DALLAS/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Gay rights activists heckled President Barack Obama this week at a Democratic event that exposed signs of disenchantment threatening the party in November’s congressional elections.
Five million first-time voters turned out in 2008, many drawn by Obama’s promise of hope and overwhelmingly voting for Democrats. Now disappointed, or at least apathetic, they may not go to the polls this year.
Obama’s support has dropped below 50 percent from nearly 70 percent after 15 months in office, Gallup opinion polls show.
Gay rights supporters, anti-abortion activists, environmentalists and backers of immigration reform all have seen their agendas stalled, with watered-down healthcare the main accomplishment of Obama’s once-ambitious agenda.
At Monday’s rally in Los Angeles, protesters shouted at Obama to repeal the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” military policy that allows gays to serve if they keep quiet about their sexual preference. Gays believe that makes them second-class citizens, and Obama has vowed to repeal the policy.
“Hey hold on a second. We are going to do that,” he said. “I don’t know why you’re hollering,” he added.
Supporters shouted “Yes we can,” his slogan from the 2008 election, and “Be quiet,” but the discontent lingers.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan insisted that opinion polls showed more than 80 percent of liberals approved of Obama. By comparison, Republicans right and center are locked in a “bloody civil war,” he said.
Obama himself acknowledged during the day that “some folks are impatient and some folks just didn’t realize how long this was going to take, how hard each battle was going to be. And so people get kind of worn down.”
Many on the left who want more are fighting the president and one another. Others are abandoning politics. Both trends bode poorly for Democrats, who have controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the White House since January 2009.
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs along with a third of the 100 seats in the Senate.
Many gay activists would not show up to heckle Obama. They have stopped paying attention altogether.
“Obama was a vessel that everybody poured their hopes into. The gay community was no different,” said John Henning, director of the Los Angeles-based grass-roots group Love Honor Cherish, before the president’s California visit.
“What is really happening in the gay community is we are going into a hibernation phase,” Henning added.
The sentiment is widespread.
“Even in the best of conditions, the Democrats would have a slight retrenchment of voters,” said Stanford University professor Gary Segura, who is also a researcher at pollster Latino Decisions.
“But we’re not in the best of conditions. We have a lot of disappointed Democrats and so I would expect more significant retrenchment, a lot of disappearing voters.”
Blacks, Latinos and young people made up the bulk of the new voters who secured comfortable congressional majorities for the Democrats in 2008. Each could be a problem this year.
Obama is the first black U.S. president and more than 90 percent of black voters still approve of his record, Gallup says. But African-American members of Congress say job creation is critical and unemployment is roughly twice the national average among black males over the age of 20.
San Francisco videographer Joe Razo, a 24-year-old black man, backs Obama but needs to be convinced that congressional races matter. “I kind of just do the presidential elections,” he said.
For many Latinos, including nearly 11 million illegal immigrants, the lack of an immigration bill and heavy use of deportation are a double slap in the face.
“A lot of people are not going to vote,” said Salvador Reza, operator of a day-laborer center in Arizona. “(Obama) would have to actually come through with ... a serious immigration reform effort, or people are going to abandon him,” he said.
Keeping Latinos happy should be a no-brainer for the Democrats, the party of choice for the fastest growing minority largely because of a pro-immigrant stance that contrasts with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of many Republicans.
Obama campaigned on making immigration reform a priority, but the way forward for illegal immigrants and the employers who say they need them is no more clear than it was before Obama took office.
The “everyone’s in it together” feeling of the 2008 election has been replaced with “me first” on many fronts.
Obama’s biggest accomplishment, the healthcare overhaul, opened old wounds. A fight over whether federal funds could be used to pay for abortion tied up the bill and split the party, which has been a strong supporter of abortion rights but now has a significant wing opposed to abortion.
Michigan anti-abortion rights congressman Bart Stupak, who voted for the healthcare bill after getting a pledge from Obama not to use federal funds for abortion, became the number one target for abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Stupak has dropped out in the face of what was expected to be a bitter primary race against an opponent backed by NARAL and other abortion rights groups. This could open the district for Republicans in November as Democratic success in such rural heartland areas has been based on the party fielding candidates with conservative views on issues such as abortion.
Similar fights will be played out elsewhere.
“Pro-life Democrats generally win in the more conservative states in the Midwest, if you think of Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. A pro-choice candidate would have a more difficult time,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Other issues are causing rifts in the ranks — among them climate change legislation, now stuck in Congress.
Former Vice President Al Gore’s environmental group is trying to push aside rival left-wing groups vying to be the next issue in line for congressional attention. “Tell our Senators: We got next!” Gore’s Repower America, urged on March 26.
Politicians are counting the races at risk.
Four of the 10 Senate races where Democrats may lose, including Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election bid in Nevada, are in states that had above-average increases in turnout between 2006 and 2008, Professor Tom Schaller of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, calculated on political blog fivethirtyeight.com.
Battles for governor that could be affected by the new 2008 voters include California, Texas, Florida, Nevada, Georgia and Illinois, he calculated, noting that new governors will oversee redrawing federal voting districts after the 2010 census.
The voters could affect the outcome of the majority of 23 highly contested House of Representatives races. Democrats’ key to winning is not persuading moderates but mobilizing the newer voters, Schaller said.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, Ross Colvin and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Mary Milliken and Howard Goller