Democrats bet that a fo­cus on Trump-related votes, not scan­dals, will bear fruit

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - @PKCapi­tol PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com

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.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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