Frustrated Democrats hoping to elevate their election fortunes have a resounding message for party leaders: Stop talking so much about Russia.
Democratic leaders have been beating the drum this year over the ongoing probes into the Trump administration’s potential ties to Moscow, taking every opportunity to highlight the saga and forcing floor votes designed to uncover any business dealings the president might have with Russian figures.
But rank-and-file Democrats say the Russia-Trump narrative is simply a non-issue with district voters, who are much more worried about bread-and-butter economic concerns like jobs, wages and the cost of education and healthcare.
In the wake of a string of special-election defeats, an increasing number of Democrats are calling for an adjustment in party messaging, one that swings the focus from Russia to the economy. The outcome of the 2018 elections, they say, hinges on how well the Democrats manage that shift.
“We can’t just talk about Russia because people back in Ohio aren’t really talking that much about Russia, about Putin, about Michael Flynn,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) told MSNBC Thursday. “They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to make the mortgage payment, how they’re going to pay for their kids to go to college, what their energy bill looks like.
“And if we don’t talk more about their interest than we do about how we’re so angry with Donald Trump and everything that’s going on,” he added, “then we’re never going to be able to win elections.”
Ryan is among the small group of Democrats who are sounding calls for a changing of the guard atop the party’s leadership hierarchy following Tuesday’s special election defeat in Georgia — the Democrats’ fourth loss since Trump took office. But Ryan is hardly alone in urging party leaders to hone their 2018 message.
Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) has been paying particularly close attention to voters’ concerns because he’s running for governor in 2018. The Russia-Trump investigation, he said, isn’t on their radar.
“I did a 22-county tour. … Nobody’s focusing on that,” Walz said. “That’s not to say that they don’t think Russia and those things are important, [but] it’s certainly not top on their minds.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) delivered a similar message, saying his constituents are most concerned with two things: dysfunction in Washington and the Republicans’ plans to repeal ObamaCare. The controversies surrounding Trump, he said, don’t tally.
“We should be focused relentlessly on economic improvement [and] we should stay away from just piling on the criticism of Trump, whether it’s about Russia, whether it’s about Comey. Because that has its own independent dynamic, it’s going to happen on its own without us piling on,“ Welch said.
“We’re much better off if we just do the hard work of coming up with an agenda. Talking about Trump and Russia doesn’t create an agenda.”
The intrigue over Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and potential collusion with Trump’s campaign has engulfed Capitol Hill since even before the president was sworn in. Both the House and Senate Intelligence committees have launched investigations, and the Justice Department has named a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to lead a third probe.
Democrats have gone out of their way to keep the spotlight on the evolving investigations. Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) are trumpeting legislation to create an independent panel, like the 9/11 Commission, to conduct a fourth investigation.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly used her press briefings and cable news appearances to raise questions about Trump’s “political, personal and financial” ties to Moscow.
“What do the Russians have on Donald Trump?” she asked earlier this month in a common refrain.
And the Democrats, who have few opportunities to force votes on the House floor, have spent a lot of energy pushing proposals that would require Trump to release his taxes, which many Democrats suspect will expose business ties between Trump and Russia. The latest such vote was Wednesday, marking the 10th time this year Democrats have forced the issue.
“It’s important for us to have the returns on tax reform, it’s important to have it on the Russia investigation,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee’s tax subpanel, said on the floor.
Democratic leaders have defended their focus on the Trump-Russia affair, arguing that it’s not a distraction from the local economic issues that resonate in their districts.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday.
But even some leaders are ready to acknowledge that the Russia investigation alone won’t lead to a Democratic comeback.
“As much as I think people in Washington tend to focus on the issues of Russia, and the president and the Republicans’ inability to get much of anything accomplished, … we need to focus on the local issues,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the caucus.
“That’s what gets Democrats elected.”
A recent Harvard-Harris poll reveals the risks inherent for the Democrats, who are hoping to make big gains — or even win back the House — in 2018. The survey found that while 58 percent of voters said they’re concerned that Trump may have business dealings with Moscow, 73 percent said they’re worried that the ongoing investigations are preventing Congress from tackling issues more vital to them.
“While the voters have a keen interest in any Russian election interference, they are concerned that the investigations have become a distraction for the president and Congress that is hurting rather than helping the country,” said Harvard-Harris co-director Mark Penn.
With that in mind, many Democrats said they’re going out of their way to focus on the economy — and downplay the Russia saga — when they’re at home.
“If you see me treating Russia and criticisms of the president and things like that as a secondary matter, it’s because that’s how my constituents feel about it,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.).
“I don’t think anybody wants to give a pass to illegal or unethical activity,” he added. “But in life we all have priorities, and the first priority for my constituents is to their families — as it should be.”