“Yes, I am a Christian and I love my Jesus,” says Harold Ford, Jr. to his Tennessee audience as he campaigns to become the first black senator from the South since the Reconstruction. Whether John Kerry’s ‘botched joke’ about Iraq has punctured the Democratic boat in the last leg of the campaign for tomorrow’s mid-term Congressional elections will be known only in another day’s time. If it has, it will upset a strategic circus the Democratic National Committee has been conducting in the wake of the 2004 presidential defeat.
That Republican victory had proved the might of the “values voter”, and the Democratic need to re-connect with the Christian voter in the Republican heartland of the South and Middle America. So, this time round, the profiles of some of the Democrats running for Congress in the ‘deep red’ states may well confuse one into assuming they are Republicans. Harold Ford is only one among a number of Democrat candidates who are pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and profess faith in evangelical Christianity. Bob Casey, the Democrat Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, is a long-standing Catholic opponent of abortion. Brad Ellsworth, running for the House of Representatives in Indiana, has put up web pictures of himself in hunting gear, bantering with war veterans and policemen. All this from a party whose chairman, Howard Dean, still writes a broadly centre-left national agenda.
Democrats haven’t had it so good since 2002, and now look almost certain to retake at least the House. A gain of fifteen House seats and six in the Senate is what they need to wrest complete control of Congress from the Republicans and bring the George W. Bush machinery to a halt.
But the Senate may still elude them. Republicans have a digital database of their votebank that Karl Rove calls the voter-vault and a ruthlessly efficient turnout mechanism. Besides, the redistricting after the 2000 census has made almost ninety per cent House seats secure for either party. Given the larger and faster growing Republican geographical map, the disaffection with the party besieged by Iraq, Katrina, scams, scandals and unpopular economic policies does not guarantee Democrats legislative control. Again, unlike the stunned Democrats of 1994 who lost Congress, Republicans are going into this knowing that there is a storm coming their way.
The fielding of social conservatives in the Bible belt, therefore, is a worked-out strategy that the liberal and centrist majority of the Democratic party has quietly endorsed. Democrats studied recent Republican successes and turned hi-tech to get the vote. But Dean preferred a long-term strategy of building relationships instead. So the party has been working overtime in the red states, targeting hard even the vulnerable moderate Republican candidates. Thus November 7 offers the rather uncanny scenario of certain moderate or right-leaning Democrats beating their moderate or left-leaning Republican counterparts.
This strategy may win Democrats seats they had given up for good. But, come 2008, they must take a clear stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem-cell research. Conservatives, after all, remain marginal in a party dominated by the Centrists and the Progressives. For the moment, Ford Jr. may be hugged by staunch Republican voters after a campaign speech, but what if this multi-pronged approach backfires on the party in the near future' At the least, the “big-tent party” will become more unwieldy and attempts to suppress the right-leaning minority may alienate the Democrat-trending Republican states once more and bring the party back at square one.
Meanwhile, if there is a one per cent chance of the world becoming a better and safer place with a Democrat-controlled Congress, so be it.