From California to Indiana to New Jersey, Democrats discussed ways to expand and protect health care, while stiff-arming the President’s rhetoric — a tactic that has largely ceded him the national media spotlight, but as many Democrats view it, allowed them to focus more on what voters in their districts wanted to talk about.
If Democrats win back a majority in the House, as leaders on both sides of the aisle now expect, the practice of snubbing Trump on the stump — in contrast to Republicans who largely stayed close to him — could change the way Democrats think about engaging with a President who has often seemed impervious their attacks. But if Democrats fail to turn the House blue, the strategy will largely be viewed as a failure, proving that Democrats still have not figured out how to message around Trump two years after his election.
“It is not a deliberate strategy to ignore President Trump, it just is,” said Chrissy Houlahan, a first-time candidate and veteran running in a district that snakes through the Philadelphia suburbs into more rural Pennsylvania as she knocked on doors Sunday. “It is just not worth the air or the airtime that we give him.”
Houlahan was not once asked about Trump during her hour-long canvas shift in Coatesville, an economically depressed town on the outer reaches of Philadelphia’s so-called collar counties. Instead, voters peppered her with questions about education, housing policy and strategies to make the town safer.
“Frankly,” said Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton as he campaigned for Democrats across the Mid-Atlantic, “the President deserves to be ignored.”
“I take my cues from what the voters are talking to me about and the voters here are talking about health care,” said Andy Kim, the Democratic candidate running in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District. “I would say the voters are not taking the bait, they are not getting distracted from the issues they care about.”
Kim’s race against Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur is ground zero for the health care and tax debate, and seen nationally as a test case for whether the two issues were as potent as Democrats believed this year. MacArthur authored a key amendment to the health care repeal bill and is the only New Jersey Republican to back the tax plan, a vote that angered New Jersey voters because it outlawed their ability to write off their high property taxes.
Those votes did not go unnoticed in the district and have put MacArthur, a congressman who won 60% of the vote in 2016, in jeopardy of losing his re-election bid.
“It was disqualifying,” Lisa Cenneno, a 48-year old independent who voted for MacArthur two years ago, said of the Republican’s vote on health care. “He says that he cares about his constituents. I don’t find that he does because he is not willing to listen to all of us, he only wants to listen to those constituents that are giving him money.”
MacArthur declined repeated interview requests for this story.
It has been clear throughout the closing months of the campaign, though, that Trump is aware health care is a top issue for voters. In speeches and on Twitter over the last month, he has slammed Democratic support for universal health care and looked to blunt attacks on Republican efforts to roll back protections on pre-existing conditions with a series of obviously false or wildly misleading remarks.
Trump spent the weekend stumping for candidates in West Virginia, Indiana, Montana, Georgia and Tennessee, delivering a bellicose message on immigration and lamenting how it’s not “as exciting” to discuss booming economic numbers.
The President has used his rallies to stoke fear of migrants, regularly using misleading or outright false information to do so.
“These are rough, rough people in many cases,” Trump said of migrants moving through Mexico during a Saturday speech in Georgia. Earlier in the week, he lamented the fact that it’s not “as exciting” to discuss booming economic numbers.
The strategy for Trump is a pure base play: He and his advisers in the White House believe if they can engage the same voters that vaulted Trump to the White House two years ago, they can buck history in the midterms.
“I think we’re going to do well in the House, but as you know my primary focus has been on the Senate,” Trump said. “And I think we’re doing really well in the Senate.”
Some Republicans are skeptical and wish the President would spend more time talking about the economy, an issue that is more resonant with suburban voters who will likely decide the midterms in key House races. But those prospects, along with oft-touted promises by Republicans to make tax reform central to 2018 campaigns, have gone out the window, helped by the fact that Trump admitted earlier pledges to pass a second tax reform bill in 2018 were largely bluster.
Trump is “bringing up all of these buzzwords that stir up a frenzy in the base,” said Kim Schrier, a Democrat running in Washington State’s 8th Congressional District. But, she added, “We all teach our kids that we’re better than this and that kind of rhetoric is unacceptable. And I’m hoping it brings a lot of people out too, saying, ‘No. We don’t tolerate this divisiveness and whipping up a frenzy.'”
While Democrats on the ballot have avoided Trump, national figures in the Democratic Party — namely former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden — have laid into the President on the campaign trail.
“They promised they were going to take on corruption in Washington,” Obama said in Indiana on Sunday
. “Instead they’ve racked up enough indictments to field a football team. Nobody in my administration got indicted.”
Biden told voters in Pennsylvania on Sunday that Tuesday’s election was an effort to “reset the moral compass of this nation,” charging that Trump “puts fuel on the fire of intolerance and legitimates people who should never be heard.”
But what has surprised some party operatives is the way in which Democrats, from moderates running in districts Trump carried by double digits in 2016 to more progressive candidates in safe Democratic seats, have found success in not talking that much about the President.
In upstate New York, Anthony Brindisi is defying political gravity and giving Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney a close race in a district the President won by 16 points. And he’s doing it by ignoring Trump, a direct contrast to Tenney’s tactics.
“This race is going to hinge on myself and Claudia Tenney because at the end of the day, we are the names on the ballot,” Brindisi said. “People are looking for someone who can unite people (now) and she has made a career out of trying to divide people.”
Brindisi’s pitch mostly focuses on his local roots, promises to improve access to education and opposing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He stops short of outright support for Medicare for All.
Downstate, the more progressive Liuba Grechen Shirley, a first-time candidate running against Republican Rep. Peter King in Long Island and supporter of Medicare for all, agreed with Brindisi when it came to Trump and his efforts to scramble the debate.
“It’s easy (to focus mostly on health care),” she said. “We’ve been having roundtables and town halls and meet-and-greets around the district and we focus on different topics, but every single one somehow turns into a conversation about health care. It is always the first thing people talk about when I’m out knocking on doors: Health care and then taxes.”
This strategy has been reflected in Democratic spending, too. Over the course of 2018, Democratic campaigns have run an astonishing $331 million in ads on health care, according to data from CMAG, making the issue 53% of all ads run on television by the party’s candidates this year.
Anti-Trump messaging comes in at eighth on the list, with only 11% of Democratic ads channeling antipathy, at least directly, toward the President.
The candidates have made Trump a focus in their campaign are typically those running against Republicans who have tried to distance themselves from him. In the Philadelphia suburbs, Democrat Scott Wallace, who says he decided to run for office for the first time because of Trump and the tax vote, is quick to make mention of the leader of Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s party.
Wallace, while knocking on doors on Sunday, regularly told voters that Tuesday’s election was the “first chance for us to say something about what is going on in Washington” and the best chance to “send a message to” the capitol.
The logic behind his focus on national politics, Wallace said, is Fitzpatrick. The Republican has tried to distance himself from the GOP, even telling his Democratic opponent during a debate to “keep party labels out of” the contest. What had Wallace done? Only noted that Fitzpatrick was, in fact, a Republican.
“It’s a moderate district. He is trying to please the centrist moderates and he is trying to please the Trump people, too,” Wallace told CNN on Sunday. “To me it is like trying to straddle a fence, one foot on one side of the fence and one on the other. And from a guy point of view, that is a good way to hurt yourself.”