President Donald Trump’s connections to Russia remain closer to a Washington fixation than a vote-moving scandal, but some deep-pocketed Democrats are trying to change that.
American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, an organization aligned with the Democratic Party, is funding an ambitious plan aimed at bombarding voters with the message that Trump’s team is connected to the Kremlin. Their challenge is convincing voters they should care at a time when the public is far more moved by pocketbook issues than an alleged scandal with little clear effect on their lives.
The group’s nonprofit arm, which is heading the campaign, is legally barred from advocating against Republicans or the president. But the organization has spent money – $300,000 – authoring opinion pieces, conducting polling and funding digital ads focused on the connections. Officials at American Bridge say it is just the start of a comprehensive effort to tie Republicans to Trump and Trump to Moscow.
“If our government has been compromised at the highest levels, the public deserves to know that, particularly if Trump and his team are prioritizing Russian interests at our expense,” said Shripal Shah, a vice president at Bridge. “We are going to make sure the country understands the depth and seriousness of this scandal and the fact that Republicans in Congress are standing in the way of a truly independent investigation – which the public overwhelmingly supports.”
Most significantly, American Bridge launched a trio of radio ads targeting potentially vulnerable Republican members of Congress, demanding they support an independent investigation into the alleged ties or be labeled pawns of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The ads, which feature a narrator with a thick Russian accent, are the type of mass media effort that political operatives usually reserve for the public’s most pressing concerns – even though most Democratic strategists acknowledge the public is much more attuned to the economy and other bread-and-butter issues.
“Doesn’t sh---ing on Wall Street still work?” asked one Democratic operative, who request anonymity to speak candidly. “Why are we complicating this?”
But in the view of officials at American Bridge, the Russia controversy could eventually sway voters if more information about the connections comes to light. They’re trying to foster that potential now, either in time for next year’s congressional elections or the 2020 presidential campaign.
The group has set up websites dedicated to tracking ties between Russia and former Trump officials, including onetime Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and it has compiled 100-page-long research documents examining the connections that it regularly updates and shares with allies.
Bridge officials say the effectiveness of their campaign should be measured in years, not months.
“We’re committed to this for the long haul, no matter how long it takes,” Shah said.
Connections between Russia and former officials working under President Trump have dominated headlines since the GOP leader took office. In February, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after news reports revealed he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about discussing sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States.
A month later, FBI Director James Comey said the bureau was investigating whether Trump campaign officials had worked with Russians to influence the 2016 presidential race. Separate congressional investigations, one in the House of Representatives and another in the Senate, are also examining the connections.
Despite the flurry of revelations, the public remains focused on other issues. An April poll from Gallup found that nearly a quarter of Americans said the economy was the top issue facing the country. Dissatisfaction with government finished second, at 21 percent.
Even Democratic candidates competing in campaigns now shy away from the issue. Rob Quist, a Democratic House candidate for a special election in Montana, is more likely to mention defending public lands in his TV ads than the president’s connections to Russia. Another candidate, Jon Ossoff in Georgia, hardly even mentions Trump when he talks.
The disconnect has some Democratic strategists wondering whether spending money on the topic is the right move, especially because they consider so many other parts of Trump’s record and agenda vulnerable to criticism.
Bridge officials counter with their own polling data, which they say finds that strong majorities of swing voters are concerned about Trump’s connections to Russia.
Public polls, to some extent, back up that position: A survey from Quinnipiac University released in February found that 64 percent of voters were concerned about the president’s ties to Russia.
Seventy-two percent of voters, including a majority of Republicans, support an investigation into the connections.