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Inside Politics: Democrats' good week

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democrats are banking on a boost from good Obamacare and jobs report figures
  • An improvement in the President's approval rating could help Democrats in midterms
  • Democrats are hoping to salvage anticipated congressional losses
  • Democrats hope a backlash against big donors will help election efforts

Washington (CNN) -- Democrats know the history: 2014 is all but certain to be a tough year. But there is a sense among some top Democratic strategists that the political climate is shifting in ways that could keep the midterm climate from turning from bad to disastrous.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking, and it is important -- very important -- to note how things look in April is often not how they turn out come November.

But Democrats just in the past week have received a few nuggets of potentially helpful news:

* Friday's Labor Department report showing the economy added 192,000 jobs in March.

* Enrollment in the President's health care plan crossed the 7 million mark at the first big deadline to sign up.

* A slight but potentially important uptick in President Barack Obama's approval rating. Gallup's daily tracking poll had this key midterm barometer at 45 percent on Friday, a near 2014 high and up from 39 percent in early February. (President George W. Bush had a 38 percent approval rating in November 2006 -- his second term midterm election -- and Democrats gained 30 House seats).

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Plus, Democratic-leaning SuperPACS are beginning to spend more money, and in a few notable cases testing a new strategy of punching directly back at the source of millions of dollars in conservative spending that helped turn the early 2014 climate decidedly in favor of the GOP.

Not that Democrats should be popping -- or even ordering -- champagne. To be clear, top party strategists still expect to lose seats in both the House and the Senate. The goal, though, is to keep the House losses to single digits and to deny Republicans the net gain of six seats the GOP needs to take control of the Senate.

The principal driver of midterm election seasons is the President's approval rating; the closer the incumbent gets to 50 percent, the better Democrats feel about avoiding a November bloodbath.

And any President benefits when people feel better about the economy, which is where the new jobs report, and the immediate debate about its meaning, comes in.

The 192,000 new jobs was a bit below the consensus estimates, so Republicans were quick to label it not good enough.

"Our economy still isn't creating jobs for the American people at the rate they were promised," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.

Too early to run Obamacare victory lap

Democrats, however, focused on the trend line.

The economy added 533,000 jobs in the first three months of 2014. By contrast, job growth in all of 2010 -- a disastrous midterm election year for Democrats -- was barely above 1 million.

Back then, it was a punishing summer slump that shaped the fall election mood -- so given recent history, it would be a mistake for Democrats to invest too much hope in this year's first quarter.

But the early betting is that the job market in this midterm year will be stronger, and less volatile, than in 2010.

Turning the health care political tide is tougher, but one Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg argues must become a strategic imperative.

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As noted recently in an analysis produced by the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, opponents of the health care law are more likely to cite it as a major factor in their 2014 voting decisions. That "intensity gap" is the major source of GOP midterm optimism.

Greenberg, in a memo released Thursday, argues that Democrats need to reshape the health care terrain.

"When the debate is between implementing or repealing the (Affordable Care Act), the intensity shifts towards implementing the law," the veteran Democratic pollster says. "So it is possible that Democrats will be able to turn the debate."

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Also worth watching is a growing Democratic effort to create a 2014 political bogeyman out of the Koch brothers.

It wasn't all that long ago that veteran Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall was contemplating retirement. Now, though, the West Virginia congressman is in the middle of an experiment Democrats hope helps them minimize their midterm losses.

Evan Jenkins is Rahall's Republican opponent. But turn on a TV in the 3rd Congressional District and you can't miss a rugged coal miner warning "New York billionaires" are trying to defeat Rahall.

Translation: the Koch brothers, the conservative megadonors whose spending spree has Democratic candidates across the country on their heels. Now, Democratic leaning groups are fighting back by making the Koch's an issue -- labeling them a rich special interest group trying to get the best Congress money can buy.

In addition to West Virginia, the House Majority PAC is running ads attacking the Koch brothers in Arizona's 2nd Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Ron Barber faces a tough reelection climate.

Already the Koch brothers were an issue in several Senate campaigns, again as Democratic-leaning groups try to improve an election climate in which the early spending by the Koch's, primarily through an organization called Americans for Prosperity, has improved GOP prospects.

The pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC is attacking the Koch brothers in five states with key Senate races: Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Carolina and Michigan. Americans For Prosperity has spent millions in those states and elsewhere attacking Democrats for supporting Obama's health care law.

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The version running in Colorado urges voters to consider, "those behind the attacks -- insurance companies and out of state billionaires."

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It's a somewhat risky strategy -- using precious advertising resources to attack someone not on the ballot.

But more and more Democrats think it is worth the effort.

Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Koch's heavy spending and the frequent national media attention it receives makes them a legitimate target.

"The Koch brothers are becoming their own brand," Israel said in a conversation this week.

Democratic strategist Paul Begala concurs -- and drew a parallel to his 2012 work for a pro-Obama SuperPAC.

"Nobody had heard of Bain Capital either, until we told them about it," Begala said. "Of course the Democrats are wise to tell voters about the controversial billionaires. ... What did Mama say to you when someone said something hateful? 'Consider the source,'" he said.

But veteran GOP ad guru Alex Castellanos isn't so sure.

Years ago, Castellanos says one of his favorite ad targets was George Meany, then the AFL-CIO leader.

"Beat the hell out of him," Castellanos said. "Problem is, he wasn't on the ballot. Democrats won."

To Castellanos, the direct aim at the Koch brothers proves "the Democrat Party today is exhausted. It's a tactical party, trying to eke out victories on Demographics and negative assaults."

Democrats, not surprisingly, disagree. They argue the Koch "bogeyman" strategy is helping their candidates and with fund-raising.

More broadly, the Democratic bottom line can be summed up this way: the year is still likely to be rough, but that the terrain in early April looks a bit less treacherous than it did in early March.

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