Democrats bet that a focus on Trump-related votes, not scandals, will bear fruit
Democrats know what they don’t want their candidates to talk about: President Trump’s scandals.
They also know that they need to focus on GOP lawmakers’ votes for Trump’s agenda.
They’re less unified on an agenda for the party.
On Trump, strategists agree that making the elections about his behavior would amount to fighting the campaign on his terrain, a convoluted world of payments to an adult-film star and murky Russian characters that confuse the average voter. These issues, according to Democratic strategists, are already at saturation level through the media.
“Just because something is really popular on Twitter or moving among the more activist base of the party doesn’t actually mean that’s what candidates should be talking about. I don’t think Stormy Daniels is going to produce one additional vote in almost any race that we run in 2018,” Guy Cecil, chairman of Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.
To Democrats, this looks familiar: Two years ago, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, along with Priorities USA, tried to turn the 2016 race into a referendum on Trump’s fitness for office. Many congressional candidates, along with Democratic super PACs, tried to turn Republican incumbent lawmakers into disciples of Trump and his behavior. Voters shrugged off the accusations.
Democrats are counting on being the more energized party heading into November, as recent voting results have indicated, and fear that making the midterms about Trump might serve to drive up conservative turnout to protect the president.
They also know that lawmakers now have a record — months and months of casting votes on legislation that Trump supported, issues that connect to voters’ lives. Democrats feel that the tables have turned and that they can put Republicans on the defensive about the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act last spring and the $1.5 trillion tax cut signed into law in December.
So this is what they want to talk about. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed mention of impeaching Trump as a “distraction” until lawmakers actually see a report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“It takes attention away from the connection we need to make to people about their economic security,” Pelosi said Tuesday at a Politico breakfast event.
Democrats’ internal polling continues to show health care as a top concern among voters, and both public and private polling shows that the GOP tax plan has lost considerable ground in the past four months.
“For decades, every time you’d hear taxes, Democrats would go into a defensive posture, and we should not,” Cecil said. “I mean, we should engage on both sides of these issues.”
Pelosi and others have made clear that they will not completely ignore Trump administration scandals. But they will probably focus on misdeeds of Cabinet members such as Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has faced questions over issues including his renting a home from a lobbyist.
“The EPA, the conflicts of interest that Pruitt has there — who pays the price? Our children. Clean air, clean water,” Pelosi said at the Politico event. “They are wholly owned subsidiaries of the special interests who brought them there. That’s the contrast we’ll have to make, and we will make it.”
When it comes to Republicans, Democrats know what they want to campaign on. The trick is determining what they should talk about in terms of their own ideas.
House and Senate Democrats have staked out their “Better Deal” framework, a collection of issues including cheaper prescription drugs and expanded rural broadband. It’s an approach that has not been boiled down into a few guarantees of what they will do if Democrats win back the majority, along the lines of the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract With America.”
A major reason this doesn’t yet exist is that the paths to majorities in the House and Senate go through very different territory.
House Democrats are focused, first, on winning the wealthy, well-educated suburbs that do not support Trump. But Senate Democrats need to first defend incumbents in five states that Trump won by at least 19 percentage points, and those Democrats are not looking for a broad national message.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri called the party’s plan “totally not important to me.”
“I think it’s a waste of time to talk about,” she said. “I’m pretty focused on what’s important at home.”
Others suggest that the Better Deal framework will serve as a political buffet from which Democrats can pick and choose a few policy ideas that will fit their states or districts, disregarding the rest. “We’ve rolled out plans on lots of these issues, and that allows our members to draw upon the pieces they want,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Pelosi, however, seems more bullish about drafting something bold, along the lines of the “Six for ’06” plan that congressional Democrats rolled out 12 years ago, before they swept the 2006 midterm elections.
Does a positive agenda for the minority party matter? The three most recent midterm elections have delivered bruising results for the party that holds the White House. In 2006, Republicans lost the House and Senate as George W. Bush’s White House struggled with the Iraq War. In 2010, they reclaimed the House majority as Barack Obama’s White House fought high unemployment and the health-care law’s unpopularity.
Sometimes, it’s not about the plan — it really just comes down to a reaction to whoever is in the Oval Office.
“No one can tell me what the one Democratic message was — besides we’re not Bush — in 2006,” Cecil said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former congressman Leonard Boswell attend the spring dinner gathering of the Polk County Democrats a week ago in Des Moines.