Disappointed Democrats shrug: 2020 election about health care, economy

The newly released summary of the Mueller report has already emboldened Republicans to declare victory, encouraged by the special counsel’s conclusion that neither Donald Trump nor any of his campaign officials colluded with Russian actors during the 2016 presidential election.

But to Democrats already formulating their party’s message for the 2020 election, the findings were a reminder to get back to the pocketbook issues that delivered the party the House last fall.

“Our plan is going to continue to focus on the negative impact Trump’s policies have had on American families,” said Josh Schwerin, spokesman for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, a group that has pledged to spend millions of dollars opposing Trump’s re-election. “And that has always been our plan.”

Added Dan Sena, who served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last cycle, in a text message: “Democrats would be wise to continue to fight/campaign for the economic high ground, protecting access to affordable [prescriptions] and a larger vision for the country.”

Indeed, Democratic strategists have long said their party’s best message for next year’s election — absent a stunning revelation from the Mueller report — would focus on pocketbook issues like health care. Polls show voters care more about those subjects, and Democrats were able to use a message fixated on protections for pre-existing conditions to gain 40 seats in the House last year.

“Time to get to the hard work of winning the election,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

That’s not to say Democrats are ready to completely ignore the report, especially given how much more information is yet to be released. Attorney General Bill Barr only released a summary of the report on Sunday, and Democrats are sure to call for congressional hearings on the subject. But too much focus on it carries political risks for Democrats, some strategists say.

“Dems need to make sure they are given access to the full report so they can make their own decisions,” Sena said. “However [they] will need to keep a keen eye on overreaching and opening themselves up to being seen as overly political on the issue.”

Like Sena, many Democrats are adamant that the full report should be released. And they haven’t abandoned the idea that touting transparency on this issue could be a political winner.

Polls overwhelmingly show that the vast majority of voters want the report made public, and Democrats will be closely watching GOP remarks on that issue.

“The way you poll it, you would say, ‘Congressman Smith, despite the fact the former head of the FBI came out with this report, Congressman Smith is still standing blindly with party leadership, not calling for transparency. Do you question his patriotism,’ or whatever way you want to test it. ‘Does this make you think less or more of him?’ That’s the first thing you’ve got to look at,” said a former top Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official and current Democratic strategist on Friday. (The official was speaking hypothetically about a member of Congress.)

The source also added Sunday afternoon, with regard to Russia, that the “question should be more focused on holding a country clearly trying to hurt our democracy accountable, especially if I have a challenger with a [national security] background.”

Certainly, at this early stage of the process many Democrats are still waiting for more information to surface before pursuing this strategy. A representative for the DSCC didn’t immediately respond to questions on this subject, while someone familiar with the DCCC’s internal thinking said that the organization doesn’t currently plan to poll on the Mueller report, stressing that health care and economic matters remain top-of-mind for voters.

The report — and its failure to find a direct link between Trump and Russian leaders — could ultimately play to the GOP’s political advantage. Trump has repeatedly described the investigation as a “witch hunt,” an argument Republicans feel emboldened to make now.

Aware of those risks, Democrats have already started running ads targeting Trump’s re-election effort that focus on pocketbook issues. Priorities USA, which has vowed to spend $100 million opposing Trump in key states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, released a digital ad that says the president hasn’t delivered economic security for working-class families.

“The president has put my kids one medical emergency away from bankruptcy,” one person says during the ad.

“I’d actually be surprised if we were talking about it in paid communication next year,” said Democratic strategist Ian Russell. “This is going to be about whether the president is on the side of middle-class families or whether he’s just using his office to enrich himself and his family.”

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Katie Glueck is a senior national political correspondent at McClatchy D.C., where she covered the 2018 midterm contests and is now reporting on the 2020 presidential campaigns. Previously, she was a reporter at POLITICO, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections as well as the 2014 midterms. Her work has also appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Washingtonian magazine, Town & Country magazine and The Austin American-Statesman. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a native of Kansas City.
Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.