Fresh faces bring familiar GOP refrain: Dems are too extreme

Fresh faces bring familiar GOP refrain: Dems are too extreme
© Stefani Reynolds

House Republicans are amplifying an old but frequently reliable script as they fight to win back the lower chamber in 2020: Democrats, they contend, are simply too extreme to lead the country.

The argument is hardly new: GOP leaders and campaign operatives have, for decades, attacked Democrats for their liberal positions, particularly in the nearly 20 years that Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiConstitutional conservatives need to oppose the national emergency House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration Why don't we build a wall with Canada? MORE (D-Calif.) has led the party.

But the arrival of an enormous new crop of Democratic freshmen — a group that features a handful of outspoken, liberal provocateurs — has only fueled the GOP’s appetite for branding the Democrats as out of touch with the voters they serve.

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“The radical Democrats can’t help themselves,” reads a typical subject line in an email blasted out last month by the GOP’s campaign arm.

The Republicans’ messaging campaign encompasses a wide spectrum of policies being promoted by the insurgent liberal wing of the Democratic Party, including efforts to adopt a “Medicare for all” health care system, abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and hike tax rates on high-income earners. 

But the goal in all cases remains the same: Republicans want to force every Democrat to take a position on those controversial issues, in order to “drive unflattering headlines by exposing sort of where the far left, and where the Democrats, are these days,” said one GOP source.

Rank-and-file Republicans received a memo last week containing suggested talking points to make about Democrats back in their districts. 

It called on GOP lawmakers to bring up the Democrats’ rejection of new funds for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE’s border wall and to remind constituents that Democrats want to remove the words “so help you God” from the oath witnesses must take when testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee.

It also highlighted recent remarks from freshman Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarBusiness, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration Trump tweets video mocking Dems not cheering during State of the Union Omar: Next president should declare national emergency on climate change ‘on day 1’ MORE (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women to arrive on Capitol Hill this year, comparing the Jewish state to Iran. Republicans say Democratic leaders should have condemned the comments.

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“All of the things we saw last week show us how our minority will behave in response to their majority, and things that members of their party do to take them off their main message,” one House Republican source told The Hill.

By shining daylight on proposals from the left, Republicans hope to expose — or induce — divisions within the Democratic Caucus, just as Pelosi and other party leaders are fighting to maintain a united front heading into the high-stakes 2020 election cycle. 

Democratic leaders, for their part, say they’re hardly concerned, since Republicans have accused them of being liberal extremists for decades. 

“They’ve been expressing that for the last 50 years,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerWinners and losers in the border security deal Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration MORE (D-Md.) said Wednesday. 

Democrats are quick to note that their policy agenda features a host of proposals — including a minimum wage hike, gun reform, immigration reform and higher taxes on the wealthy — that enjoy widespread voter support, even in conservative districts. And Hoyer pointed out that even ObamaCare — among the most contentious new laws in recent decades — has won strong public backing after the benefits kicked in and then Republicans threatened to take them away. 

If any party is extreme, Hoyer charged, it’s the Republicans. 

“There are some outspoken, really good new members who are very liberal. OK. We’ve always had that in the Democratic Party,” Hoyer said. “They’re not as radical as the radical right that exists in the Republican Party.”

Republicans are getting an assist from their ally in the White House, as President Trump used Tuesday’s State of the Union speech to express his “alarm” at “the new calls to adopt socialism in our country” — a direct shot at prominent liberals like Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersNewsom endorses Kamala Harris for president Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration Poll: Sanders, Biden seen as most popular second choices in Dem primary MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDem lawmaker rips opposition to Amazon going into New York: 'Now we're protesting jobs' Reporter says majority appears to favor progressive tax plans Trump tweets video mocking Dems not cheering during State of the Union MORE (D-N.Y.), who both identify as democratic socialists. 

GOP leaders wasted no time capitalizing on the president’s line of attack.

“America is still a center-right nation, and when the president says that we need to stand up against socialism, and most Democrats sit down at a State of the Union address, it’s alarming,” said House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseTexas man with politician hit list, illegally 3D printed rifle sentenced to eight years The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? Dems escalate gun fight a year after Parkland MORE (R-La.). “I think it’s very telling where their party has moved to.”

Other GOP leaders echoed that message. 

Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyOvernight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Liz Cheney calls for House vote on Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal Liz Cheney mocks Booker over factory farming comments: 'I support PETA - People Eating Tasty Animals' MORE (R-Wyo.), who leads the Republicans messaging strategy, said the strategic targeting campaign is less about messaging than “making sure the American people understand the substance of what it is that Democrats … stand for.” And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyMandatory E-Verify: The other border wall Bret Stephens: Would love to see Hannity react when Dem declares climate change emergency Democrats veer left as Trump cements hold on Republicans MORE (R-Calif.) argued Democrats are making Republicans’ efforts easy by drawing attention to the far-left agenda.

“When you look at [Ocasio-Cortez] saying what she wants for the tax basis,” he told The Hill. “When you look at those who are running for president, and thing I’ve seen is, I’ve seen a movement with the independents against them. So we don’t have to message what they’re saying.”

But not all Republicans think going after Democrats for proposals like Medicare for all is an optimal strategy. Longtime GOP strategist Liz Mair, a former spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Trump’s previous embrace of that very position could prove to be a liability for the party. 

“When the President has a multiple-decades-long history of supporting Medicare for All and has only recently been persuaded to NOT vocally support that policy, attacking Dems on this is potentially problematic,” she said in a text, noting she does not support the policy. “Public support for Medicare for All or some version of single payer is sufficiently high that I just don’t know if that would be effective even disregarding Trump’s history.”

Mair added that the strategy of attacking members like Omar on Israel may fire up the GOP’s conservative base and attract donors, but isn’t guaranteed to move the needle in terms of attracting new supporters to the Republican tent. 

“I know Republicans would love to get more Jewish voters backing our candidates, but I just don’t think even this will move the numbers much,” she said.