Democrats might pounce on topic of com­pe­tency

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Alex Roarty and Katie Glueck

For the first Novem­ber, are feel­ing time since Democrats good.

The GOP’s quest to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare has col­lapsed. Its un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by a spe­cial coun­sel. And the rest of the Repub­li­can Party’s leg­isla­tive agenda is, at best, on shaky ground.

Now, Democrats are brim­ming with a new op­ti­mism about next year’s midterm elec­tions. They think the GOP’s stymied pol­icy plan gives them a chance to make the case that Repub­li­cans — in com­plete con­trol of Wash­ing­ton — are in­com­pe­tent, a po­ten­tially sig­nif­i­cant new line of at­tack for a party in des­per­ate need of win­ning over conservative vot­ers in red states and bat­tle­ground House dis­tricts.

“Democrats are be­gin­ning to be­lieve that we can be good at pol­i­tics again,” said Adam Jentle­son, a for­mer top aide to one­time Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid. “There’s still a heavy, high de­gree of trauma that still has not worn off from elec­tion night, but we’re find­ing our foot­ing step by step.”

Even if Congress tries to put health care be­hind it, top Demo­cratic op­er­a­tives say it will re­main a ma­jor is­sue for vot­ers, es­pe­cially those who voted for House Repub­li­cans in spe­cial elec­tions this year. And even if the is­sue fades, they hope the loss will be off­set by an an­gry conservative base that won­ders why it should even turn out for the next elec­tion.

Not even GOP strate­gists are sure the Democrats are wrong about that last point.

“Right now, it’s dev­as­tat­ing,” said one conservative strate­gist work­ing on the midterms. If law­mak­ers don’t find an­other way to re­peal the law, “it will be ab­so­lutely dev­as­tat­ing. It’s so my­opic of Repub­li­cans in terms of how they’re han­dling this, be­cause where they’re go­ing to end up is back in the mi­nor­ity, like we were in ’09.”

The conservative base, this strate­gist said, doesn’t un­der­stand how Repub­li­cans could vote mul­ti­ple times to re­peal the law un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama but fail to reach the same con­sen­sus when the GOP ac­tu­ally has power to act.

“Why were they able to get it done un­der Obama and they’re not get­ting any­thing done now?” the strate­gist said. “The chal­lenge Repub­li­cans are go­ing to have in turn­ing out con­ser­va­tives is like noth­ing we’ve seen since ’06.”

Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike think the GOP still has time to re­sus­ci­tate its agenda, maybe as early as this sum­mer, when the party has said it will take up tax re­form as its next ma­jor ini­tia­tive. Democrats also say they think Repub­li­cans will try again to re­peal Oba­macare, whether in the com­ing weeks or even into next year.

But if they don’t, Repub­li­cans run the risk of go­ing be­fore vot­ers next year with noth­ing to show for their time in of­fice.

And Democrats say that could change the na­ture of their at­tacks, switch­ing from one fo­cused on the de­tails of the GOP’s agenda to the party’s broader fail­ure to gov­ern ef­fec­tively.

“This is what hap­pens when you have a Repub­li­can Congress that is not used to gov­ern­ing,” said John Lapp, a Demo­cratic strate­gist. “Turns out health care is re­ally hard, re­ally dif­fi­cult.”

Lapp knows how po­tent a com­pe­tence ar­gu­ment can be: He was the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee in 2006, the last time House Democrats re­took a ma­jor­ity.

That year, the party cap­i­tal­ized on the aftermath of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and the then-un­pop­u­lar Iraq War to de­pict Repub­li­cans as in­com­pe­tent, an ar­gu­ment that — in part — helped them win a net of 31 seats in the House. (Democrats need to win 24 seats next year to win a ma­jor­ity, al­though the map of bat­tle­ground seats is more dif­fi­cult this time around.)

Lapp and other Democrats say they don’t think a failed leg­isla­tive agenda rises to the level of ei­ther of those events. But they added that a com­pe­tence ar­gu­ment can reach vot­ers in red states and right-lean­ing House dis­tricts, the kind Democrats need to win over in a year when they’re de­fend­ing 10 Se­nate seats in states Trump won last year.

“It lines up well with the map and the types of the peo­ple who are run­ning and the types of ar­gu­ments they’re go­ing to want to make,” Jentle­son said. “Repub­li­cans are cer­tainly hand­ing us a ton of am­mu­ni­tion to make the com­pe­tence case.”

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