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For Democats, special elections may be preview of 2018 campaigns



Washington Post
Saturday, May 20, 2017

Democrats are heading into the homestretch of three special elections over the next month amid a national frenzy over the investigation into the possible connections of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian interference in the election.

Yet in all three races, Democrats have made a tactical decision not to turn the contests into a referendum on Trump’s alleged scandals and instead are focusing on policy decisions by the president and congressional Republicans.

Democratic strategists privately say that this might be the recurring theme through the November 2018 midterm elections. Democrats say that they have learned a lesson from the 2016 elections, in which House Democratic candidates relentlessly focused their campaigns on trying to tie Republican incumbents to the personal scandals of Trump or some of his more outlandish policy statements.

That strategy failed in almost spectacular fashion, providing a net gain of only six seats when, just two weeks before Election Day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was predicting gains of more than 20 seats and possibly winning the majority.

From Montana to the suburbs of Atlanta, voters are getting a steady diet of commercials from the Democratic candidates that focus on GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act without enough protections for those who have preexisting health conditions. They’re talking about tax breaks for the middle class and small businesses, blasting their opponents for helping special interests.

“Greg Gianforte would make people like Tom pay thousands more just so he can pay less. I’m Rob Quist and I approve this message to fight for people with preexisting conditions,” Quist, the Democratic candidate, says in one of two closing ads ahead of Thursday’s election to fill Montana’s at-large House seat.

Both ads – one a minute long and one 30 seconds – focus on the Republican health bill that passed the House earlier this year and on Gianforte’s wavering views on the legislation.

Neither of them even mention Trump once.

It’s the same with the newest ad for Democrat Jon Ossoff running in the June 20 election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District north of Atlanta, a 30-second spot that criticizes the Republican, Karen Handel, for her role in trying to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood while serving as an executive of the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

And in South Carolina, Democrat Archie Parnell’s underdog race to fill the seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, is focusing on trying to increase his popularity by touting his business experience and running as an outsider.

The danger for Democrats is that they might be overlearning the lesson of the last war, applying the 2016 mind-set to what could be a different environment in 2018. These newest Trump scandals do not involve his personal behavior or outlandish statements - they are about possible abuse of power in firing James Comey as FBI director because of his investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.

This decision to not focus on Trump is partly out of political geographic necessity. Trump won the Montana and South Carolina seats by 20 and 19 percentage points, respectively, so even as his first four months as president have been a slog in terms of accomplishments, Trump remains popular enough in those places that it makes little sense to run a campaign attacking him.

Even in the Georgia district, vacated by Tom Price to become Trump’s health secretary, the president won by 1.5 percentage points, which means a lot of voters there support him even if it was a dramatically smaller margin of victory than the typical GOP nominee received in that well-educated region.

In several after-action reports following the 2016 elections, Democrats discovered that it was a mistake to try to tie Trump’s behavior to well-known incumbents who had their own brand identity with voters.

In Denver’s suburbs, Democrats tried to turn Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., into the originator of Trump’s accusation that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. In the suburbs of Minneapolis, they tried to make Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., responsible for Trump’s “degrading” behavior toward women.

Both Republicans won their races by large margins, their fifth-straight win each.

Republicans made a similar mistake back in 1998, when President Bill Clinton was mired in a sex scandal that led to impeachment by the House. In the closing weeks of the 1998 midterms, Republicans tried to turn the election into a referendum on Clinton’s personal behavior - but voters did not hold Democrats responsible for what was such a personal foible of the president. Republicans ended up losing seats that year.

So now, Democrats are making a conscious decision to focus their attacks on kitchen-table issues, not the latest tweet from Trump that sparked outrage inside Washington.

In announcing a $750,000 investment into the Georgia race, House Majority PAC did not mention Trump’s name once and focused on Ossoff’s ability to work in bipartisan fashion and get results for the district.

If Democrats don’t win one of three upcoming special elections, how can they take back the majority in 2018?

“The choice couldn’t be more clear between Ossoff’s jobs-focused agenda and career politician Karen Handel’s record of misusing taxpayer dollars and putting her own ambition ahead of the people she was supposed to represent. We’re going to deliver that message clearly and aggressively at the doors and on the air,” Charlie Kelly, executive director of the Democratic super PAC, said.

While the national media focuses on every Trump scandal, Democrats are going to stick to the script of focusing on how the president and congressional Republicans are not keeping their promises to help the working class and instead are focusing on policies that might hurt workers.

Expect to see campaigns like Parnell’s in South Carolina.

“Politicians promise, then don’t deliver,” he says straight to the camera, pledging to help veterans and protect Social Security.” I won’t promise you the world, but I will work every day to make your life better.”

He never mentions Trump.