Late last week, I joined my colleague David Wasserman for interviews with about half-a dozen Democrats running in competitive swing districts currently held by Republicans. It was a good reminder of just how disconnected DC and the cable networks are from what Democratic candidates and campaigns are talking about back home.
Inside the beltway and TV/Twitter bubble the most trafficked-in topics include: Donald Trump, impeachment, Russia, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. The number of times any of these topics were mentioned in our interviews with House Democratic candidates: zero.
Recently, I wrote that national Democrats were turning their attention away from Trump and onto Speaker Paul Ryan. With Congress exceptionally unpopular (and unproductive), and Trump helping to fuel the anti-establishment fervor, the GOP leadership in Washington had become an easier and more effective target than the unorthodox president.
At the end of last week, I saw this dynamic in action. The Democrats we met with are all running in districts held by Republicans. Hillary Clinton won some of these districts. Some were narrowly carried by Trump. Yet, all the candidates were more focused more on Congress and its lack of progress than on Trump and his lack of composure. One Democratic candidate from the Midwest said, "all I hear back in my district is 'Just get me some results." When I asked one candidate if he was running for Congress because of Trump, he said. "I don’t know if I’d be running if Trump weren’t President, but I do know that the incumbent is voting the wrong way for the district." Another challenger running in a swing suburban district told us that voters in his district care more about paying the rent and student loan debt than the Russia investigation. The problems the country is facing, says the Democrat, "didn’t start with Trump...but it’s career politicians who haven’t solved them."
A few days earlier, we had met with a representative of Fight Back CA PAC, a California-based Democratic PAC dedicated to flipping GOP-held seats to blue. Their first target is the Central Valley-based 10th Congressional District held by Republican Jeff Denham. Clinton carried the district by 3 points and Denham narrowly won it with 52 percent. In polling they conducted over the summer, they found that Trump remained unpopular in the district, with a 39 percent excellent/good job approval rating and a 44 percent personal approval rating. Almost half (46 percent) agree that Trump should “be impeached and removed from office.” Even so, Fight Back CA recommends that the Democratic candidate "focus on local issues that affect voters’ day to day lives, NOT national, partisan, arguments." The persuadable voters in this district, Fight Back CA PAC writes in its summary, "are disillusioned, disaffected and disengaged." Winning them over requires communicating with them "on the issues these voters care most about, which are local issues." In Denham’s district, for example, a CA PAC-sponsored mail piece claims that Denham’s support of the Financial Choice Act, "puts the Central Valley in the cross hairs of another housing crisis not unlike the one that devastated the Valley not too long ago."
This approach is a twist on the "all politics is local" axiom. Instead, it’s more like all national politics can be localized. Take what's happening in Washington and make it more applicable — and relatable — to people outside DC.
In other words, attacks on 'big banks' or 'shadowy dark money' only work if people see — and believe — that it's impacting them in their state and their home.
There are Republicans who also believe in the power of trying to localize and compartmentalize House contests. Since earlier this year, the Paul-Ryan backed Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) has set up grassroots organizers in 20 GOP-held seats. In these districts, CLF volunteers door knock and call specifically targeted voters with specifically targeted messages in an effort to cast the GOP incumbent "as a post-partisan who delivers on their key issues." For example, writes the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, "The ads and materials being distributed by the group make no mention of the president or which party currently runs Congress. A door hanger for Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), whose district voted heavily for Hillary Clinton last year, tells the story of how his family built a successful dairy farm and how he wants to fix our broken immigration system." A door hanger for Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who represents a swing seat in Upstate New York, calls him an "independent voice" who’s "working to combat the heroin and opioid crisis" and ensure "clean, safe drinking water."
CLF’s localization tactic, however, was designed as much to insulate incumbents from a Trump drag as anything else. The more they establish themselves as their own unique brand, the theory goes, the harder it will be to attach them to the Trump one. Even so, it’s now the "Congress" brand that is getting deeply tarnished. Protecting these incumbents from that backlash is another challenge all together.
CLF, as we saw in the special election in GA-06, is also trying to localize the national by tying Democratic challengers to Nancy Pelosi and the radical members of the #resistance movement. However, as I saw this week from the Democratic challengers, none are embracing the language or message of the resisters. When I asked each who they’d like to have campaign for them in their district, they picked either Joe Biden or President Obama. None chose Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. The candidates parried questions about whether they’d support Pelosi as Democratic leader with well-rehearsed lines like: "I’ll make the decision when I get to DC."
To be sure, these candidates represent only a fraction of Democrats running in 2018. It is also very early in the cycle. Many of them already have primary opponents. None are guaranteed to be the nominee. Additionally, staying on message in a conference room in DC is a lot easier than keeping focused and disciplined on the campaign trail for a year. There’s no telling how well — or how poorly — they will handle the curveballs thrown at them over the course of a long campaign cycle. On the Republican side, outside groups like CLF can try to shape the message, but they have no control over the individual campaigns. The incumbents still have to run good a good race. And, most important, no one can control (or predict) what the national political environment will look like a year from now.
Where both sides are unified, however, is a belief that in this time of disruption and chaos, pitching their candidates as problem solvers instead of trouble makers will resonate with a weary, frustrated and disillusioned electorate.
Image: California Central Valley South of Fresno, California (Wikimedia Commons/Ken Lund)