Republican focus on Benghazi, IRS controversies: Is it political?

Peter Mlekuz

With the 2014 midterms approaching, Democrats and Republicans appear to once again be turning to the most reliable core of voters to deliver victories and fend off defeat. This year, it will be all about the base.

Aside from attacking Obamacare, Republicans continue to their attempt to motivate their voters with a message that the Obama administration is guilty of cover-ups and maliciousness.

Friday, House Republicans moved to launch a special investigative panel to continue searching for information in the 2012 attack that left four Americans dead. Democrats have objected, calling it the politicization of a tragedy. This week, the House is expected to hold a vote to hold former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for her refusal to testify in her agency's role in scrutinizing conservative organizations. They're also expected to call on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint special counsel to investigate the entire scandal.

Former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a Republican, suggested that the move to appoint the special Benghazi panel was motivated by a need to fire up the base. "I can tell you that there's a firestorm out there across America among a lot of Republicans who believe that we have not been diligent in taking this issue on," he said on ABC's "This Week." "And so I think [House Speaker John Boehner] has no choice but to move forward. And he needs to put on someone who has credibility among the Republican base." That person will be Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who was elected during the last midterm election, the 2010 wave that ushered scores of conservative lawmakers into office.

Democrats, on the other hand, have lined up a series of votes to convince their base that Republicans are heartless enemies of working- and middle-class Americans. While the House was busy with Benghazi, Senate Democrats tried to get a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour to the floor for debate even though they knew it would fail - a move, Republicans say, designed only to score political points. They have held similar votes on extending emergency unemployment benefits (though it ultimately passed the Senate) and seeking to eliminate the gender gap in wages.

The White House is doing its part too: Vice President Joe Biden revived a 2012 campaign argument last week by warning of the dangers of a budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which he says benefits the rich at the expense of programs like Medicaid that can help working-class families or even middle-class families with special needs children.

Both parties have settled into familiar tropes and issues that will convince their own supporters their opponents are greedy, evil or corrupt rather than looking for ways to woo over independents or voters from the other side of the aisle with promises of bipartisanship and productivity.

It makes sense as a midterm strategy: it's hard to get voters to the polls without the excitement or attention created by a presidential election, so only the most motivated - and often partisan - voters show up to the polls. This has proven to be particularly problematic for Democrats, who see turnout among young and nonwhite voters drop and therefore eliminate their presidential-year edge.

As David Wasserman at the nonpartisan Cook Political report noted, the natural advantage Republicans have in midterm elections - better performance among older and white voters - has "ballooned" during the Obama presidency due to increased polarization along age and racial lines.

Democrats have reason to worry this year, too: a Harvard Institute of Politics poll released last week found that less than a quarter of Americans aged 18 to 29 were "definitely" planning to vote in November, a drop of 11 percentage points from just five months ago, when 34 percent said that was the case.

Even within the group of younger Americans, the trends are better for the GOP: 44 percent of people who voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 said they will definitely be voting, compared to just 35 percent of voters for President Obama. One-third (32 percent) of self-identified conservatives say they will vote, compared to just 22 percent of liberals Men are 9 points more likely to vote than women, and young whites voters are 8 points more likely to turn up at the polls than both African-American and Hispanic voters.

As CBS News Elections Director Anthony Salvanto pointed out, Democrats have also found their potential campaign themes limited by both a stagnant economic recovery - but also stagnant opinions among voters on how the economy is faring.

"To tout that the economy is back, or to seek credit for that, could risk sounding discordant when a majority simply doesn't agree - or, at least, it doesn't agree things have rebounded enough to be labeled good, which is probably the same thing for all practical purposes," Salvanto wrote. "It's no surprise that Democrats' messaging, of late, is centering on economic-related issues (since voters always say the economy is important) such as equal pay and minimum wage, but are less about trumpeting any status of the broader economy."

Of course many of those pocketbook issues, such as the gender pay gap and raising the minimum wage, would disproportionately benefit women - a group with which Democrats have an edge, but need to ensure get to the polls.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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