Dems launch early '18 attacks on GOP Senate targets

Dems launch early '18 attacks on GOP Senate targets
© Greg Nash

Liberals are already beginning to target Republican Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSpokesman: Flake’s vote on tax reform will have nothing to do with Trump Trump slams Flake over hot-mic comments: Senator's career is 'toast' Bannon: McConnell 'picking up his game' because of our 'insurgent movement' MORE (Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerAnother perfect storm: Why we must act before flood insurance runs dry Senators introduce bipartisan gun background check bill Dem PAC bullish on Senate chances MORE (Nev.) with attack ads as Democrats look to soften up their only two realistic targets ahead of a difficult 2018 Senate map.

Two groups, Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Allied Progress, have launched TV ads in the senators’ home states that aim to tie the two GOP senators to President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE’s Cabinet and White House staff picks.

Democrats are starting GOP attacks early in a cycle where they’re mostly playing defense and trying to block Republicans from flipping enough seats to achieve a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority. Republicans are defending just eight seats in 2018, while Democrats are defending 23 seats, plus another two held by independent allies.

About a week after Stephen Bannon was named chief White House strategist in Trump’s administration, PCCC launched an ad on Thanksgiving pressuring Flake to call on the former Breitbart News executive to be fired. The ad, which was extended, ran in Washington, D.C., Phoenix and Tucson.

Bannon, who was Trump’s campaign CEO, was a controversial pick for the president-elect thanks to his claim that he had made the site into a “platform” for the alt-right movement.

Adam Green, the co-founder of the PCCC, a PAC, said the initial ad sought to pressure the Republicans early on the airwaves. He added it has the added bonus of speaking both to the group’s policy and political gains.

“Part of the early timing is just out of necessity given that these battles are happening right now,” Green told The Hill. “There’s really twin goals of winning the issues fights and laying the groundwork for electoral victories in 2018 and 2020.”

Earlier this week, issue advocacy group Allied Progress ramped up its early advertising and launched six-figure broadcast and cable TV ads in Arizona and Nevada, calling on Flake and Heller to oppose Trump’s pick for Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin.

Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner, has drawn the ire of Democrats for his role with mortgage company OneWest, which had been investigated by the California attorney general for potential violations of foreclosure laws.

“[Flake and Heller] both represent states with large Hispanic...populations and also are places that were hit particularly hard by the foreclosure crisis,” said Allied Progress executive director Karl Frisch. “And both senators have shown a willingness during the last year to be critical or independent-minded when it comes to Donald Trump.”

Green said PCCC would launch more ads “very soon” targeting Mnuchin around the time of his confirmation hearing. The date of the hearing has yet to be announced.

Democrats are reviving their strategy from 2016 down-ballot campaigns, where they attempted to tie vulnerable Republicans to Trump and his team in the hopes that his candidacy would sink GOP chances of keeping the Senate majority.

During that cycle, Senate Republicans had mixed success at creating distance between themselves and Trump.

Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Ad encourages GOP senator to vote 'no' on tax bill MORE, who withdrew his support for Trump, cruised to victory and ran several points ahead of the top of the ticket. In Nevada, Republican Senate nominee Rep. Joe Heck angered conservatives by rescinding his Trump endorsement, all the while frustrating Democrats who had wanted him to break sooner.

Republicans are skeptical that Democrats’ strategy of linking Republicans to the president-elect—particularly in states he carried—will prove more effective in the 2018 cycle. It also remains too early to gauge the mood of the electorate and how voters will perceive Trump’s first two years in office.

“We just got through an election cycle where Democrats spent a lot of money trying to tie John McCain to Donald Trump and that failed pretty spectacularly,” said a Republican strategist who’s worked in Arizona.

“I don’t know what kind of a national wave there’s going to be but McCain did a good job of inoculating himself from any sort of national issues that might have come up.”

The incoming Trump administration will likely change the dynamics in the midterms.

In Arizona, Flake emerged as one of Trump’s biggest Senate Republican detractors, drawing the ire of both his colleagues and Trump.

Trump and Flake engaged in a heated exchange during a private Senate GOP caucus meeting in July. Trump kept the feud going months later, blasting Flake as “weak” and “ineffective” on Twitter.

While the president-elect hasn’t publicly commented on Flake since the election, Flake is sending signals that he’s willing to let the past go, telling reporters in various interviews he believes Trump should have “wide deference” in picking his staff and Cabinet.

Nevada’s Heller was also critical of Trump during the campaign, withholding his endorsement and condemning Trump’s controversial rhetoric about Latinos. But since Trump’s stunning victory, Heller has argued that Americans need to give the president-elect the chance to be successful.

Flake would likely face the toughest reelection challenge from a potential GOP primary challenger, thanks to a backlash from Trump supporters. Heller, whose state and 2016 Senate race just broke for the Democrats, has more serious general election concerns.

No Democratic challengers have materialized in either race, but Flake has already drawn a primary challenge from State Sen. Kelli Ward (R), who unsuccessfully challenged McCain in the 2016 Senate primary.

There’s a chance more GOP challengers join Ward, including Reps. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertThe Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on tax-reform bill GOP Senate hopeful Kelli Ward leads challengers in internal poll Kelli Ward pursues Rand Paul’s endorsement in Arizona MORE and Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarHouse panel passes bill to boost drilling on federal land, offshore GOP Senate hopeful Kelli Ward leads challengers in internal poll GOP lawmaker spars with CNN reporter over Charlottesville conspiracy theories MORE, or state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, a Trump ally who served as his campaign’s operating officer.

Heller, meanwhile, has no clear primary challenger. The only Republican member of the congressional delegation is Rep. Mark AmodeiMark Eugene AmodeiOvernight Finance: House passes .2T funding package for 2018 | FTC launches Equifax probe | Mnuchin defends honeymoon jet request | House scraps measure to boost credit union regulator oversight Trump’s EPA budget cuts hit strong opposition at House panel MORE, who hasn’t shown any interest in challenging Heller. So far, no outsider challenger appears to be positioning for a bid.

But if he breezes to the general, Heller would have an uphill battle as the only GOP incumbent running in a state carried by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Pelosi blasts California Republicans for supporting tax bill MORE. She won Nevada by more than 2 points, Democrats held onto the state’s open Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidVirginia was a wave election, but without real change, the tide will turn again Top Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots Boehner confronted Reid after criticism from Senate floor MORE.

Facing their difficult 2018 Senate map, Democrats and progressives hope to capitalize on their limited offense opportunities by picking up disillusioned Trump voters. They say the party will need cohesive messaging and outreach to pick up new seats.

“If across nominations and issues we’re making clear that Trump is betraying his own voters by siding with giant corporations at the expense of working families, then it will penetrate and Republican senators will be more vulnerable and more forced to rethink voting lockstep,” PCCC’s Green said.