Dems divided on Trump attack strategy for 2018

Dems divided on Trump attack strategy for 2018
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are at odds over whether attacks on President Trump will prove to be a winning campaign message in 2018.

Trump’s approval numbers are well underwater, so many Democrats maintain that linking the unpopular president to vulnerable Republicans is the obvious way to pick up the 24 seats the party needs to win back the House after eight years in the minority.

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“I think we can tie House Republicans to the failure of the Trump administration,” said Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth Butterfield'Diamond & Silk' offer chance for bipartisan push back on social media censorship Live coverage: Zuckerberg faces second day on Capitol Hill Senate passes bill to end shutdown, sending it to House MORE (D-N.C.). “It’s conceivable we could probably win back the House.”

Yet Trump’s meteoric rise in the political world has been built around defying odds and upending expectations. And his populist appeal and resilience to controversy paved his way to the White House, stunning Democrats who wrongly believed the mercurial reality TV star would be a drag on Republicans down the ballot.  

A number of Democrats say the party would be foolish to try that strategy again next year.

“I don’t want to run against Trump,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. “My recommendation is to run against the Republican Party, and I think our party has made a mistake by emphasizing too much Mr. Trump. 

“He’ll speak for himself, and he’ll trip on himself.”

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), a former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the 2018 midterm elections will hinge on a single issue: jobs. And everything else — including the Republicans’ efforts to repeal ObamaCare and the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election — will be overshadowed by the degree to which voters feel financially secure. 

With that in mind, Larson said, the Democrats need to do much more than simply attack Trump. They need an aggressive economic message that resonates with marginalized voters who want help from Washington. 

“Whether it’s Russia or whether it’s the healthcare proposal — those are all going to work themselves out,” he said. “But when you go back to your district, the overarching thing is: Where are the jobs and what’s your solution?

“It won’t be enough just to resist — you have to have a solution.”

The divide over the Democrats’ strategic approach to the polarizing president has resurfaced after a string of recent special elections in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Georgia.

Although all four contests involved deeply conservative districts won easily by Republicans in the past, the races were also viewed as an early referendum on Trump’s rocky first months in office, and many Democrats were hoping to steal an early win or two heading into the 2018 midterms. 

Instead, Democrats lost all four races, dashing their hopes of jump-starting a House takeover, sparking a new round of internal soul-searching and renewing the warnings from a small group of younger Democrats that the party simply can’t take back the House with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in charge. 

“We’d better take a good, long, strong look in the mirror and realize that the problem is us, it’s the party,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) — who challenged Pelosi for her post last November — said after the loss in Georgia, where the Democrats spent almost $25 million only to come up empty-handed.

Many Democrats blamed the choice of candidate in that race — 30-year-old Jon Ossoff — more than the party’s messaging strategy.

“The young man that ran [was a] liberal filmmaker that didn’t even live in the district,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said.

“You’ve got to have people that reflect the district.”

Still, the loss was a sharp disappointment for Democratic leaders, who are already scrambling on several fronts for an effective countermessage to Trump’s populist appeal.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has for months been crunching the numbers surrounding the 2016 elections in search of a path forward in 2018. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) performed an autopsy of his own, submitting 28 strategic recommendations to the DCCC in May “designed to make a good organization work better,” in his own words. And the special elections provide additional data points, though a final messaging strategy remains many months away.

“Doing the post-mortem will take some time,” Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said after the Georgia loss. 

Pelosi, for her part, has experience winning the House gavel. As minority leader in 2006, she steered the Democrats into the majority to become the first female Speaker in the nation’s history.

The Democrats had a catchy “Six for ’06” campaign strategy that year that outlined their top legislative priorities, almost all of them related to the economy. But they got an enormous boost from the low approval ratings of President George W. Bush, who was wildly unpopular for the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Historical trends should give the Democrats a boost. As the handicappers at Sabato’s Crystal Ball have pointed out, the party controlled by the White House has lost seats in 36 of the 39 midterms since the Civil War. 

“The average loss is 33 seats, a shift in seats that would flip the House next year,” Kyle Kondik, Sabato’s managing editor, wrote in a preview of the 2018 midterms.

Meanwhile, Democrats of all stripes are offering their advice on how much Trump should feature in the party’s strategy. 

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyOvernight Energy: Groups sue Interior over bird killing policy | Dem seeks probe into EPA blocking reporters from event | Report faults safety standards at Texas chemical plant House Dems request information from EPA on Pruitt's legal fund Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade MORE (D-Va.) said the message from Democrats should be twofold: First, the Democrats need to convince voters that they’re on their side when it comes to jobs, education, healthcare and countless other bread-and-butter economic issues. And to pound home the point, they should highlight the long list of Trump’s campaign promises that have gone unrealized. 

“He broke his promises; he led you on; he led you to believe that you were voting for your own economic self-interest by voting for him — and boy, has he let you down,” Connolly said. “It was all a big lie.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the focus on Trump, while understandable, gives congressional Republicans a pass. He wants the Democrats to focus on a message of economic justice that hauls Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDon't let them fool you — Republicans love regulation, too Senate harassment bill runs into opposition from House The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — The art of walking away from the deal MORE (R-Wis.) into the fray, much as the GOP has energized conservatives by invoking the liberal Pelosi. 

“Because of the justified fixation on Trump, you’re letting [Senate Majority Leader] McConnell [R-Ky.] and Ryan off the hook. They’re the legislative kingpins around here. They’re the ones pushing the crappy healthcare [bill]; they’re the ones talking about tax reform. It’s Ryan plan to undo Medicaid and Medicare,” he said.

“You can’t let them off the hook.”