Democrats are ad­just­ing their cam­paign fo­cus from Trump to pol­icy is­sues

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - paul.kane@wash­post.com Ex­cerpted from wash­ing­ton­post.com/news/ pow­er­post

Democrats are head­ing into the home­stretch of three spe­cial elec­tions over the next month amid a na­tional frenzy over the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the pos­si­ble con­nec­tions of Pres­i­dent Trump’s 2016 cam­paign and Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion.

Yet in all three races, Democrats have made a tac­ti­cal decision not to turn the con­tests into a ref­er­en­dum on Trump’s al­leged scan­dals and in­stead are fo­cus­ing on pol­icy de­ci­sions by the pres­i­dent and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans.

Demo­cratic strate­gists pri­vately say that this might be the re­cur­ring theme through the Novem­ber 2018 midterm elec­tions. Democrats say that they have learned a les­son from the 2016 elec­tions, in which House Demo­cratic can­di­dates re­lent­lessly fo­cused their cam­paigns on try­ing to tie Repub­li­can in­cum­bents to the per­sonal scan­dals of Trump or some of his more out­landish pol­icy state­ments.

That strat­egy failed in al­most spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, pro­vid­ing a net gain of only six seats when, just two weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day, House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was pre­dict­ing gains of more than 20 seats and pos­si­bly win­ning the ma­jor­ity.

From Mon­tana to the sub­urbs of At­lanta, vot­ers are get­ting a steady diet of com­mer­cials from the Demo­cratic can­di­dates that fo­cus on GOP plans to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act with­out enough pro­tec­tions for those who have pre­ex­ist­ing health con­di­tions. They’re talk­ing about tax breaks for the mid­dle class and small busi­nesses, blast­ing their op­po­nents for help­ing spe­cial in­ter­ests.

“Greg Gian­forte would make peo­ple like Tom pay thou­sands more just so he can pay less. I’m Rob Quist and I ap­prove this mes­sage to fight for peo­ple with pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions,” Quist, the Demo­cratic can­di­date, says in one of two clos­ing ads ahead of Thurs­day’s elec­tion to fill Mon­tana’s at-large House seat.

Both ads — one a minute long and one 30 sec­onds — fo­cus on the Repub­li­can health bill that passed the House ear­lier this year and on Gian­forte’s wa­ver­ing views on the leg­is­la­tion.

Nei­ther of them even men­tion Trump once.

It’s the same with the new­est ad for Demo­crat Jon Os­soff run­ning in the June 20 elec­tion for Ge­or­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sional District north of At­lanta, a 30sec­ond spot that crit­i­cizes the Repub­li­can, Karen Han­del, for her role in try­ing to cut off funding to Planned Par­ent­hood while serv­ing as an ex­ec­u­tive of the Su­san G. Komen Foun­da­tion.

And in South Carolina, Demo­crat Archie Par­nell’s un­der­dog race to fill the seat va­cated by Mick Mul­vaney, Trump’s bud­get di­rec­tor, is fo­cus­ing on try­ing to in­crease his pop­u­lar­ity by tout­ing his busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence and run­ning as an out­sider.

The dan­ger for Democrats is that they might be over­learn­ing the les­son of the last war, ap­ply­ing the 2016 mind-set to what could be a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment in 2018. These new­est Trump scan­dals do not in­volve his per­sonal be­hav­ior or out­landish state­ments — they are about pos­si­ble abuse of power in fir­ing James B. Comey as FBI di­rec­tor be­cause of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Trump cam­paign’s al­leged ties to Rus­sia.

This decision not to fo­cus on Trump is partly out of po­lit­i­cal ge­o­graphic ne­ces­sity. Trump won the Mon­tana and South Carolina dis­tricts by 20 and 19 per­cent­age points, re­spec­tively, so even as his first four months as pres­i­dent have been a slog in terms of ac­com­plish­ments, Trump re­mains pop­u­lar enough in those places that it makes lit­tle sense to run a cam­paign at­tack­ing him.

Even in the Ge­or­gia district, va­cated by Tom Price to be­come Trump’s health sec­re­tary, the pres­i­dent won by 1.5 per­cent­age points, which means a lot of vot­ers there sup­port him even if it was a dra­mat­i­cally smaller mar­gin of vic­tory than the typ­i­cal GOP nom­i­nee re­ceived in that well-ed­u­cated re­gion.

In sev­eral af­ter-ac­tion re­ports fol­low­ing the 2016 elec­tions, Democrats dis­cov­ered that it was a mis­take to try to tie Trump’s be­hav­ior to well-known in­cum­bents who had their own brand iden­tity with vot­ers.

In Den­ver’s sub­urbs, Democrats tried to turn Rep. Mike Coff­man (R-Colo.) into the orig­i­na­tor of Trump’s ac­cu­sa­tion that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was born in Kenya. In the sub­urbs of Min­neapo­lis, they tried to make Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) re­spon­si­ble for Trump’s “de­grad­ing” be­hav­ior to­ward women.

Both Repub­li­cans won their races by large mar­gins, their fifth-straight win each.

Repub­li­cans made a sim­i­lar mis­take back in 1998, when Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton was mired in a sex scan­dal that led to im­peach­ment by the House. In the clos­ing weeks of the 1998 midterms, Repub­li­cans tried to turn the elec­tion into a ref­er­en­dum on Clin­ton’s per­sonal be­hav­ior — but vot­ers did not hold Democrats re­spon­si­ble for what was such a per­sonal foible of the pres­i­dent. Repub­li­cans ended up los­ing seats that year.

So now, Democrats are mak­ing a con­scious decision to fo­cus their at­tacks on kitchentable is­sues, not the lat­est tweet from Trump that sparked out­rage in­side Wash­ing­ton.

In an­nounc­ing a $750,000 in­vest­ment into the Ge­or­gia race, House Ma­jor­ity PAC did not men­tion Trump’s name once and fo­cused on Os­soff’s abil­ity to work in bi­par­ti­san fash­ion and get re­sults for the district.

“The choice couldn’t be more clear be­tween Os­soff’s job­s­fo­cused agenda and ca­reer politi­cian Karen Han­del’s record of mis­us­ing tax­payer dol­lars and put­ting her own am­bi­tion ahead of the peo­ple she was sup­posed to rep­re­sent. We’re go­ing to de­liver that mes­sage clearly and ag­gres­sively at the doors and on the air,” said Char­lie Kelly, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Demo­cratic su­per PAC.

While the na­tional me­dia fo­cuses on ev­ery Trump scan­dal, Democrats are go­ing to stick to the script of fo­cus­ing on how the pres­i­dent and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans are not keep­ing their prom­ises to help the work­ing class and in­stead are fo­cus­ing on poli­cies that might hurt work­ers.

Ex­pect to see cam­paigns like Par­nell’s in South Carolina.

“Politi­cians prom­ise, then don’t de­liver,” he says straight to the cam­era, pledg­ing to help veter­ans and pro­tect So­cial Se­cu­rity. “I won’t prom­ise you the world, but I will work ev­ery day to make your life bet­ter.”

He never men­tions Trump.

SEAN RAYFORD

TOP: Demo­crat Archie Par­nell cam­paigns for a House seat at the an­nual Black Cow­boy Fes­ti­val in Rem­bert, S.C. LEFT: Fel­low Demo­crat Jon Os­soff cam­paigns in Sandy Springs, Ga.

DAVID GOLD­MAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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