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House Democrats Set Off



To Energize the Faithful, With a Focus on Women

CHICAGO--It is a politically gloomy midterm election year for Democrats, but Representative Nancy Pelosi and some of her House colleagues were on a roll this week.

With the Republican-controlled House in recess again, the women and an occasional male lawmaker took to the road in a bright purple bus, traveling from Seneca Falls, N.Y., the 19th-century birthplace of the women’s rights movement, to Boston and Chicago. At each stop, they revved up small but enthusiastic crowds to turn out the vote, especially among single, working-class women, who are some of the Democrats’ most reliable supporters but tend to skip voting in nonpresidential election years.

“We need 17 votes, and then women can have it all!” Ms. Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, told about 85 people who had hastily gathered at Ruby’s Kitchen, a popular home-style restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, after the local Representative Marcy Kaptur pressed for an unplanned stop there on Tuesday. Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to gain control of the House. The crowd then joined Ms. Pelosi in a mantra: “When women vote, women succeed, and when women succeed, America succeeds.”

“We need your votes,” Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said, to put Ms. Pelosi, the first woman to be speaker of the House, back in power.

On Wednesday at the Teamster City building in Chicago, the local Representative Jan Schakowsky introduced Ms. Pelosi as “the former and future speaker,” even as a man among the roughly 200 people in the audience yelled, “Nancy for president!”

Offstage, though, for all their field-trip bonhomie, the Democrats were hardly in denial about the odds against them.

Midterm elections are typically perilous for the president’s party, and President Obama’s slumping popularity has handicappers predicting Republican gains in the House and perhaps a takeover of the Democratic-majority Senate.

The road warriors’ message, itinerary and audiences attested to the Democrats’ plight: Their challenge is not so much to persuade people on the fence to vote Democratic as to mobilize the party faithful. They must reach out to supporters who are discouraged, disillusioned or simply distracted by the demands and economic insecurities of daily life--especially working women.

Their message included an economic agenda drafted a year ago to appeal to women, calling for pay equity, a higher minimum wage, affordable child care and paid leave for workers with sick children. The bus traversed the Democratic states of New York, Massachusetts and Illinois, as well as the party’s urban strongholds in the swing state of Ohio. Audiences largely came from local unions and party activists.

“If you want to grow the U.S. economy, the best thing you can do is engage women in the economic growth of our country,” Ms. Pelosi told some 150 people in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday. To the significant minority of men in the audience, she added, “Thank you for being our partners.”

The group engaged not only local television stations and newspapers, but also social media. With help from younger aides on the bus, they posted on Twitter with the hashtag “womensucceed” (and retweeted supportive comments, like from the singer-songwriters John Legend and Carole King); answered questions on Facebook; and recorded brief video messages, and dance moves, for the mobile app Vine. They created a website to promote their economic agenda and the stories of working women, who shared stages and talked about their struggles in each city.

“Our whole goal is: If people know about this, more people will vote,” Ms. Pelosi said in an interview as the bus sped through Republican-leaning Indiana. “If more people are voting--particularly these women who need this the most, single moms--then Democrats and Republicans will pay more attention.”

“Whatever happens to you in the election,” she added, hinting at the challenge for Democrats in November, “you’ve got to advance the cause. And that cause is for opportunity for women.”

The partylike atmosphere belied the Democrats’ political problems, as well as the bus’s depressingly dark décor. (While its exterior was wrapped in the purple, gold and white colors of the women’s suffrage movement--emblazoned with the words, “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds: Women on a Roll”--the interior was more masculine: browns and faux leather.)

A refrigerator was stocked with water, sodas and ice cream, and Ms. Pelosi ate whole pints of chocolate ice cream, including for breakfast. There was no beer or wine, even when the women monitored several primary election returns on their laptops and cellphones past midnight on Tuesday en route to Chicago.

Kicking off their heels, they swapped political war stories, like the time a generation ago when some female House members entered the Senate to protest its dismissive treatment of Anita Hill during hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. A Republican senator, thinking they were staff, snapped at them to “get against the wall.”

About two dozen Democrats participated in at least part of the four-day trip. Most--like the long-distance travelers Ms. Pelosi and Ms. DeLauro, and Representatives Donna Edwards of Maryland and Joyce Beatty of Ohio--were incumbents with safe seats. But they were joined at points by embattled representatives, like John F. Tierney of Massachusetts and Brad Schneider of Illinois, and challengers to incumbent Republicans, including Ann Callis in Illinois and Martha Robertson in New York.

Michelle Obama also participated when the bus rolled into her party fund-raiser in Boston on Monday. “Women, minorities, young people--we don’t show up in the midterms. And these are folks who agree with us,” she said. “We just need to get these folks out to vote.”

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