By now we are all familiar with the GOP formula in competitive House races. Take the Democratic candidate. Put his or her picture next to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a TV ad. Warn voters that the Democratic candidate shares Pelosi’s "San Francisco values" and will be a foot solider in Pelosi’s liberal army if he or she gets to Washington. Rinse. Repeat.
What we didn’t expect earlier this year, however, was that Democrats would make Republican leaders in Congress their own political boogeymen—their own Pelosi if you will. Past Democratic attempts to turn Speaker Paul Ryan into a political pariah by attacking the "Ryan budget" fell flat. This year, however, Democrats have a new ally in their battle to turn the GOP leadership into a political liability for GOP candidates: President Donald J. Trump. The more Trump fights with his own party, the more unpopular these members become.
Democrats gave a preview of this strategy last week, releasing their first ads of the 2018 cycle. As our friends at NBC FirstRead report, this was a small buy—just six-figures—and is playing on cable for just one week. But, what’s notable about the ad is the fact that it never mentions President Trump. Instead, the "star" of the show is Ryan and healthcare. "Paul Ryan and Washington’s establishment Republicans are coming after your healthcare," says the narrator,"…catering to the drug companies and the special interests.”
Traditionally, the opposition party uses an unpopular president as an anvil in midterm elections; doing all they can to link members of that president’s party to him, hoping he’ll drag them all down. This was an effective strategy against congressional candidates when Presidents Obama and Bush had similarly weak approval ratings. Yet, as I’ve written before, even many Democrats admit that this strategy may be of limited value with a president who is still seen by many voters as his own brand, separate from the GOP.
Instead of tying Republicans to "Trump-care" or the president’s erratic behavior, they are attaching them to something even more unpopular—the wicked "establishment."
It’s clear that the Twitter tiffs between Trump and congressional Republicans, as well as Steve Bannon’s newly engaged war on Leader Mitch McConnell, has taken its toll on on perceptions of the party leaders. For example, back in October of 2015, NBC/Wall Street Journal polling showed that Mitch McConnell, was relatively undefined and relatively unpopular, with 33 percent viewing him unfavorably and just seven viewing him favorably for an overall favorable score of -26. By September of this year, his unfavorables had jumped to 41 percent with just 11 percent viewing him favorably for an overall favorable score of -30. Speaker Ryan went from relatively neutral in October of 2015 (23 favorable/28 unfavorable for a -5 score) to relatively unfavorable this September. Ryan’s unfavorables jumped 12 points to 40 percent while his favorable stayed the same for a score of -16.
What’s driven down the approval ratings for both McConnell and Ryan is a drop in approval among GOP voters. Ryan’s favorable rating among Republicans dropped 26 points from February to September of 2017 (+49 to +23). McConnell’s dropped 23 points (from +15 to -8). Meanwhile. Trump remains popular among Republican voters with a favorable rating of 77 percent. In other words, Republicans have soured on their party leaders but not on the president. This gives Democrats room to attack Republican leaders and the "establishment" without risk of turning off or turning out GOP voters who are supportive of Trump. These voters won’t feel a need to defend Republicans in Congress in the same way they’d defend the president.
Net Favorability Among Republicans
Source: NBC/WSJ polling
Moreover, says one Democratic strategist, attacking the Republican leadership is more effective and credible with swing voters than trying to tie random Republicans to the unconventional and undefinable Trump. As one Democratic strategist told me, Trump has "said they [Republicans in Congress] are the problem. This has a ring of truth to voters because very rarely does someone criticize their own party. So in swing voters minds it must have some truth because it is so abnormal." The more the president attacks the “swamp” the harder it is for GOP leaders to separate themselves from it.
However, in looking at the NBC/Wall Street Journal polling, it’s still Pelosi, not Ryan who is the most unpopular among independent voters. Pelosi’s favorable/unfavorable score among independent voters in the September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was 16 percent to 42 percent (-26). Ryan’s was 20 percent to 21 percent (-1). In other words, Pelosi herself is still the bigger and more potent lighting rod among swing voters than Ryan. McConnell, however, was in same league as Pelosi with a favorable/unfavorable rating of 10 percent to 38 percent (-28).
Moreover, Democratic strategists tell me they won’t be shying away from running ads that attack Trump directly, especially in districts that have a more moderate to Democratic lean to them. In those districts, they say, Trump’s toxicity is strong enough to overpower the GOP candidate.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are hoping that passing tax cuts will help heal the wounds inflicted on them by the president and their own ineffectiveness in getting major legislation passed. But, I wouldn’t bet on it. After all, the president has shown he’s willing to take on his party anytime, anywhere over anything. The latest spat with Sen. Bob Corker should remind all of us that Trump’s loyalty is to his brand and not his party. And GOP voters are more loyal to him than to their representatives in Congress.
Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call