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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes – Trump’s Scandals and the Midterms Edition

So how should Democratic congressional candidates handle the Manafort convictions and Cohen guilty pleas? Jonathan Martin and Nicholas Fandos explore the options for both parties in their New York Times article, “Republicans Urge Embattled Incumbents to Speak Out on Trump.” Here’s some of what they write about the Democratic strategy: “Democrats face their own pressure to shed their cautious midterm strategy and hammer the opposition for fostering what Democratic leaders are labeling “a culture of corruption” that starts at Mr. Trump and cascades through two indicted House Republicans to a series of smaller scandals breaking out in the party’s backbenches…the summer eruption of apparent Republican malfeasance has some in the party arguing that Democrats should make corruption more central…“There’s no way this won’t matter in a whole bunch of races out there, and Democrats need to be talking about this everywhere,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, invoking the 2006 campaign, when “late-breaking corruption scandals, on top of an unpopular president, tipped the House and the Senate…Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, issued a fund-raising plea declaring, “Donald Trump himself was implicated yesterday in Cohen’s guilty plea. The rot of corruption runs deep in the Republican Party.”

However, “To date, Democrats have urged their candidates to conduct their own races, explain Martin and Fandos, “and avoid a national campaign against Mr. Trump or the Republican Congress, except on carefully targeted issues like health care costs. Mr. Trump’s scandals, they argued, will play like background music that they do not need to accentuate…Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, distributed a public letter to her colleagues arguing that the Trump-era capital had “become a cesspool of self-enrichment, secret money and ethical blindness” and that House Republicans were offering only a “blind eye to the corruption and criminality at the heart of President Trump’s inner circle…But in the same letter, Ms. Pelosi also said that Democrats “must also stay focused on delivering our strong economic message…Democrats also worry that employing a Trump-tinged message about corruption will only prompt more questions about whether they would use a new House majority to impeach Mr. Trump, a campaign that could rile an otherwise demoralized Republican base. Democratic leaders have studiously avoided the “I”-word for months amid liberal outcry, preferring to shift the burden onto Republicans who have all but ceased conducting oversight of the Trump administration.” Then there is the middle way, based on the understanding that yes, corruption is a leading concern of many persuadable voters, made even harder to ignore by scandals involving Repubican House members cited in the article. “As news of a Cohen plea deal was circulating Tuesday, House Democratic leaders urged members on a private call to stay on message, avoiding the topic of impeachment. Instead, Democrats will cast themselves as offering a check and balance on the president, a message that their polling indicates voters respond to favorably.” What is certain is that emphasis on Trump’s scandals must be tweaked for each district and state.

At The Washington Post, Michael Scherer reports that ” Even before the public calls for focus on voters’ needs, Democratic candidates in the most crucial midterm races had already committed to steering clear of the latest legal turmoil surrounding Trump — along with the ever-present question of whether a Democratic takeover of the House would lead to the president’s impeachment…Their fears are that an impeachment debate would distract from other goals, while at the same time alienating the very voters they need to win competitive districts. “I don’t want to see a two-year distraction,” said Susan Wild, a Democrat who is favored to win a key Republican-held House seat in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. “I think, honestly, impeachment proceedings would obviously derail getting other things done in Congress.” Also, ““You’re living it every day in Washington, D.C., but we’re not,” said Ann Kirkpatrick, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for one of the nation’s most vulnerable Republican House seats, in Tucson. “I’m not hearing from people about these recent incidents.” Kirkpatrick said her supporters have been raising alarms about issues far closer to home…the future solvency of Medicare and Social Security, the burden of student loans, the possible threats to abortion rights, and the fate of young immigrants who could lose their legal status to remain in the country. “I have been going door to door. They are concerned,” Kirkpatrick said about the kitchen-table issues. “They are worried. They are fearful.”

However, adds Scherer, Republicans squirming in responding to questions about Trump’s scandals may not be such a bad thing for Dems: “Cohen’s decision to put Trump at the scene of the crime creates a huge challenge for Republican candidates, who now have to figure out how many more shoes are going to drop and whether they really want to continue to stay all-in on Trump,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster working on the midterms…Democrats retook the House in 2006 in a campaign that focused heavily on the “culture of corruption” among Republicans, which included a major Indian casino lobbying scandal.” Also, “I would suggest that an unindicted co-conspirator to a crime should not be in the business of having the ability to appoint someone to a lifetime position on the highest court in our land,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) said Wednesday on MSNBC.

Michael Tomasky cites the GOP leadership’s equivocating responses to Trump’s expanding scandals, and sums it up: “But what the Republicans are doing is even worse than mere sycophancy. They are in agreement with Trump on priorities, policy, world view. They agree on the wall. They agree (with limited exceptions) on scapegoating undocumented immigrants. They agree on giving more money to rich people. They agree on doing everything they can to see to it that black people can’t vote…The idea that Trump will finally cross some line that will compel them to bring down some righteous fury on him is silly and naïve. With what moral authority? They have none. And believe me, Trump knows this. He may be a nincompoop, but the one thing he understands is alpha-male power relationships…They will turn on him only when their own careers are on the block—when that bridge is lined with their openly displayed necks, the electoral guillotine dangling ominously above them…Things still have to get a lot worse in Trumpland for the Republicans to act, but even then, it will be to save their necks, not to find their spines.”

E. J. Dionne, Jr. adds in his syndicated column: “The timidity of congressional Republicans in responding to the twin blows to Trump’s integrity will strengthen the Democrats’ case…The argument for impeaching Trump suddenly became very strong, but this does not mean that turning 2018 into an impeachment election is prudent. Most voters see impeachment as a last resort, and it is not a battle cry that will play well in every state or congressional district…The adage that one should not interfere with an enemy who is destroying himself certainly applies here. Insisting on accountability and letting the ongoing probes go forward unobstructed by a lawless president are, for now, enough.”

For those Dems who want to go there, at least with a passing zinger, “Dan Rather Has A Scathing New Nickname For Team Trump,” notes Ed Mazza at HuffPo, who shares Rather’s tweet:

In their Politico post, “‘A new cherry put on top’: Trump scandal fallout hangs over midterms: ‘Payoffs and porn stars and affairs and indictments and all this stuff doesn’t Make America Great Again in the suburbs,’ said one Republican consultant,” Natash Korecki and James Arkin round up some pithy quotes about the Manafort verdict and Cohen guilty pleas: “There’s only so much of this shit-show a soccer mom wants to hear about and explain to her kids,” said one top Republican consultant representing House Republican candidates on both coasts.”…Navin Nayak, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, observes “I don’t know if that you’re in a House race and you’ve only got $1 million your smartest strategy is necessarily to focus on [Trump] because he is his own worst enemy, creating so much more negative news … than three ads in [Ohio’s 1st District] might generate.” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson notes that “while it is powerful to say a Republican gutted coverage for people with preexisting conditions, it’s even more powerful to say they did it while raking in big money from insurance companies.” Korecki and Arkin add, “The advice Democratic strategists are giving their clients: use the conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Cohen‘s guilty plea to tee up fundraising appeals and communications to drive voter turnout. But stay the course on paid ads that focus on taxes and health care.”

As for the credibility of special counsel Robert Mueller and the investigation, a Fox News poll released Wednesday notes that “59 percent of registered voters approve of Mueller’s investigation, marking an 11-point jump from respondents who said the same in a July Fox News poll. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they disapprove of Mueller’s probe,” reports Tal Axelrod at The Hill. “It is unclear whether some people were polled after news broke Tuesday.”

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