House Democrats think they’ve found a Republican to demonize during next year’s midterm election, and it’s not Donald Trump.
In a nod to the Republican president’s enduring popularity with his white working-class base, Democrats are preparing a campaign that focuses just as much on Paul Ryan, the GOP speaker of the House whose own standing with Trump voters has suffered as Republicans struggle to pass major legislation through Congress.
Democrats say the Republican lawmaker better represents a dysfunctional Washington — especially in an election where the party will fight in conservative-leaning districts where Trump performed well just a year ago.
“On the battlefield we have, we have to target districts where Donald Trump performed quite well and talk to people about Speaker Ryan,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of House Democrats. “A message about establishment Washington Republicans is very powerful and does not alienate voters.
“Speaker Ryan is going to be huge factor in the midterm election,” Law added. “There’s no question about that.”
Already, the DCCC has conducted polling and focus groups to test attacks against the House speaker. Earlier this month, the committee released a national TV ad targeting Ryan and radio ads that targeted 11 Republican congressmen in battleground districts.
The DCCC isn’t the only major Democratic group planning to go after Ryan, either: House Majority PAC, a prominent Super PAC supportive of House Democratic candidates, has launched a website critical of Ryan. House Majority PAC’s president even Tweeted the results of polls conducted in a dozen districts that showed Ryan more unpopular than Trump.
“We’ve given this guy a free pass for too long,” said Charlie Kelly, House Majority PAC’s executive director. “This guy owns the Republican brand. He owns the agenda. He's the face of that.”
Plotting a political strategy 13 months before the election is often fraught, and Democrats concede it’s too early to guarantee that Ryan takes a starring role next year in the party’s TV ads, the most important part of a candidate’s strategy. And regardless of Ryan’s own unpopularity, Trump will still loom largest over next year’s races — particularly in affluent suburban battlegrounds where he’s least popular.
But the Democrats’ new approach is representative of an emerging political strategy in 2018, when both Republicans and Democrats are dead-set on demonizing the other side’s leaders. Republicans have used House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a campaign tool for years, most recently during a June special election in Georgia against Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff.
Now Democrats are ready to play turnabout, not just with Ryan but with former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon and even potentially Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.
For House Democrats, the attacks on Ryan are a way for the party to rebut attacks against Pelosi and highlight the most polarizing parts of the GOP’s agenda, such as the party’s deeply unpopular health care bill.
They also say they plan to use Ryan as a symbol of bipartisan dislike of Washington, keenly aware it’s a message that could resonate with Trump supporters disappointed in the GOP-controlled Congress.
“Voters understand that Republicans have full control of Washington and are getting nothing done,” said Law, who called the Wisconsin Republican “the face of Washington dysfunction.”
Non-partisan polls paint a grim picture of Ryan’s popularity: A national survey in May from Quinnipiac University found just 27 percent of voters held a favorable view, compared to 54 percent who held an unfavorable view. In the poll, Ryan was actually less popular than Pelosi. (Thirty percent of voters said they had a positive view of the San Francisco lawmaker.)
Still, turning a lawmaker like Ryan, even one who’s speaker of the House, into a national boogeyman isn’t an easy task. Republicans did it to Pelosi, but only after spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads over the course of several elections.
Indeed, Republicans, in dismissing any concern about Ryan-themed attacks in 2018, pivoted directly to the Democratic leader — expressing confidence they can win in a battle between of profiles the Midwestern Ryan and West Coast Pelosi.
“This is less a political strategy and more a strategy about easing mounting pressure on Nancy Pelosi to step down from leadership," said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s political arm.