Politics & Government

As midterms approach, GOP’s own words are the Democrats’ best weapon

Donald Trump's Obamacare repeal approach may hurt “vulnerable people.” The Republican Party will “own” the health-care fallout. The GOP-controlled Senate is “not getting the job done.”

Those stinging criticisms of the Republican Party — and those are just from the last week — come from the GOP’s own leaders. And the intensifying trend of Republicans rebuking Republicans is giving Democratic operatives all the material they need to start cutting the campaign ads they’ll use to shape the 2018 congressional elections.

“Whereas normally we’d be looking for third-party validators like newspapers or newspaper editorials, it now feels like in some of these places, we have a treasure trove of third-party validators from the Republican Party to use,” said Jefrey Pollock, a top Democratic strategist.

“The sort of war within the Republican Party is giving us countless lines of attack to use in campaign messages,” he added.

Democrats have already begun plotting campaign messaging and ad spending around dysfunction in Republican-run Washington. The aim, in part, is to paint a broad picture of a majority party in disarray, drawing on Congress’s failure to land big legislative accomplishments and the series of public spats between Trump and senior lawmakers.

“Lots of Democrats are making the case about the flaws in this administration and the agenda of Republicans in Congress, but it’s also a case being made by Republicans — prominent Republicans — in the House, the Senate and the governors’ mansions,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist.

Lots of Democrats are making the case about the flaws in this administration and the agenda of Republicans in Congress, but it’s also a case being made by Republicans — prominent Republicans — in the House, the Senate and the governors’ mansions.

Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist

Pointing in particular to failed GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare — efforts that have so far been stymied by a handful of moderate Republicans — he said: “As credible as Democrats are in making the case, the fact that Republicans have said we’re right makes our argument even stronger.”

Just this week, the pro-Obamacare group Save My Care went up on the Washington airwaves with an ad featuring Rep. Charlie Dent, a Trump critic and retiring Pennsylvania congressman, but a Republican nonetheless, who warns that his party will “own” Obamacare repeal troubles.

Senate Democrats, in a video posted on Twitter, also used the GOP’s own words against Trump’s health care repeal proposals this week, featuring comments from Sen. Susan Collins, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.

“Even Republicans know President Trump’s healthcare sabotage is ‘going to hurt everybody,’” read a tweet from the account.

Trump himself has been critical of the GOP health care reform, in June calling a version of it that passed in the House “mean.”

“Republicans like Congressmen Barletta in Pennsylvania and Messer and Rokita in Indiana who voted for their party’s toxic health care bill should expect to see President Trump calling their own bill ‘mean’ again,” said David Bergstein, press secretary at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Lou Barletta, Luke Messer, and Todd Rokita are all House GOP congressmen who voted for the legislation and are now running in Senate races.

The sort of war within the Republican Party is giving us countless lines of attack to use in campaign messages.

Jefrey Pollock, a top Democratic strategist

More broadly, there is no shortage of examples of Republican lawmakers slamming Trump, and him firing right back at them. That dynamic gives Democrats soundbites to use against both an unpopular president and an unpopular Congress as midterm-election messaging is tested and takes shape in a cycle that is often difficult for the president’s party.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee has referred to the White House as an “adult daycare center.” Sen. Jeff Flake devoted much of a recent manifesto to slamming the Trump approach. Other members of Congress routinely fret about his tweets and his tactics on everything from immigration to North Korea to freedom of the press.

“The alarm bell isn’t just being rung by Democrats,” Ferguson said. “It’s being rung by prominent Republicans, from Jeff Flake to Bob Corker to others who have raised questions about his fitness. How does a Republican explain to their voters being a lapdog for Trump when even Republican senators say he is unfit?”

Trump and his administration, meanwhile, have been just as unsparing in their criticism of the Republican Congress. While Trump this week declared that his relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was “very good,” he had previously been publicly antagonistic toward the leader and other senators for months, as his ex-chief strategist helps ready primary challenges to a number of sitting senators.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has also lambasted Senate Republicans for failing to pass big parts of Trump’s agenda, venting in a recent interview with POLITICO, “what the hell is going on?”

“You ask me if the Republican-controlled Senate is an impediment to the administration’s agenda: All I can tell you is so far, the answer’s yes,” he said.

And despite appearing conciliatory toward McConnell on Monday, Trump also worked in a swipe at the GOP Congress, blaming them for “not getting the job done.”

It’s so ingrained in voters’ mindsets that DC is broken that it’s not new information. New information is how minds are changed.

Republican pollster Robert Blizzard

Some Republicans are bracing for such messages to wind up in Democratic attack ads as well.

“That is something we'll see on TV screens, on digital platforms and in emails every week until the election,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican operative and former Republican National Committee communications director.

He and many other Republicans have long warned that “Republican-on-Republican violence only helps Democrats.” And in the Trump era, such tensions are suddenly playing out all the time, keeping the Democratic arsenal more stocked with Republican voices than usual.

“In the past it happened infrequently and was seen as a gaffe,” said Heye, a Trump critic. “Now it happens almost daily, and is clearly intentional. It rises to the level of the president himself.”

Certainly, dysfunction in Washington is nothing new, and plenty of strategists are skeptical that highlighting it will move voters —especially when Democrats can be cast as part of the problem. And Democrats, facing their own internal struggle between liberal and moderate factions, could soon face a barrage of its own self-critical quotes.

“I hope the Democrats waste all of their money telling voters there is dysfunction in Washington,” said Republican pollster Robert Blizzard. “What’s their next ad strategy? Telling voters that Washington sports teams choke in the playoffs? It’s so ingrained in voters’ mindsets that DC is broken that it’s not new information. New information is how minds are changed.”

But to Democratic ad-makers, the civil war inside the GOP is unlike anything they’ve seen before.

“It’s outside the normal,” Pollock said. “It is exceptional.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty

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