The results of an Ohio special election last week that many viewed as a harbinger for November—and that should have been a gimme for Republicans—aren't even final yet. And yet even as the GOP candidate in Ohio's 12th congressional district, Troy Balderson, clings to a lead of less than one percent over Democrat Danny O'Connor, a Washington narrative is developing that the Democratic advantage could all fall apart under the weight of either longtime liberal Nancy Pelosi of California or progressive phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, depending on which article you read.
It's preposterous. As has been widely reported, House Democrats need to win 23 seats to regain control of the lower chamber and they have some 69 target districts that are less red than OH-12 and ripe for the picking. And yet there's some scary myth out there that Pelosi’s too establishment and Ocasio-Cortez is too progressive and their mere presence is killing Democratic chances this fall.
Seriously, is this a joke? Just take note, they're both women and supposedly they're both the death knell for Democratic success this fall. The New York Times reported last week, for instance, that calls to "Abolish ICE," partly led by Ocasio-Cortez, had "many Democrats fretting in competitive races." In the meantime, reporters can't seem to get enough of perseverating over some 50 Democratic House candidates who say they won't back Pelosi for speaker if they're elected or re-elected—something she actually encouraged them to do. Wow, it turns out Democrats truly have the big tent Republicans had been lauded for in theory for decades, but now that conservative advantage has morphed into a liberal liability and Democrats are doooomed!
Yeah, well let's step back from that edge for a second and take a look at the issues, because in the closing months of this election season, Democrats should be doing nothing—absolutely nothing—but playing offense.
First of all, Republicans have realized that they have no positive message whatsoever to run on because their tax giveaway to the rich isn't doing much for anyone who isn't a multi-millionaire (i.e. 90-plus percent of voters). What they have left is nativism/racism and misogyny—otherwise known as immigrants and Pelosi. That's all, folks. We know it because anti-immigrant fearmongering is the message GOP candidates have pushed in every must-watch election since Donald Trump took office: the 2017 gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey, Alabama's special election for U.S. Senate last year, and this year's special elections in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district and Ohio's 12th. And in every instance but one, that message was a loser. Only in Ohio did Republicans likely manage to eke out a win with the narrowest of margins by clinging to Trump's demonization of immigrants.
In fact, GOP messaging prospects are so dismal the Republican congressional super PAC just unveiled a new round of ads in which they trot out "liberal" stances, tie them to Democratic candidates, add a dash of Pelosi and hope for the best.
“The word ‘liberal’ is deeply unpopular and represents everything people dislike about the Democratic agenda," Corry Bliss, leader of the GOP's Congressional Leadership Fund, told the Washington Post.
Okay, how about this: Donald Trump "is deeply unpopular and represents everything people dislike about the [Republican] agenda."
Let’s linger on this Trump vs. Pelosi/liberal point for a moment. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found that Trump made a majority of Americans think more unfavorably than favorably about the Republican party by a 36-point margin (52-16 percent). By contrast, a new CNN poll found Pelosi wasn't much of a factor for voters at all:
Just 34% of registered voters say that Pelosi will be an extremely or very important factor in their vote this fall. That ranks dead last of the 10 factors asked about by CNN.
That 34 percent is lost to Democrats—those voters aren’t worth worrying about because they're not persuadable anyway.
In contrast to the GOP’s dearth of material, Democrats have what by any stretch is an embarrassment of riches in potential messaging, both negative and positive.
Republicans want to run on immigration, you say? Okay, bring it. The Trump administration’s cruel and inhumane family separation policy has been nothing short of a slow rolling disaster. Even as I write, news outlets continue to run pieces about some 500 un-reunited children who the Trump administration ripped from their parents’ arms and caged in detention centers while deporting their parents from the country.
In July, the polling outfit Latino Decisions tested out how well the policy was playing to registered voters in some 60 districts deemed most competitive by electoral outfits like Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball. Fully 73 percent of voters in those swing districts said it made them "angry." Additionally, the most recent Quinnipiac poll found voters said the issue would weigh heavily in their choices this fall, 64–34 percent.
So yeah, let Republicans go toe-to-toe with Democrats on immigration. They can try to sell swing voters on Trump's taxpayer-funded border wall and the supposed threat of MS-13 gang members while Democrats run ads like this one against Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, featuring wailing babies in detention centers as the narrator says, "Children could still be orphaned by your government and at every turn Rep. McMorris Rodgers has failed to stand up for the children."
If Pelosi is their game, let them blow that money on the airwaves while Trump shoots out daily tweets about the "crazed, crying lowlife" officials he's staffed his White House with. Let them paint Pelosi as out of touch in farm country as Trump's tariffs literally drive people out of business and Trump grouses to crowds: "The soybeans—they keep talking about the soybeans ... don't blame me for that." (That's a readymade attack ad, folks.)
Let them label Pelosi a "liberal elite" as Trump's entire coterie comes under scrutiny for corrupt and even criminal acts. Republicans tell reporters going the corruption path is supposedly a double-edged sword for Democrats.
Trump supporters say that Democrats who focus on GOP corruption should be ready for a powerful backlash when Republicans remind voters of the boogeymen on their side of the aisle. Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign, named Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was indicted on corruption charges but whose case ended with a hung jury, as one example, among others.
Menendez is the best they got? A New Jersey senator who surely 95-plus percent of the electorate has never heard of. Just imagine an ad centering on Trump and running down a list of his associates by title or name—HHS Secretary, resigned! EPA administrator, resigned! VA Secretary, resigned! National security adviser, guilty! Deputy Campaign Manager, guilty! Campaign Manager, On Trial! (or maybe "Convicted!") And then when the GOP incumbent is asked why they haven't done anything to combat Trump's corruption, they counter with, "But Bob Menendez."
The point is, no Democrat should be answering for Pelosi or anyone else for that matter while there's a gigantic orange Dumpster fire raging in the Oval Office.
On the positive side, Democratic candidates can tout their issue of choice. Health care, for instance, routinely polls as the No. 1 issue for voters and Republicans devoted their entire first year in office to desperately trying to strip people of coverage. Understandably, Americans vastly prefer Democrats to handle health care over Republicans.
Democrats also have a strong argument to make on gun control this year with the issue resonating, in particular, among women. Democratic candidates could also go after increasing the minimum wage, which has bipartisan support among voters and a GOP-led Congress will never touch it.
Just like with the attack ads, Democrats have an array of options to advance when it comes to meeting their constituents’ concerns. So many, in fact, that the national party has made the strategic choice to let candidates run highly localized campaigns without tying them to a very specific national platform. The New York Times calls it "risky" because it's not how the parties won back majorities in 1994 with the GOP's Contract with America or in 2006 with Democrats’ anti-corruption platform.
Hogwash. Democratic candidates don't need to be beholden to one set of issues dictated from on high when issues abound. It's the 2017 Virginia model, where a bunch of Democrats running in districts the party normally takes a pass on ran campaigns that were profoundly district specific. Then-gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam ran a fine campaign alongside them but didn't necessarily provide an overarching top-down message that knit them all together. Instead, the strength of localized campaigns helped increase turnout statewide and drive the party to historic wins on election night.
Last weekend, I argued that national Democrats should drill down on an anti-corruption platform with specific proposals tied to specific people in Trump's orbit, like early backer Rep. Chris Collins and former lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen. On the national level, I still think it makes sense for Democrats in Washington to be talking about corruption as a backdrop to the campaigns playing out in the states.
But the advice of Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who's helped develop part of the national Democratic "For the People" platform, is perfect: run “like you’re running for mayor.”
And importantly, don’t play defense on anything. Forget about the media spin. Forget about the desperate Republican attacks on Pelosi and liberals. Regardless of what arrows Republicans sling, there's a better message for Democrats to either tout in a positive sense or sling back in a negative sense.
To borrow the words of a liberal icon who ushered in an era of historic change: Democrats have nothing to fear but fear itself.