The first TV ad of Bill Peduto’s campaign was a 30-second address made directly to President Donald Trump, criticizing the Republican leader’s rhetoric and proposed budget cuts.
But Peduto isn’t running for a seat in the House of Representatives or the Senate. In fact, he’s not seeking federal office of any kind. He’s a mayor, running for re-election in Pittsburgh, and his office has very little to do with the White House.
“Mr. President, if you keep trying to cut health care and after-school programs, even a Patriots fan like you should know that won’t play in Pittsburgh,” the Democratic candidate said. (The NFL’s New England Patriots are rivals to Pittsburgh’s football team, the Steelers.)
A local candidate running ads about the Leader of the Free World might seem odd. But even in the smallest races, Democratic strategists predict, it’s about to become commonplace.
The new president has such a grip on the Democratic Party’s psyche that candidates can’t ignore him – even if they’re running for positions such as mayor that are ostensibly more about local issues. That makes ads about the New York billionaire inevitable, as Democratic candidates try to prove to their base that they’ll do whatever they can to fight this president.
“You’ll see it from dogcatcher to president to governor to really any race where there’s a primary,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist. “There’s a good chance Donald Trump will be involved in ads, because the first test for a Democratic candidate is: Will you stand up to Trump?”
The tactic is appearing elsewhere. In Iowa, a Democratic candidate for governor, Andy McGuire, flashed an image of the president in her introductory web video.
In Virginia, both Democratic gubernatorial candidates – Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Rep. Tom Perriello – made a point of mentioning Trump in their ads.
Neither candidate made Trump the focus in their TV ads, like Peduto did, but both men went out of their way to promise they would fight his administration.
“Together we can stop Donald Trump,” Perriello says in his ad.
“We’re going to keep making progress every day, and we’re not going to let Donald Trump take us backwards,” Northam says in his.
Poll numbers support the idea of making Trump a boogeyman: A survey released in April from the Pew Research Center found 87 percent of Democrats disapprove of the president, including 74 percent who strongly disapprove of him.
What better way to motivate voters, Democratic strategists say, than taking on the man most of them viscerally hate?
“Especially as we’re moving forward to the midterms, it’s not just a political necessity, it’s going to be a moral necessity,” said Matt Merriman-Preston, an adviser to Peduto’s campaign.
Trump isn’t a new presence in Democratic ads, at least those tailored for a general election. Last year, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House repeatedly focused on the then-GOP presidential nominee in their TV ads, a strategy that received criticism after Trump won and Democrats failed to make significant gains in the House.
But if the party’s candidates are worried that taking on Trump could prove a dud once again, recent history suggests they can rest easy. Republican candidates in primaries for much of the last eight years have used former President Barack Obama in their own ads, aware that the Democratic leader’s presence motivated the GOP base like few others could.
It’s a feature of modern politics, where what happens in Washington can often set the tone across the rest of the country, that even national leaders can play a pivotal role in local races.
“All politics is national at this point,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. “Donald Trump dominates television, print and online news sources from a national level on down to a local level.
The deluge of Trump-themed ads will likely turn into a full-blown tsunami next year, when federal candidates for House and Senate begin running in primaries. Democratic strategists are already preparing for a huge number of primaries, thanks in large part to recruitment spikes driven by Trump’s unpopularity among rank-and-file Democrats.
Democratic candidates will likely try to outdo themselves in their criticism of Trump.
“I would anticipate this would be the way things are for the foreseeable future,” Williams said. “Politics is so polarized and charged now, the leader of the other party will always be used as a tool to motivate voters in a primary.”