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 FlakeMcSally ties Democratic rival Kelly to Sanders in new ad McSally launches 2020 campaign Sinema will vote to convict Trump MORE (Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play 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 TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants 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.

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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 McCainAdvice for fellow Democrats: Don't count out Biden, don't fear a brokered convention McSally ties Democratic rival Kelly to Sanders in new ad Eleventh Democratic presidential debate to be held in Phoenix 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 SchweikertOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Democrats seek to preempt Trump message on health care | E-cigarette executives set for grilling | Dems urge emergency funding for coronavirus Democrats slam GOP on drug prices in bilingual digital ads Overnight Defense: House passes bills to rein in Trump on Iran | Pentagon seeks Iraq's permission to deploy missile defenses | Roberts refuses to read Paul question on whistleblower during impeachment trial MORE and Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarOvernight Energy: Green groups to sue over Trump rollback of Obama water rules | GOP climate plan faces pushback from right | Bezos launches B climate initiative GOP climate plan faces pushback — from Republicans New Qatari prime minister means new opportunities 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 AmodeiOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Billboards calling on House Republicans to 'do their job' follow members home for Thanksgiving Trump's defenders are running out of options 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 ClintonClinton asked if she'd be Bloomberg's vice president: 'Oh no' Trump launches three-day campaign rally blitz Free Roger Stone MORE. She won Nevada by more than 2 points, Democrats held onto the state’s open Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders on the rise as Nevada debate looms Bottom line Harry Reid: 'People should not be counting Joe Biden out of the race yet' 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.