Red-state Democrats use careful messaging on Trump
The midterm elections next month are being billed as a referendum on President Trump, but don’t tell that to red-state Democrats who are shying away from their party’s red-meat attacks against the commander in chief.
While many Democrats have become reflexively against all things Trump, the party’s Senate candidates in states that the president easily carried two years ago have steered clear of the heated antiTrump messaging that is firing up the base elsewhere.
“As the national Democratic Party has devolved into an angry mob, it’s put red-state Democrats in an increasingly difficult position,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “But no matter what these vulnerable Dems say back home, the fact is their failure to denounce their party’s anti-Trump theatrics makes them complicit, and voters can see right through their empty rhetoric.”
The high-stakes fight over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh forced Senate Democratic incumbents to pick sides just weeks before the Nov. 6 election, while Republicans are looking to defend a slim 51-49 seat majority.
Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who is running against Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, was the sole Democrat to break with his party and vote for Mr. Trump’s nominee.
Others sought to delicately split with Mr. Trump as Republican voter enthusiasm spiked during a two-week confirmation ordeal in which Justice Kavanaugh weathered uncorroborated accusations of sexual misconduct from his high school and college days.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, Indiana Democrat, defended his “no” vote in a debate Monday. He said he voted “yes” on Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and on 77 percent of Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees.
Mr. Donnelly said senators are tasked with helping “President Trump to make the best decision.”
“I go against my own party all the time,” he said. “That is a regular for me. I have been with President Trump 62 percent of the time. That is what we are supposed to do. I don’t think it is about party.”
Former state Rep. Mike Braun, his Republican opponent in November, countered that Mr. Donnelly has a track record of falling in line with the liberal leaders of his party and lining up against the Trump agenda when it matters most.
“He voted for Obamacare originally, he voted against its repeal, he voted for the Iran deal, he voted against tax reform,” Mr. Braun said. “Then here he voted against Judge Kavanaugh. He says here for other reasons, but he did it because he takes his marching orders from [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer, the same guy who has been running his campaign from afar.”
Meanwhile, in Missouri, a state on the front line in the battle for control of the Senate, Sen. Claire McCaskill tried to fly under the radar by generalizing her opposition to Mr. Trump.
In a fundraising email the day before the confirmation vote, she warned vaguely that “Senate Republicans seem determined to lead us in the wrong direction, pushing forward on the worst parts of President Trump’s agenda.”
Republican challenger Josh Hawley said Monday that Ms. McCaskill can’t escape her anti-Trump record.
“She has ridiculed President Trump in the most personal terms. She has ridiculed his weight. She has ridiculed him for wanting to build a wall, calling it embarrassing,” he said. “She has mocked his agenda, of course, and is doing everything she can to resist it.”
The McCaskill campaign did not respond to Mr. Hawley’s remarks.
Ms. McCaskill and Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, defended their “no” votes on the basis of Justice Kavanaugh’s views on dark money in politics, not the sexual misconduct accusations.
Mr. Tester also raised concerns about the nominee’s views on Fourth Amendment protections.
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, had multiple chances to vilify Mr. Trump in a recent debate with Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn in the open race for a Republican-held Senate seat. Instead, he opened his remarks by knocking Mr. Schumer, saying it is time to end his stint leading the chamber’s Democrats.
Mr. Bredesen blamed the New York Democrat for adding to the hyperpartisan climate that has engulfed Washington and is preventing Congress from finding “sensible” solutions on tough issues.
“It has just become a government of people standing on opposite sides of the room shouting at each other and not making any progress,” he said. “People certainly are going to have a choice, and if what people want, if what the people of Tennessee want, is more of that hard-nosed partisan politics, take no prisoners, draw lines in the sand, make no compromises, I’m not your guy.”
Mo Elleithee, a former top aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the strategy employed by red-state Democrats makes sense.
“Trump is doing the most negative advertising for himself on a day-to-day basis,” said Mr. Elleithee, who now runs Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “So what Democrats are doing is offering an alternative, and that is the key here.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Schumer labors to keep Democratic voters fired up about losing the Kavanaugh battle.
“To Americans, the so many millions who are outraged by what happened here, there’s one answer: vote,” he said during the Senate debate.
Sen. Cory A. Booker, a New Jersey Democrat eyeing a 2020 presidential run, also wants to keep Mr. Trump front and center in the midterms.
“How long until we answer the president’s hate with our universal love,” he asked at rally for Democrats in Iowa.
Recalling how he overcame his depression after the 2016 presidential election, when he saw thousands in the Women’s March, he said voters should seize this moment to defy Mr. Trump.
“This is not a time to curl up. It is not a time to shut up. It is not a time to give up. It is a time to get up, to rise up, to speak up,” he told the Des Moines crowd this weekend. “It is time for you not to wait for hope, but to be the hope.”