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 PelosiDHS chief to Pelosi: Emergency border funding 'has already had an impact' The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Trump faces new hit on deficit 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 TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade 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 OmarMerkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump ESPN host Dan Le Batard tears into Trump, as well as his own network, for 'cowardly' no-politics policy Biden leads, Warren and Sanders tied for second in new poll 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 HoyerThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort Overnight Defense: House votes to block Trump arms sales to Saudis, setting up likely veto | US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 program | Pentagon sending 2,100 more troops to border House votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale 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 SandersBernie SandersBiden leads, Warren and Sanders tied for second in new poll Analysis: Harris, Buttigieg and Trump lead among California donations The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMichelle Obama weighs in on Trump, 'Squad' feud: 'Not my America or your America. It's our America' Trump steps up attacks on 'Squad' Trump says he doesn't care if attacks on 'Squad' hurt him politically 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 ScaliseThe Memo: Fears of violence grow amid Trump race storm Democrats call for increased security after 'send her back' chants Democratic strategist on Trump tweets: 'He's feeding this fear and hate' 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 CheneyLiz Cheney calls Ayanna Pressley's comments at Netroots Nation 'racist' Lawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei Cheney blasts Ocasio-Cortez over DHS dissolution 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 McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants History in the House: Congress weathers unprecedented week EU official in Canada says he feels 'at home' there because no one was shouting 'send him back' 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.