Is Anti-Trump Message Enough to Carry Dems in 2018?
One year into Donald Trump's presidency, Democrats haven't quite nailed down a singular message to woo voters in November beyond their grievances with the commander-in-chief. And that might just be good enough.
Democrats have given substantial credit to the president for outsized turnout in last year's special and off-year elections and for grassroots mobilization and fundraising hauls. And while many in the party, especially those outside of Washington, argue that Democrats will need more than an anti-Trump message to sustain them going forward, campaigning against the president in midterm races across the country could be effective.
"In a midterm, when you're in the minority, there's no leader of a party, there's really no room for candidates to offer broad visions about the future," says Matt Bennett of the center-left think tank Third Way. "It's really a referendum on the president."
And even in a good economy, with signs of more positive news to come, Democrats don't anticipate Trump's approval numbers to increase. He "will continue to be the draw for Democrats that Democrats themselves could never have conjured. He's energizing every aspect of our base, and driving into the arms of Democrats voters who are in the middle," Bennett says, arguing that policy issues aren't going to determine the midterm outcome. "What people are hearing is they're opposing Trump and that's really the only thing that's going to matter."
Such a dynamic was on display in various ways last week. Democrats held the line on a government spending bill, with most of the caucus refusing to cave unless a legislative solution for the DACA immigration program, which the president rescinded, was included. A handful of Democratic senators from states Trump won overwhelmingly voted for the budget resolution on Friday that did not include a fix for DACA. But the fact that the rest held on, even in the face of a shutdown, signaled the fervor among the party's base, whom lawmakers are loath to cross.
On Monday, Democrats relented, providing the necessary votes to reopen the government through Feb. 8 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to hold a DACA vote next month. The move risks angering the party’s restive base, however.
Democrats must be careful to harness that fervor, which has the potential to put seats in play that would ordinarily be long shots, if not completely off limits. Last week, for example, a Democrat flipped a long-held Republican state Senate seat in a Wisconsin district that voted for Trump by 17 points. Scott Walker, the GOP governor up for re-election this year, called the results "a wake-up call" for his party.
Other Democrats have argued that successful candidates are not focusing their messaging on Trump. Victorious Wisconsin candidate Patty Schachtner, a medical examiner and school board member, is one. She campaigned on economic issues. They also point to Doug Jones, who defeated Roy Moore last month to become the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in three decades; Jones focused his messaging on the economy and improving his state's standing. (Of course, Moore had his own problems, relating to charges of sexual impropriety dating back many years.) They further cite new Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who said he will work with Trump when he believes doing so is best for his state.
These victories came after a string of special election losses earlier in the year, including one in a suburban Atlanta district race that cost both parties unprecedented amounts of money. While Democrats argued then that their candidates outperformed previous elections, Republicans made the case that Trump's low approval wasn't a significant drag, as expected. But the more recent Democratic wins and energy come amid encouraging economic news, which suggests Trump could weigh down positives for Republicans.
A NBC News poll released Friday shows 69 percent of Americans satisfied with the state of the economy, up 13 points since April. And views of the Republican tax reform law have improved. The survey found that 30 percent approved of the legislation, up six points from last month. Yet 69 percent of Americans said they don't like Trump personally.
While some Democrats are advocating for a longer-term positive message, they also acknowledge that negativity can be a potent tool. In 2014, for example, Republican messaging against President Obama centered on terrorism, the lackluster economy, and even deadly diseases (the Ebola outbreak was a significant concern at the time). Republicans had gotten the blame for shutting down the government the year before thee midterms, but by rallying their base around these various issues, and denying funds for Obamacare, they won the Senate in 2014 and, of course, the presidency two years later.
Still, even Democrats who see strength in an anti-Trump message know there are risks. A significant uptick in candidates running for office in the Trump era has a downside, as it creates concern about over-crowded primaries that could produce weak or flawed candidates. There is also concern about the Republican donor base and fundraising prowess. And Democrats are worried about complacency -- that voters’ enthusiasm will diminish if it appears the party is well-positioned for victory.
"Anyone who thinks nothing can change in 10 months, or that all you have to do is say Donald Trump's name every day to win, would be mistaken," says Josh Schwerin of the prominent liberal group Priorities USA.
"A lot of Democrats are motivated because the stakes are higher because Trump is president and they're seeing the negative impact of what he can do. ... It is absolutely potent to tie candidates to Trump, but that's not the only message we should be using," Schwerin adds. "Just talking about Trump is not going to be enough to win a lot of races. It's important to give an aspirational message in addition to drawing the contrast."
Part of that philosophy is rooted in the fact that on the Senate side, Democrats will have to defend seats in states Trump won, in some cases by double-digit margins.
"If all 2018 is is a back-and-forth between for and against Trump, voters will tune out," says David Pepper, who chairs the Democratic Party in Ohio, a state Trump won by eight percentage points and which will host a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contest this year. "Even if you win, that's a Pyrrhic victory because voters need to know what Democrats stand for."
Last year, party leadership unveiled a plan dubbed "A Better Deal," which called for a $15 minimum wage, trillion-dollar infrastructure investment, a tax credit, and ways to cut costs for college and child care. But the rollout drew little attention -- except to be panned as another poll-tested offering that even cribbed from the Republicans' "A Better Way" proposal. To make matters worse, links on the party's website are broken.
Democrats have also dismissed the new tax bill as a bonanza for the wealthy, but they could run into challenges in that messaging if middle-class workers start to see increases, however modest, in their paychecks.
"Maybe instead of telling people how they feel with the same talking points for decades, maybe we need to ask them how they're feeling," says Democratic strategist Jon Summers. "This is where Democrats constantly struggle: We love to get into the policy side of things, which is where people's eyes glaze over."
"It feels good going anti-Trump right now, and that could be the way to go [in November], but that's not going to be the thing that keeps us there."