Should Dems play up Russia in midterms?

Should Dems play up Russia in midterms?
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Democratic strategists say party candidates running in the midterm elections should up the ante and highlight President TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the hope of appealing to independents.

Strategists, pointing to recent polls, say voters are increasingly frustrated with Trump’s handling of Putin, particularly at last week’s Helsinki summit, as well as Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

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“This is a huge issue,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “There are a number of Republican members of Congress squirming over this issue because they don’t know how to handle it.”

Lake said emphasizing the Russia debacle accomplishes three things: It persuades older voters who lived through the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, energizes Democrats and depresses enthusiasm among Republicans.

She pointed to an IPSOS poll out last week that showed that half of respondents believe Trump acted “treasonous” during the Helsinki summit. At the same time, Quinnipiac had a poll out this week showing that half of respondents think the Russian government has compromising information about President Trump. Another poll out this week, by NPR–PBS NewsHour and Marist, shows respondents don’t think Trump is tough enough on Russia.

“What’s remarkable to me is how the data has evolved,” Lake said, adding that Democrats should make it known that electing them would be a check and balance on Trump. “If anything, we’ve under-tapped this issue.”

Another top strategist said Democrats should “squeeze every bit of juice out of that orange.”

“This is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to Republicans in years,” the strategist said. “They don’t know how to even handle it. Kick ‘em there, where it hurts.”

One strategist said that focusing on Russia is particularly useful in races against the “absolute warriors,” Trump’s name for the four conservative lawmakers — Reps. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida secretary of state who resigned apologizes for blackface photos The Hill's Morning Report — Trump complicates border wall negotiations Parkland parents ask Pulitzer panel to honor local paper for school shooting coverage MORE (Fla.), Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzHouse passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency Parkland parents create anti-gun violence Valentine’s Day candies: ‘Don’t shoot,’ ‘he’s gone’ House conservatives blast border deal, push Trump to use executive power MORE (Fla.), Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanWhite House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration Rod Rosenstein’s final insult to Congress: Farewell time for reporters but not testimony House conservatives blast border deal, push Trump to use executive power MORE (Ohio) and Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration MORE (N.C.) — who have staunchly defended him and have attacked the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

In those races, the strategist said, “you should use that against them as abandoning their constitutional responsibilities to check the president.”

But former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who heads up the Fight Back California super PAC aimed at winning seven competitive districts in the Golden State, said her goal is to highlight domestic issues that matter more to voters.

“Local, local, local,” she said when asked about the focus of the races. “When you ask voters what the most important issue in their area in the Orange County congressional districts they say homelessness, nothing about Russia or foreign policy.”

Democratic strategist Eric Jotkoff agreed.

“The most important thing I tell every candidate I speak with is, let the Russia probe play out in D.C. and on cable news. Don’t try to be a pundit,” Jotkoff said.

“Instead, focus on the issues important in your community. Address the issues that Republicans in Washington have tried to tackle as they spend all their time and energy protecting Donald Trump. Talk about health care, education, economy and environment.

"And to the extent that the Russia probe comes up, speak about it in a way that focuses on restoring accountability to Washington and highlights what Republicans haven’t gotten done as they use their power to defend Trump rather than help Americans.”

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon added: “Russia is at the bottom of the stack under immigration, government corruption, health care and many other problems.”

At the same time, some strategists say Russia needs to be part of the dialogue, particularly with the 2020 presidential election around the corner.

“In the midterms, we have the difficult but achievable task of correlating foreign policy with economic stability, safety and security to establish that Republicans are not standing up for the working class,” Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said.

“Americans don’t generally vote on foreign affairs,” Smikle added. “Trump’s handling of Russia and Putin contradicts decades of Republican dogma and damages American exceptionalism in the world, a message some Republicans and independents can agree upon and will be salient in choosing the next president.”

And with the Mueller investigation ongoing, Lake, the Democratic pollster, predicted that Russia will be a dominant topic among those making a run for the White House in 2020.

“It could be a central issue then,” she said.