Thursday, November 09, 2006

Democrat win may shift focus to U.S. middle class

Democrat win may shift focus to U.S. middle class
By Andrea Hopkins

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - The election victory by U.S. Democrats has been hailed as a repudiation of Republican President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, but Democratic Sen.-elect Sherrod Brown believes economic populism and pocketbook pain is what put him in power.

While exit polls showed the Iraq war, political corruption and the economy all drove the voters' decision to give control of Congress to Democrats, analysts believe the high-profile victory of a class warrior like Brown has set the stage for an economy-focused presidential election in 2008.

"More than Iraq, more than the reaction against President Bush, more than Republican scandals, I'm going to be in the Senate because our leaders don't understand middle class anxieties," Brown said in an interview on Tuesday.

Brown, a seven-term congressman from Ohio's rust belt, delivered a decisive victory in Tuesday's congressional election over two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, with 56 percent of the vote.

More than any other candidate, Brown aimed his campaign at the middle class, promising fairer trade and improved access to health care and college tuition.

"What I think you'll see is that economic populism will have a whole lot more traction than it did before yesterday," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute think tank in Washington.

Republicans say they've learned a lesson.

"I learned that my people's mindsets have changed. Even though the economy is doing great, people still feel the pinch here in Ohio," said seven-term incumbent Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce, who is ahead of Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy by a razor-thin margin with votes still being counted.

While many experts believe the Iraq war will be less of an issue for voters in 2008 -- if only because politicians from both parties increasingly agree changes must be made -- forecasts show the economy may be worsening.

"There is a 50-50 chance of recession next year. That means you may well be looking at the first expansion on record where the middle-income household gained absolutely nothing," Bernstein said.

"On that basis, I would predict (2008) is going to be 1992 all over again, where you have another Clinton talking about the forgotten middle class," he added.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton -- whose husband Bill won the White House 14 years ago with a campaign mantra of "It's the economy, stupid" -- is considered a top contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.


Brown said his priorities in the Senate will be to increase the minimum wage, make college more affordable and help Americans pay for medicine and health insurance.

"I think Democrats are going to break the stranglehold the drug companies, the HMOs and the oil industry have on the Congress," he said.

But Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at forecasting firm Global Insight, said Democrats should not overplay their economic rhetoric, because unlike Europeans, Americans still harbor a fondness for the American dream that even the poorest citizen can one day be rich.

Republicans strategists may use populists like Brown to paint the entire Democratic Party as dangerous liberals.

"Democrats have to be careful because they don't want to be portrayed as class warriors," said Gault.

But the economic theme may persist.

In the usually Republican state of Indiana, job losses and middle class woes helped three conservative Democrats win Republican seats in the House of Representatives. One of them was Baron Hill, who consistently referred to his wealthy opponent, incumbent Republican Mike Sodrel, as "Millionaire Mike."

Such campaigns hit home with people like Irma Esparza, director of Communities United to Strengthen America, who said the election results prove it is time for Congress to pay attention to Main Street, not just Wall Street.

"This year, the middle class has a clear mandate," Esparza said.