These Democrats are ready to put Mueller in the rear view mirror

There’s one group of Democrats desperate to quit talking about Robert Mueller and his Trump-Russia probe — the vulnerable ones up for re-election in Trump-friendly districts.

While party leadership on Thursday swore to continue hearings and investigations that will keep the controversy alive right through next November, dozens of Democrats defending House seats tried hard to pivot, talking about health care, jobs and immigration reform instead.

“We’re staying on our message and talking about things that I think people are concerned about in the First District,” said Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, one of the Trump-district freshmen. “We do want checks and balances in our government, but they’re probably also concerned about being stuck on 26 in the morning going to work , or backup on 17 in Mount Pleasant.”

Democrats have to defend 31 House seats next year in districts Trump won in 2016, and could face tough fights in at least a dozen others.

In the swing districts in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas and elsewhere, constituents haven’t been bringing up Mueller’s findings often since Attorney General William Barr issued a summary last month. Now that the full report is out, few expect voters to make it a big issue.

Republicans currently need a net gain of 18 seats next year to win control of the House.

Minutes after the Mueller report was released Thursday, Cunningham made no mention of it in a tweet, saying, “I’m hosting a town hall in West Ashley this Tuesday! Looking forward to having conversations with our community about the issues and working together to find solutions - see you there!”

In Kansas, freshman Rep. Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat, a centrist who flipped a GOP seat last fall, said at a town hall last month that she only gets asked about the investigation by reporters.

Davids said Thursday she’s glad the report has been released so that Americans can make their own judgment about its findings and then pivoted to other topics, a sign she’ll avoid the topic on the campaign trail in her suburban Kansas City district next year.

“I want to work with people from both parties to make sure we protect the integrity of our elections from foreign influence, but I also hope that Congress can now focus on finding solutions to the things that matter most to Kansans like access to affordable quality health care,” she said in a statement.

In Georgia, where Democrats are trying to win two Trump-friendly House districts next year, the message about health care and other issues is similar.

Carolyn Bourdeaux, who last year came close to unseating Rep. Rob Woodall, a Georgia Republican, has found the Mueller report has occasionally come up in her community forums.

But, she said, “The top issues I hear about on the campaign trail are the pocketbook ones — such as the cost of health care and the need for transit locally as well as other investments in infrastructure.”

Woodall is retiring and Bourdeaux is again running for the seat.

Nearby, Rep. Lucy McBath, a Georgia Democrat, toppled incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel in 2018. Trump narrowly won the district three years ago.

“The reason we won is health care,” said Maggie Chambers, Georgia Democratic Party spokeswoman. “People today don’t see the Mueller report as having an impact on their daily lives.”

They also find it hard to understand, said Doug Thornell, a Washington-based Democratic consultant.

“I think to a lot of people it’s confusing. Most voters haven’t been able to get their arms around it and they just have other concerns that are more important, like health care,” he said, adding he still wants to see what impact the report has on clarifying the Trump controversies for voters.

Democratic leaders Thursday tried to clarify. “The differences are stark between what Attorney General Barr said on obstruction and what Special Counsel Mueller said on obstruction.,” said a joint statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

“As we continue to review the report, one thing is clear: Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller’s report appears to undercut that finding,” they said.

Added House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, “Even in its incomplete form, the Mueller report outlines disturbing evidence that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice. Just imagine what remains hidden from our view.”

Republicans in swing areas are hoping Democrats will talk more about Mueller’s findings. Doing so will motivate Trump voters to turn out in big numbers, said Katon Dawson, former South Carolina Republican chairman.

“Please, please, please keep bringing it up,” Dawson said.

Polling around the country has found most Democrats want to hear more about issues other than Trump’s troubles.

In Iowa, where three House Democrats represent districts Trump won, 51 percent of Democrats told the Monmouth University Poll earlier this month — roughly two weeks after the summary of the Mueller report was released — it was not important whether the party nominates a presidential candidate who backs impeaching Trump. Another 12 percent were not sure.

Health care was by far the issue most important to Iowa Democrats as they choose a presidential candidate. Fifty-one percent said it was one of the most important issues, with climate change a distant second with 17 percent.

In Pennsylvania, where two Democrats hold seats in Trump districts, 56 percent of voters disapprove of the president’s health care policies, according to an Emerson College statewide poll last month after the Mueller summary was released.

Democratic leaders have made it clear that making health care more affordable and easier to obtain is at the top of their agenda.

“We didn’t run on impeachment, we didn’t run on obstruction of justice, we didn’t run on scandal or the chaos, crisis and confusion that comes out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue every day,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said at a House Democratic retreat last week.

“We ran on health care. We ran on infrastructure. We ran on bringing our democracy to life. Those are the promises we made to the American people. Those are the promises we’re executing on.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been running Facebook ads in swing districts, warning that Republicans will make it harder and costlier to get decent care.

“Everyday working Americans are right to be outraged with the unrelenting attacks on their health care from Republicans in Washington,” said Cole Leiter, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman.

“The Trump administration’s farcical PR stunt today will not distract voters from the very real threat his agenda means for their economic well-being.” Leiter said. The “stunt” he referred to was Barr’s morning press conference and Trump’s reaction to the news.

Republicans are firing back by warning constituents that what Democrats really want is a government-run health care system that would create a bureaucratic nightmare for anyone seeking help. That, GOP officials say, is a frightening step toward socialism.

The party is stressing that Democrats are so ravenous to topple Trump that it’s hard for them to talk rationally about policy or politics.

“It is time for the emotional, socialist Democrats to knock if off with their childish temper tantrums, accept reality and get back to work,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The challenge for the vulnerable Democrats is to bring the so-called kitchen table issues to the forefront.

Cunningham maintained to McClatchy that cable news has made it hard for Democrats to compete with wall-to-wall coverage of the Mueller investigation.

“When I turn on CNN and MSNBC, they’re just focusing on that (the Mueller report) and it does a disservice to a lot of the hard work folks are doing around here,” Cunningham said. “I think we can be talking about those other things folks are working on while they’re in the process of releasing the report, too.”

Trump won Cunningham’s district by 13 points in 2016. Cunningham won two years later with 50.7 percent.

Emma Dumain and Bryan Lowry of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this story
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David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.