in 2010 in the midst of a bad economy and anger at the Washington establishment.

At a press briefing hosted by Third Way, a centrist Democratic allied Washington think tank, Perriello and Connolly tried to explain how they were preparing to sell their votes on economic issues – and the Democratic Party’s performance at the helm of the federal government.

Third Way presented a poll on likely voters’ attitudes toward the economy they conducted in June with the Benenson Strategey Group, President Obama’s preferred pollster, that presented some tough realities for Democrats like Connolly and Perriello.

While 53 percent of the poll respondents blame George W. Bush for the recession, compared to only 26 percent blaming President Obama, 65 percent said that a Republican majority in Congress would pursue economic policies different from President Bush. This suggests that at least during the summer, voters nationwide aren’t seeing Bush and a potential new Republican majority as the same thing – something the Democratic Party has been trying to push in recent weeks.

The poll also suggests that likely voters, while unhappy with the status of the economy, are optimistic about the next five years and 63 percent favor cuts in government spending to reduce the deficit. This suggests that THE Republican message that Congress has enabled President Obama’s irresponsible spending could resonate nationally.

Both congressmen lamented that the Democrats lack a coherent message about how they’ve taken tough steps to improve the economy during a recession – while they are hammered from Republicans with a consistent message- government doesn’t work.

Connolly complained that Democrats haven’t highlighted the deficit reduction aspects of some of the landmark reforms passed and signed by President Obama in the past two years – health care reform and financial reform.

“There is a story to be told that’s pretty compelling – both about the mess we needed to clean up and what we did to clean it up. I don’t think we’ve been very effective in weaving that narrative and telling it,” Connolly said

Perriello, who won by approximately 700 votes in 2008 in a district that voted for John McCain, said that people in his district want to hear about a plan to grow jobs and not an argument about President Bush.

“Focusing on Bush for the sake of focusing on President Bush I think is a waste of time. Unfortunately, I don’t think (the Republican’s) ideas have changed, so to the extent that we want to have an actual battle of ideas I think we are gonna win that,” Perriello said.

“I think people wanna hear what’s your plan for bringing back jobs. To me we have to start building things, making things, growing things again and that may sound folksy to people in Washington, but it’s real. The other side wants to win a race to the bottom with China,” he added.

Both Connolly and Perriello have been targeted by the GOP as districts Republicans think they can pick up this year.

Perriello’s race in particular is a microcosm of the 2010 midterms – he voted for cap and trade, the stimulus, and health care reform after winning narrowly in a Republican leaning district in a battleground state. If Republicans can win enough races like Perriello’s they could win control of the House.

The NewsHour’s Betty Ann Bowser visited Virginia’s fifth district to interview Perriello in April about his “aye” vote on health care – and talked to his constituents about their concerns. While health care isn’t likely to overshadow unemployment and the economy in the 2010 midterms, Bowser’s report will give you a feel for the fifth district and the challenges freshman Democrats like Perriello face in the midterms.

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