Democrats are desperate to avoid a culture war with Trump in 2018

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., flanked by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., holds a news conference on Capitol Hill.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., flanked by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., holds a news conference on Capitol Hill. AP

Democrats decided 16 months before the 2018 election how they would start winning races again. Gathered in a small Virginia town on a sweltering July day, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and their lieutenants laid out a “Better Deal" agenda focused on middle-class jobs and higher wages — a vow, they said, that their party would never again waver from a laser-like focus on the economy.

Donald Trump makes some promises difficult to keep.

Just days later, the president declared on Twitter that transgender men and women were banned from the military. His action drew a swift rebuke from Democrats, who rose in unison to denounce the president over the newest front in a cultural — not economic — fight.

The pattern would repeat itself through the summer and into the fall. Whether it was his response to the Charlottesville white nationalist march or his condemnation of NFL players who knelt during the anthem to protest police brutality, Trump forced Democrats onto the battlefield of his choosing.

And if he keeps doing it now that the one-year countdown to Election Day 2018 has begun, it could very well mean Democrats are denied the chance to win back majorities in the House or hold onto their numbers in the Senate.

“As much as I’m appalled by the daily actions from the Oval Office, I have to admire the president’s ability to keep us talking about anything other than jobs and economic well-being,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut. “If we keep falling for that, we will pay a huge political cost.”

In an election cycle that many Democrats regard as pivotal, how the party handles Trump's ceaseless culture-war provocations might be its toughest challenge. Especially in districts heavy with white working-class voters, party leaders believe fixating on an economic message is the only way to assemble a winning coalition.

That’s not to say that Democrats are pessimistic about next year’s midterm elections. The party’s expectations for 2018 have undergone a radical transformation since Trump took office, buoyed by the president’s dismal approval ratings and a surge of liberal enthusiasm. One top Democratic strategist, in an interview, checked off a half-dozen metrics he said all indicated a great 2018 for his party.

Party leaders — cognizant they need to gain 24 seats — now say that Democrats could win the House in 2018, a goal considered far-fetched just nine months ago. And whereas Democratic strategists once feared deep losses among their 48-member caucus in the Senate — the party must defend 10 seats in states Trump won last year — they now think they have a chance for a net gain. [Read about the GOP’s 2018 nightmare scenario here.]

But the Republican lean of the expanded Senate and House battlefield increases the pressure to dodge culture-war fights.

“In all the sheer vastness and sheer size of the battlefield, we’re going to compete in districts we haven’t before,” said Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ political arm. “The coalition and the votes fought for in those districts will naturally be new.”

To many Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was too fixated on Trump’s moral failings and obsessed with the Republicans’ litany of rhetorical offenses. But some worry that a singular focus on jobs is simply too hard to maintain. Trump is good at picking out divisive cultural issues and mainstreaming them. And while Democrats doubt his provocations are part of a grand strategy, they say he has a rare instinct for choosing fights that will thrill his base. (Said Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper, “When he’s engaging in divisive culture war fights, that’s when he seems the happiest.”)

A month after the “Better Deal” rollout, Trump leaned into his most controversial fight yet, saying there was “blame on both sides” between white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville and the people who showed up to protest hate groups.

In a case like that, Democrats felt morally compelled to respond.

“This is hard, right?” said Himes, the congressman from Connecticut. “When the president equivocates about Nazis, damn right we’re going to speak up. When he attacks the First Amendment, we took an oath to defend that thing.”

The part that comes next, the lawmaker added, is where his party struggles most.

“We have not figured out in any wing of the Democratic Party how to pivot back to those kitchen table issues,” the Democrat said. “And that’s a huge issue.”

Himes, chairman of New Democrat Coalition, is a moderate member of his party. But some in the party’s more liberal factions also think the party should focus on pocketbook issues — emulating the populist campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Sanders also holds the key to how Democrats can best break through Trump’s culture war fights.

“He had a very effective populist message, but the key was repeating it,” said Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ pollster. “It was part of his stump speech for a year of his campaign, and it was a core part of his advertising and voter contact. We didn’t waver from that message.”

Leading Democratic strategists share his assessment, especially those preparing to defend the 10 Senate seats in states Trump won last year. (Pepper’s home-state senator, Sherrod Brown, is one of the 10.) To these operatives, Democrats simply build their biggest coalition when the debate is centered on economic interests, particularly in states such as West Virginia or Montana where the party’s candidates must win over a bloc of Trump voters.

“We are focused like a laser-beam on growing the economy and doing it in a way that creates more shared prosperity,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats’ political arm. “Every American household can benefit from economic growth.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty