Democrats try positive spin on Obamacare, work hours

The federal government forms for applying for health coverage. (REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman)
The federal government forms for applying for health coverage.
(REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman)

Democrats sought to turn the latest controversy over Obamacare and the economy into a positive political message on Sunday by casting an expected decline in American work hours as a boon to worker freedom and family values.

In a new partisan tussle over election messaging that is likely to color this year’s congressional mid-term campaign, Democratic lawmakers said a predicted drop in work hours brought about by Obamacare would mean more family time for mothers, more study opportunities for college students and less job stress for older workers.

“The single mom, who’s raising three kids (and) has to keep a job because of healthcare, can now spend some time raising those kids. That’s a family value,” Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said on NBC’s Sunday program, “Meet the Press.”

He was responding to a fiscal report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on Tuesday that said President Barack Obama’s healthcare law would bring about a drop in work hours equal to the loss of 2.5 million full-time workers over the next decade.

The change would occur because some workers, particularly those with lower wages, would limit their hours to avoid losing federal subsidies that Obamacare provides to help pay for health insurance and other healthcare costs, according to CBO.

Republicans have seized on the CBO report to help support their own messaging campaign for middle-class voters, calling its contents evidence that Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement will reduce full-time employment and hurt the economy unless it is repealed.

Both parties are working to craft messages on a range of issues that can turn out the vote of loyal constituencies in November’s off-year election, which will determine who controls the Senate and House of Representatives in the final two years of the Obama presidency.

A chief aim of Republicans is to gain control of the Senate by using Obamacare’s unpopularity with voters to discourage support for vulnerable Democrats in states with large conservative populations.

Democrats have emphasized the law’s benefits for people who are sick, nearing retirement, starting a career or trying to finish up college. Obama has also challenged Republicans to come up with their own reforms.

Republicans, who have voted more than 40 times in the House to repeal or defund Obamacare, have also decided to seek their own cure. But a single plan for an alternative healthcare policy has proved elusive so far.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to be enrolled in health coverage by March 31 or pay a penalty. It has already extended health coverage to millions of Americans by offering subsidized private plans and expanding the Medicaid program for the poor in participating states.

The CBO said the subsidies, which help people pay health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs, would “reduce incentives to work” and impose an “implicit tax on working” for those returning to a job with health insurance.

“Any law you pass that discourages people from working can’t be a good idea. Why would we want to do that? Why would we think that was a good thing? How does that allow people to prepare for the time when they don’t work?” Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But Democrats refused to say the report put them on the defensive politically. Schumer likened the prospect of fewer work hours to the adoption of the 40-hour work week in the 20th century, which he described as a benefit that also reduced work hours.

“This is a good thing,” said Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“We need a better work-life balance. Ask a working mother if she could use a few more hours in a day to take care of her family,” he told ABC’s “This Week”.

Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who appeared alongside Ellison on ABC, dismissed the argument out of hand.

“It’s great spin. I don’t think it’s going to work,” he said.
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Liberals underwhelmed by Obama’s SOTU speech

President Barack Obama is seen through a television camera viewfinder as gives his the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama is seen through a television camera viewfinder as gives his the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Tensions within the Democratic Party were on display in the living rooms of Massachusetts, where liberal activists watched President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address with skepticism.

Like many in the party’s far-left wing, those who enjoyed pizza and beer at a Boston-area watch party Tuesday night have been disappointed by the president’s performance while facing a divided Congress. Some offered positive marks for his speech, but said that it did little to resurrect their once-passionate enthusiasm for the nation’s top Democrat.

“I think he offered some good things,” said party host Josh Tauber, a software engineer and Democratic activist who volunteered for both of Obama’s campaigns. “I would get more excited if I believed those things would happen.”

Liberal leaders across the nation shared Tauber’s mixed response, expressing optimism about Obama’s focus on economic inequality, but also frustration with a president some think hasn’t fought hard enough for liberal policies on health care, taxes and Wall Street reform. Their sentiments underscore a lingering tension between moderate and liberal Democrats pressing to shape the party’s priorities during Obama’s final term.

The dozen or so activists gathered in Tauber’s living room hope Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will play a key role in that debate, even if she honors her recent pledge not to run for president in 2016.

After just a year in the Senate she has emerged as a force in Democratic politics, with an enthusiastic national following from the party’s left flank. Her popularity, in Massachusetts and in Washington, is based on longstanding, aggressive support for the kinds of populist economic appeals on minimum wage, equal pay for women and affordable education that Obama outlined in his speech.

“It’s a big step in the right direction that President Obama is sounding more like Elizabeth Warren,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a Washington-based liberal group. “It’s not too little too late, but it’s certainly late in his presidency that Obama is recognizing this economic populist tide.”

The president declared that upward economic mobility has stalled for millions of Americans, and he challenged a deeply divided Congress to restore the nation’s belief in “opportunity for all” — while vowing to act on his own “wherever and whenever” he can. He outlined an array of executive actions, including raising the minimum wage for new federal contracts, helping the long-term unemployed find work and expanding job-training programs.

In a written statement, Warren said Obama “laid out an encouraging plan” and “showed he is ready to take action now to help level the playing field for hard-working families.”

“Even so,” she continued, “we need to do more together to ensure that all of our kids have a chance at a quality, affordable education and real opportunities for success.”

The president’s recent job performance ratings have been lackluster, particularly among liberals.

In an AP-GfK poll this month, just 31 percent of Americans said they would rate Obama as an outstanding or above average president, down 6 percentage points since his 2012 re-election. A quarter described him as average, and 42 percent said he’s below average or poor.

After his 2012 re-election, 65 percent of Democrats said he was outstanding or above average. This month, just 58 percent feel that way.

The president’s decline stems largely from a drop within his own party — self-described liberal Democrats most notably. Among liberals, 77 percent said in November 2012 that he was outstanding or above average. That number dropped to 65 percent in January, while moderate or conservative Democrats, Republicans and independents have held generally steady.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a liberal favorite and former presidential contender, says he’s “overwhelmingly not satisfied” with the federal government in general, but doesn’t blame Obama because he’s up against “the worst Congress in history.” Dean cheered the president’s push to bypass congressional Republicans whenever necessary.

“The president is now going to do what he should do, which is do the best he can without them since they’re useless,” he said of Congress.

Dean’s brother Jim Dean, chairman of the liberal advocacy group Democracy for America, offered a harsher tone: “The speech’s bold message is a strong first step, but the country and progressives expect the president to deliver on his promises.”

Back in Tauber’s living room, there was no applause and few smiles after Obama finished his address.

“It was a typical mainstream centrist speech,” Deborah Shah, who leads the group Progressive Massachusetts, said as she headed for the door. “I’m generally underwhelmed.”

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AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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GOP thinks it can remake itself into a party that helps the poor

Senator Marco Rubio   (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Senator Marco Rubio (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Faced with an empathy gap before the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans are trying to forge a new image as a party that helps the poor and lifts struggling workers into the middle class.

GOP leaders are using the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s War on Poverty to offer a series of policy proposals that would shift anti-poverty programs to the states, promote job training and offer tax incentives for low-income workers.

The effort aims to offer an alternative to President Barack Obama’s economic agenda and shed the baggage of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, which was hurt by his suggestion during a private fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, view themselves as victims and won’t take responsibility for themselves.

The new-year push comes as Obama is pressuring Republicans to extend unemployment insurance and preparing to highlight income inequality in his State of the Union address later this month. The president is expected to seek an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour and discuss ways to help the nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty.

For Republicans, the challenge is to offer a better way.

In a speech Wednesday in an ornate Capitol room named after Johnson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said government anti-poverty programs are only a partial solution at best.

“They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it,” said Rubio, a potential GOP presidential contender in 2016.

Rubio said anti-poverty programs have been bogged down by federal bureaucracy and could be run better by the states. He called for replacing the earned income tax credit for low-income workers with a federal wage enhancement for low-wage workers as a way to create incentives for the poor to work instead of receiving unemployment insurance.

Democrats noted that Rubio and many other Republicans have come out against a three-month extension of unemployment insurance and an increase in the federal minimum wage, which has not been raised since 2009.

“It’s very hard for the Republican Party to convince people they care about poverty when they oppose renewing unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Republicans say raising the minimum wage and repeatedly extending unemployment benefits fail to address the root causes of a complex problem. But a consensus on an alternative way to address these problems remains elusive as several prominent party leaders — including those considering 2016 presidential bids — have sought ways to connect with the poor and working-class voters.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, was speaking Thursday evening at a network television event marking Johnson’s anti-poverty push and planned to address social mobility at a forum Monday. Ryan has met with community leaders and the poor in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Indianapolis during the past year to learn about addressing poverty and is expected to propose ways to improve federal poverty programs later this year.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another potential 2016 presidential candidate, traveled to Detroit in December to promote “economic freedom zones” as a way to encourage investment in impoverished urban areas.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has pushed to expand Medicaid for the poor in his state despite Republican opposition in the Legislature and frequently preaches a mantra of compassion for the less fortunate.

In October, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush paid tribute to the late Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., a mentor of Ryan’s who was an advocate for using tax breaks to bolster jobs and investment in cities. “He knew conservative policies could, and should, be attractive across races, across income brackets and across cultures because they are the policies of aspiration and equality,” Bush said.

Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who has pushed ways for the GOP to rebrand itself, said the party is “transforming itself from a party that believes its principles are only good for saying ‘no’ to a party that believes its ideas are the best way to lift all Americans from poverty and economic insecurity. That can make the GOP a party that sings to more than its own shrinking choir.”

Yet recent polls underscore the obstacles for Republicans. An Associated Press-GfK poll in October found that just 16 percent of adults thought “compassionate” described Republicans very or somewhat well, while 80 percent said it did not describe Republicans well. For the Democratic Party, 36 percent thought “compassionate” described the party well and 60 percent said it did not.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released in December found 45 percent felt the Democratic Party was better at “showing compassion and concern for people,” while 17 percent thought the Republicans were better on that front.

Bob Woodson, the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which works with community organizations and churches to help low-income residents, said Republicans have often fallen into the trap of fighting with Democrats over the minimum wage and unemployment insurance instead of offering more comprehensive ideas to promote business development, job training and homeownership in poor neighborhoods.

“Republicans have gotten their reputation the old-fashioned way: They’ve earned it,” said Woodson, a longtime friend and adviser of Ryan. “They earned it by talking about disincentives. They haven’t been talking about alternatives.”

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Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas
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Three House veterans leaving Congress

Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf.
Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf.

Three veteran members of the House of Representatives, two Republicans and one Democrat, announced their retirements just as the 2014 congressional campaign season starts to heat up.

Republican Representatives Frank Wolf of Virginia and Tom Latham of Iowa, along with Democratic Representative Jim Matheson of Utah, made their separate announcements on Tuesday as Congress was winding up its legislative activity for the year.

All three seats are considered competitive in the November, 2014 elections, when Republicans will try to expand their majority in the House and Democrats will attempt to capture control of the 435-member chamber.

Wolf, 74, and Latham, 65, are members of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where they chair subcommittees that will work through the holiday season to implement a budget deal expected to be passed by the Senate this week.

Matheson, 53, serves on the House Energy and Commerce panel and is a co-chair of a dwindling group of fiscally conservative Democrats known as “Blue Dogs.”

Wolf was first elected in 1980, when Ronald Reagan swept into the White House and many Republicans rode on his coattails. He will serve out his 17th House term that runs through 2014.

“As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom,” Wolf said. Throughout his congressional career he was a vocal advocate for human rights in China.

Latham, a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement: “It is never a perfect time or a right time to step aside. But for me, this is the time.”

Earlier this year, some political observers had speculated that the moderate Latham might run for U.S. Senate to replace retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. Latham decided against the race in his home state, which President Barack Obama carried in the November, 2012 presidential election.

Matheson was re-elected in 2012 with only 49 percent of the vote in his central Utah district, which leans heavily Republican. Matheson has one of the most conservative voting records among House Democrats.
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The election that Democrats lost big time a week ago

Voting down education (ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Voting down education (ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Which is the most important result of Tuesday’s election?

A. A Republican governor won a landslide election in a blue state.

B. A Democrat was elected governor in a purple state during intense criticism of a new federal government program.

C. An outspoken liberal Democrat was elected mayor in a big city — where opposition parties had been in power for 20 years.

D. An education funding amendment lost in a mountain state.

If you said D, you’re correct.

On Tuesday, Amendment 66 was defeated in Colorado, with preliminary results suggesting a drubbing of two-to-one opposed. It would have improved education funding with slight tax increases and changed Colorado’s flat tax to a two-tiered, progressive structure.

The goal was a major overhaul of education finance, with reduced disparities at the local level and increased spending — including funding for early childhood programs, rural education and at-risk youth programs

Millions of dollars poured into the state to support the amendment. High-profile backing came from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Melinda Gates. But the more than $10 million spent in support of the amendment wasn’t enough to convince skeptical voters.

The defeat of Amendment 66 should worry Democrats. This is about as close as you can get to the main thrust of the Democratic Party’s progressive agenda: raise taxes on wealthier people to fund investments in the future.

Even in liberal Boulder County, however, the measure barely eked out a majority. Outside of Boulder and Denver, the measure failed miserably, including in largely Latino counties, like Adams (35 percent in support to 65 percent opposed), Arapahoe (35 percent to 65 percent), and Pueblo. Pueblo, you may recall, is part of state Senate District 3 — where Democratic state Senator Angela Giron was recalled in September over her vote to ban high-capacity magazine clips.

After President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election and recent Democratic victories in New York City and Virginia, many on the left suggested that the country is becoming overwhelmingly liberal. But the Colorado elections are a cautionary tale.

The big, bold education investments requested — a key pillar of the progressive agenda — were rejected by two-thirds of Colorado’s voters, and quashed in key Hispanic counties.

It’s tempting to blame these results on an off-year electorate. But the truth is likely more complex. Coloradoans have passed a great deal of progressive change in a short time — universal background checks for gun purchases, civil unions, marijuana legalization, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and mail-in ballots statewide. Perhaps voters felt a proposed major restructure of education financing funded by increasing taxes was, finally, too much change.

The federal government shutdown and these recent recalls of state legislatures who had support stricter gun laws may have created an environment conducive to the status quo in the wake of partisan struggles. Or maybe the problems with the Affordable Care Act website made voters leery of big government programs or major restructuring of government services.

Whatever the motivation of Colorado voters, two things are clear. First, they weren’t ready to raise taxes to fund widely popular education investments. Second, between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 51 percent support from Latinos in his re-election victory and tepid support in Colorado for education investments in heavily Hispanic counties, it would be unwise for Democrats to assume Latinos are overwhelmingly liberal — or will be reliable Democratic partisans in future elections.

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Obamacare’s problems spark Republican opportunities

President Barack Obama: Just not up to the job.
President Barack Obama: Just not up to the job.

The more President Barack Obama’s troubled health care “reform” program continues to crash and burn, the more Republicans — on the ropes just a couple of weeks ago from the disastrous government shutdown — rejoice and plan eagerly for next year’s midterm elections.

The continuing problems of HealthCare.gov have put the GOP back on offense and in better shape than they ever dreamed after taking a beating and becoming the object of public scorn for their steadfast obstruction on Obamacare that led to the shuttering of many government operations for 16 days and drove the country to bring of default on the national debt.

And just as Obama struggled to try and correct the many glitches on HealthCare.gov, the cancellation of millions of Americans from existing healthcare programs left the President reeling from a broken promise that such a thing would never happen.

Then the President made matters worse by issuing a halfhearted apology without accepting blame or showing any remorse.

That lame effort by the President brought sharp words from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who issued a statement saying “if the president is truly sorry for breaking his promises to the American people, he’ll do more than issue a halfhearted apology on TV.”

Before the widespread cancellations, Republicans were stuck with trying to capitalize on computer glitches — something experienced by many Americans on many fronts.

Now, the opportunity-hungry GOP sees the cancellations as a chance to nail Obama and Democrats with more serious charges of deceit and incompetence.”

“This is a big issue and it is not going away,” says a gleeful Daniel Scarpinato of the House Republican Congressional Committee.  “Democrats who voted for Obamacare are pretty desperately running around with their hair on fire, trying to distance themselves, which they are not going to be able to do.”

Obama finds himself under pressure from worried Democrats who face tough mid-term elections and demands are mounting for delays in implementation of the troubled Obamacare program.

For the battered and bruised GOP, the opportunity to capitalize on Democratic missteps and stumbles could not come at a better time.  The party took a beating in state elections last week and the party is beset by internal struggles from an increasing number who want to distance themselves from the rabid right-wing lead by the tea party.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, while leading in pre-election polls by as much as double digits, narrowly beat tea party Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor‘s race because of growing backlash on Obamacare.

“Obamacare went from a plus to a minus over the weekend just before the election,” a campaign aide to McAuliffe grumbled to Capitol Hill Blue after the tight election.  “We had it in the bag and then Terry appeared with the President to trumpet Obamacare.  That almost blew the election for us.”

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Senators to Obama: Delay parts of troubled healthcare law

Senator Jeanne Shaheen and other Democrats. (AFP)/Mandel Ngan)
Senator Jeanne Shaheen and other Democrats.
(AFP)/Mandel Ngan)

Demands for President Barack Obama to delay parts of implementation of his troubled healthcare “reform” law are increasing and a lot of the insistence and anger is coming from his fellow Democrats.

Concerned Senate Democrats urged Obama to extend the enrollment period for his misfiring health law, during a meeting at the White House on Wednesday.

The senators, some of whom face tough reelection fights next year, also asked the president to consider delaying the individual mandate — the rule that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine — following sign-up problems with the Obamacare website.

“We discussed a range of issues, and he really didn’t take a position on them,” Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen told AFP, and confirmed that enrollment and the individual mandate were brought up in the discussion between Obama and 16 Democratic senators.

Senator Jeff Merkley, meanwhile, told AFP that all the senators were “very concerned” that the website meant to sign up Americans to insurance exchanges had failed to debut well and was still not in full working order.

“I feel strongly that for every day the exchange doesn’t work, we should extend the window of opportunity for folks to sign up,” Merkley said.

The Obama administration has promised that the website glitches would be solved by the end of the month.

A White House readout of the meeting was less revealing than the one provided by worried senators.

An official said Obama shares the commitment of senators to get enrollment running properly so people can access new insurance policies from the start date of January 1.

“The president also asked the senators for input on how implementation of the law is impacting their constituents, and expressed appreciation for their ongoing help to ensure the law works best for families and businesses and all Americans can take advantage of the benefits of the law,” the official said.

Earlier on Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius predicted “very low” early enrollment figures owing to the website troubles.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 AFP

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Voters fed up but not giving up yet

Voters considering alternatives.
Voters considering alternatives.

If there’s one word that describes how Americans feel about politics these days, it’s “negative.” Majorities disapprove of Congress and the president and say the nation is heading in the wrong direction. Few trust their political leaders to make the right decisions, and some polls suggest voters would like to see the whole lot turned out next November.

Yet an Associated Press-GfK poll in October found more people tuning in to politics — warts and all — than tuning out.

It’s not a major election year, so day-to-day interest in following news about politics and elections was lower than at the height of last year’s presidential campaign. But just 11 percent said they’re less interested in politics today than four years ago, while 30 percent said they’re more interested than in 2009, before the birth of the tea party or the passage of the health insurance overhaul, when people were about twice as likely as they are now to say the country was heading in the right direction.

Although those who are increasingly attentive to politics now are more likely to identify with a political party than as political independents, they seem to buck a notable trend in Washington: Rather than reflecting the increasing polarization seen in Congress, they tend to mirror the positions of the overall American public. The poll suggests those paying more attention to politics these days hold similar views to Americans generally on a range of prominent issues: the health overhaul law, gun laws, illegal immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and the seriousness of climate change.

Tuesday’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia also suggested a win for the ideological middle. According to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press, Virginia voters broadly rejected Republican Ken Cuccinelli as “too conservative,” and GOP Gov. Chris Christie trampled Democratic nominee Barbara Buono despite 57 percent of his state’s voters holding a negative impression of his party.

Those tuning out are less likely to see big differences between what the Democrats and Republicans stand for, a position that may reflect judgments about politicians’ motivations rather than their policies.

They frequently cite negativity in politics rather than specific positions as a reason for their distaste. One poll respondent said, “The Republicans are acting like babies. The Democrats are acting like babies. It’s unsettling and disgusting.” Another, “I get tired of hearing the bickering, and I don’t trust anything any of the politicians say.”

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Oct. 3-7, 2013, and involved online interviews with 1,227 adults. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

The survey was conducted using KnowledgePanel, a probability-based Internet panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Panelists were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed for this survey online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access it at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Jennifer Agiesta on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JennAgiesta
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press

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In elections from coast to coast, voters take over

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks to campaign workers in Brunswick. (AP/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks to campaign workers in Brunswick.
(AP/Mel Evans)

From rural Iowa to urban New York, voters across America will render judgment in a slate of political contests Tuesday, including in New Jersey and Virginia where gubernatorial race outcomes could highlight the Republican Party division between pragmatists and ideologues.

Elsewhere, Colorado voters will set a tax rate for marijuana.

New York City will elect a new mayor for the first time in 12 years, while Boston’s mayoral race pits white collar against blue collar, and Detroit’s spotlights the city’s bankruptcy — just three of the many mayoral contests from coast to coast.

Republican and Democratic strategists alike say that Tuesday’s contests are more defined by candidate personalities and region-specific issues than political trends likely to influence next year’s larger fight for control of Congress. Turnout is expected to be low across the country, typical for elections held in years when the White House and Congress aren’t up for grabs.

Candidates across the country made their last pitches to voters as local elections boards made their final preparations.

“We can’t take anything for granted. We are Republicans in New Jersey,” incumbent Gov. Chris Christie told supporters Monday, although polls suggest he likely will cruise to a second term over his little-known Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono. A potential presidential candidate, Christie could become the state’s first Republican to exceed 50 percent of the vote in a statewide election in 25 years.

And a Republican victory in a Democratic-leaning state could stoke the notion within part of the GOP that a pragmatic approach is the answer to the party’s national woes. To the south, a defeat of a conservative Republican in the swing-voting state of Virginia also could feed into that argument.

Former national Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe is favored against Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who comes from the GOP’s right flank and promotes his role as the first state attorney general to challenge the health care overhaul. Cuccinelli has been hurt both by the government shutdown that Republicans are bearing most of the blame for and by a political scandal involving accusations of lavish gift-giving by a political supporter to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family.

A McAuliffe victory would break a three decade-long trend: Virginia has elected a governor from the party not occupying the White House in every gubernatorial election since 1977.

Neither race will offer significant clues about the state of the electorate heading into a midterm election year.

“They’re a far cry from being a crystal ball for 2014,” said longtime Democratic pollster John Anzalone. “These two big races are all about the individuals.”

The same could be said for down-ballot races across the nation.

In Coralville, Iowa, population 19,000, the national tea party ally Americans for Prosperity is saturating mailboxes and telephone lines to support conservative candidates for city council as the area struggles to control its debt.

The outside group, backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, spent $36 million last year mostly supporting Republican candidates and attacking Democrats in the presidential and U.S. Senate races. In Iowa, the group is showing that no race is too small to fight government spending.

The issues extend beyond public debt in Colorado, where voters will decide on a tax rate for marijuana, a suggested 25 percent tax to fund school construction and regulation of the newly legal drug. Also, 11 counties in northern and eastern Colorado were taking non-binding votes on secession and creating a new state.

Mayors will be elected in some of the nation’s largest cities.

In New York, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is the heavy favorite to succeed outgoing Mayor Michael Boomberg, with polls suggesting that he’s on the verge of being the first Democrat to be elected mayor since 1989.

De Blasio, an unabashed liberal, positioned himself as a clean break with the Bloomberg years, promoting a sweeping progressive agenda. He faces Republican rival Joe Lhota, former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a one-time deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani. Lhota has largely campaigned on continuing the policies of both his former boss and Bloomberg.

In Boston, it’s a race of blue-collar Democrat against white-collar Democrat as state Rep. Martin Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly vie for the chance to succeed longtime Mayor Thomas Menino.

Walsh, a union laborer before being elected to the state House, has highlighted his life story, including surviving cancer as a boy and overcoming alcoholism as a young adult. Connolly, a corporate attorney, has focused on education issues. Polls suggest the race will be close.

Detroit may feature the nation’s most unusual contest. Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and former Detroit Medical Center chief Mike Duggan are competing for a mayor’s title that will have little immediate power as the debt-ridden metropolis is guided through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history by a state-appointed emergency manager.

One of the top remaining issues for both candidates: Who can work better under the thumb of the state turnaround expert, who will continue to run the show for at least another year.

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With reports from AP writers Thomas Beaumont in Iowa, Kristen Wyatt in Colorado, Corey Williams in Detroit, Jonathan Lemire in New York, Chris Grygiel in Washington State, and Mitch Weiss in North Carolina.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press

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Unity within the fractured Democratic Party is short-lived

President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: Unity? What unity? (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: Unity? What unity?
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Just two weeks after President Barack Obama saw his Democratic Party put up an unyielding front against Republicans, his coalition is showing signs of stress.

From health care to spying to pending budget deals, many congressional Democrats are challenging the administration and pushing for measures that the White House has not embraced.

Some Democrats are seeking to extend the enrollment period for new health care exchanges. Others want to place restraints on National Security Administration surveillance capabilities. Still others are standing tough against any budget deal that uses long-term reductions in major benefit programs to offset immediate cuts in defense.

Though focused on disparate issues, the Democrats’ anxieties are connected by timing and stand out all the more when contrasted with the remarkable unity the party displayed during the recent showdown over the partial government shutdown and the confrontation over raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

“That moment was always going to be fleeting,” said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House and who regularly consults with Obama aides. “The White House, every White House, understands that these folks, driven either by principle or the demands of the politics of their state, have to put daylight between themselves and the president on occasion.”

Obama and the Democrats emerged from the debt and shutdown clash with what they wanted: a reopened government, a higher debt ceiling and a Republican Party reeling in the depths of public opinion polls.

But within days, attention turned to the problem-riddled launch of the 3-year-old health care law’s enrollment stage and revelations that the U.S. had been secretly monitoring the communications of as many as 35 allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And with new budget talks underway, Democratic Party liberals reiterated demands that Obama not agree to changes that reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits even in the improbable event Republicans agree to increase budget revenues.

The fraying on the Democratic Party edges is hardly unraveling Obama’s support and it pales when compared to the upheaval within the Republican Party as it distances itself from the tactics of tea party conservatives. But the pushback from Democrats comes as Obama is trying to draw renewed attention to his agenda, including passage of an immigration overhaul, his jobs initiatives and the benefits of his health care law.

The computer troubles that befell the start of health insurance sign-ups have caused the greatest anxiety. Republicans pounced on the difficulties as evidence of deeper flaws in the law. But Democrats, even as they defended the policy, also demanded answers in the face of questions from their constituents.

“The fact is that the administration really failed these Americans,” Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner at a hearing this week. “So going forward there can be just no more excuses.”

In the Senate, 10 Democrats signed on to a letter seeking an unspecified extension of the enrollment period, which ends March 31. “As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote.

Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has called for a one-year delay in the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine.

Democrats who have talked to White House officials in recent days describe them as rattled by the health care blunders. But they say they are confident that the troubled website used for enrollment will be corrected and fully operational by the end of November.

The spying revelations also have created some tensions between the administration and Democrats. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and until now a staunch supporter of the NSA’s surveillance, called for a “total review of all intelligence programs” following the Merkel reports.

She said that when it came to the NSA collecting intelligence on the leaders of allies such as France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, “Let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.”

With Congress renewing budget talks Wednesday, liberals have been outspoken in their insistence that Democrats vigorously resist efforts to reduce long-term deficits with savings in Social Security or Medicare. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, has been the most outspoken, saying he fears a budget deal will contain a proposal in Obama’s budget to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs.

Obama, however, has proposed that remedy only if Republicans agree to raise tax revenue, a bargain that most in the GOP firmly oppose. Moreover, leaders from both parties as well as White House officials have signaled that budget talks are looking for a small budget deal, not the type of “grand bargain” that would embrace such a revenue-for-benefit-cuts deal.
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