Affluent Voters Switch Brands


By: Wall Street Journal

By JOHN HARWOOD
November 16, 2007

DENVER — Driving her city bus through downtown Denver, Angela Williams would seem to be one of those “invisible” people Hillary Clinton and fellow Democrats appeal to. She’s a Hispanic union member who earns $39,000 a year.

Jim Kelley, whose office Ms. Williams drives by, looks like one of those plutocrats whom Democrats are talking about taxing more. He buys companies for the $7 billion private-equity firm Vestar Capital Partners, with headquarters on New York’s Park Avenue.

Think again. Ms. Williams, 43 years old, is a conservative Christian whose biggest political fear is that fellow Republicans might nominate abortion-rights supporter Rudy Giuliani for president. Mr. Kelley, 53, is writing big campaign checks for Barack Obama and other Democrats — and taxes don’t make his top 10 list of critical political issues.

In this newly competitive state and elsewhere, Republicans are struggling to reassure their nervous religious-right base, while Democrats are profiting from increasing support among high-income voters. And that support may be more impervious to warnings of higher taxes than some Republicans assume.

“The Democratic Party stands more for creating equal opportunity,” says Mr. Kelley. He says the party “speaks more to me on issues of the environment, and even more to me on national security,” while he criticizes Republican stands on “so-called moral issues” such as gay marriage.

As for proposals by Democratic congressional leaders and presidential contenders to raise taxes on high earners, Mr. Kelley says: “The pocketbook, the taxes, that’s issue 11. And the balance has swayed so far in [favor of] the 10 other things.”

In the 2004 election, exit surveys showed President Bush defeated John Kerry by 58% to 41% among those earning more than $100,000. In 2006, Republican House candidates edged Democrats among that group by 51% to 47%. Now the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll shows Americans earning more than $100,000 want Democrats to win the White House next year by 48% to 41%, and want Democrats to win control of Congress by 45% to 42%.

Campaign-finance data represents another yardstick. The top five Democratic presidential candidates raised $242 million through the first three quarters of 2007, according to Federal Election Commission figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The top five Republican candidates have raised $167 million.

“There’s a difference in the type of giver that I’ve seen,” observes Kirk Dornbush, a veteran Democratic fund-raiser who runs an Atlanta-based biotechnology firm. In the past, he explains, affluent donors from business or the professions were often “people that needed access.”

Now, he says, Democrats are benefiting from concerns over America’s “loss of standing in the world,” Mr. Bush’s environmental policies, and concern over the possibility of recession. An increasing number of high-income Americans “are yearning for something different. And something different is the Democrats.”

As Mr. Kelley’s disdain for “so-called moral issues” suggests, the roles he and Ms. Williams play in politics are connected. Since the Reagan era, conservative Christians have grown in prominence as Republican foot soldiers. Voters like Ms. Williams have elevated “values” concerns in a party once associated more with the Chamber of Commerce than the church. “I’m pro-life. Basically, that’s why I’m Republican,” Ms. Williams says.

She also agrees with Republican criticism of Democrats’ economic policies. “Democrats are all for social programs which raise my taxes,” says Ms. Williams, who lives in a working-class neighborhood. “I’m not working to pay for people to sit at home watching cable all day.”

Over time, both those concerns have generated a backlash in Colorado among affluent, secular voters with different priorities. “Twenty-five years ago…business could safely vote Republican and believe that their interests in business were going to be taken care of,” says Neil Westergaard, editor of the Denver Business Journal. “As the Republican Party has changed, I think that became less [true].”

While business leaders still generally favor holding down taxes, he says, “Colorado already has low taxes and has always. And we began in the 1990s to start feeling the effects of limited tax support for things like higher education and transportation, which coincidentally became more important as economic-development issues for the business community.”

Democrats cashed in on that shift here in 2006, when gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter won business support by opposing stringent tax-limitation measures backed by his Republican rivals. “We found a way to talk about investing in infrastructure that makes sense to the affluent and it makes sense to the business community,” Mr. Ritter, now governor, says in an interview.

Democrats aim to repeat that success in the 2008 presidential race, with Mr. Kelley helping to provide the financial fuel. His wife, Amie, a documentary filmmaker, jokes that they seem to hold fund-raisers at their elegant Denver home at the rate of “one a month.”

Since 2004, the private-equity executive has donated more than $183,000 to federal candidates — more than twice as much as he had given in the previous 12 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, sees three overlapping problems for Republicans among business leaders and high-income voters. One is desire to go with the winning side at a time when Democrats have captured Congress; a second is loss of confidence in the Bush administration’s competence; and a third is “a sense that the leadership of the Republican Party is too beholden to a small group of self-appointed social conservative leaders.”

In 2008, Mr. Reed adds, “Republicans have to go back to the basics and use the new presidential nominee to rebrand the entire party.”

Write to John Harwood at john.harwood@wsj.com

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