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Can Democrats Wrestle The Populist Mantle From The Tea Partiers?

Tea Party Protesters
People attend a tea party protest in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) AP

WASHINGTON -- On the eve of a primary day in which populist anger could shake up some key midterm elections, progressives are insisting Democrats can capture the energy that has largely been associated with the Tea Party - and they are expressing resentment towards the Democratic Party for failing to so far do so.

"Voters are extremely upset about the direction of the country and the state of the economy," Celinda Lake, president of Democratic polling group Lake Research Partners, said today. She was speaking at the America's Future Now conference, a progressive conference organized by the group Campaign for America's Future.

The Tea Party has served as the primary vehicle for those frustrations over the past year, Lake and others at the conference said, in large part because Democrats appear tone deaf to the economic troubles of the working class.

Voters "want the change they voted for in 2008," Lake said. "They're going to try and force that change again this November."

The economy remains the top issue for voters as the rate of unemployment continues to hover at close to 10 percent. In a CBS News poll last month, 42 percent said that the national economy is not changing, while 28 percent said it is getting worse and 30 percent said it is getting better.

Meanwhile, lone Republicans twice this year were able to block the Senate's attempts to extend unemployment benefits. It is "truly astounding how out of touch this feels for the American public," Lake said with respect to the delay of the benefits extension.

"The candidates that miss how hard it is for the public right now are the ones who are going to get defeated," Lake said.

Perhaps no one is more aware of that than Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the moderate Democrat of Arkansas who is defending her seat in a Democratic run-off tomorrow against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

After the left concluded that Lincoln was too friendly to big business, labor unions helped Halter stop Lincoln from securing the Democratic Senate nomination last month. Lincoln responded to the liberal backlash by adding strong new regulations of the derivative market to the Democrats' Wall Street reform bill.

Yet while populist anger pushed Lincoln to the left, other contests tomorrow are examples of the rising influence of the anti-corporate, anti-government sentiment of the Tea Party. Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate vying for the Republican Senate nomination in Nevada, has risen in the polls in the past month and could beat the establishment candidate Sue Lowden.

In the California Republican gubernatorial and Senate primaries tomorrow, the well-funded establishment candidates are expected to beat Tea Party-backed insurgents, but the presence of the more conservative contenders has forced the anticipated winners to tack right on issues such as immigration.

Democrats have only themselves to blame for allowing the right to seize populist anger, said Drew Westen, a political strategist and professor at Emory University.

With majorities in both chambers of Congress, Democrats passed a $15 billion jobs bill - "large enough to cover roughly half the city of Detroit," Westen said derisively.

Yet as Republicans refuse to cooperate with Democrats, he said, "The White House refuses to tell the American people why the American economy has gone into this ditch."

He added, "The first time [President Obama] uttered President Bush's name was when he appointed him a special ambassador to Haiti."

Westen blasted the administration for failing to hold executives responsible for the economic recession and for cutting "secret deals" with health insurance and pharmaceutical executives during the health care debate.

Yet while the Tea Party has seized the populist mantle that could have benefited the left, progressives at the conference remained hopeful they could win back some of those voters.

Karen Nussbaum, executive director of the labor-affiliated group Working America, said it would take door-to-door engagement to get there.

"We are at the screen door," she said. "Glenn Beck is on the TV in the living room... But when we talk to people, they are eager to be part of the solution."

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