Democrats are linking Republican gubernatorial candidates to President Trump in New Jersey and Virginia, two states won by Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election where the attacks could drive base voters to the polls.
But some Democrats are concerned about their party’s strategy.
Even if Democrats win the two contests, they say it could give the party a false sense of confidence that attacking Trump is the best way to win the House and Senate in 2018.
“It’s like a jolt of sugar and they can’t put it down,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said of the Trump attacks.
He said Democratic activists relish the attacks on Trump, but questioned whether it will help the party win over the centrist and independent voters they will need to win races across the country.
“If you want to convince a semi regular voter to show up on election day, you need to find something else,” he said.
For evidence that the attacks on Trump are not a panacea for the party, Democrats don’t have to go back all the way to 2016.
The party suffered a string of losses in House special elections earlier this year, most notably in Georgia where they feverishly backed Jon Ossoff in a House race that was a referendum of sorts on Trump.
In Georgia’s 6th congressional district and the other races earlier this year, Democrats were fighting on GOP territory and lost, repeatedly.
“I worry there’s a bit of amnesia happening,” said one senior aide on Capitol Hill. “It’s almost like we didn’t learn our lesson in November and it can really come back to haunt us a little over a year from now when it really, really matters.”
In New Jersey and Virginia, the anti-Trump campaigns may bear fruit.
In Jersey City and other parts of northern New Jersey, Democratic operatives have flooded the streets with signs and front door-literature reading “Stop the Trump Christie Agenda” ahead of the Nov. 7 gubernatorial election between Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, the Republican, and Democrat Phil Murphy.
It would be a shock of enormous proportions if Murphy lost that race given Christie’s unpopularity. Clinton defeated Trump in the state 55 percent to 41 percent.
In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam has a small edge over Republican Ed Gillespie according to a recent Christian Newport University poll.
Clinton defeated Trump by a narrower margin, 49.7 percent to 44.4 percent, but the Northam campaign has embraced the anti-Trump message.
“TrumpEd: How Ed Gillespie embraced his inner Donald,” one campaign press release sent out last week read.
In another release last week, David Turner, Northam’s communication director, said Gillespie is “taking a page out of the Trump playbook: butchering the facts to try and frighten the voters.
“It is a sad display of disrespect for the voters of Virginia to engage in hysterical fearmongering,” Turner said in the release. “He doesn’t understand Virginians — they care about the truth, even if he doesn’t.”
A Northam campaign aide told The Hill that looping Gillespie with Trump has been a “successful” strategy and pointed to the recent Christian Newport University poll which says there’s a “Trump effect” on the upcoming election.
The poll revealed that “a significant segment of voters” say Trump would play a factor in their decision in the gubernatorial race.
“I think being anti-Trump is more powerful than people think,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Republicans built huge majorities in large part by being anti-Obama. Bottom line is negative politics can work especially wave moments like the one we are in.”
Zelizer added that “Being against Trump is more than just disliking the man, it symbolizes what a person stands for at this moment in politics.”
Still, there are Democrats worried about the emphasis on Trump.
In their post mortem of what went wrong in the presidential election, many strategists and pollsters concluded that Clinton’s campaign spent too much time going negative on Trump and not enough time explaining why voters should support her. As the campaign grew increasingly contentious in the final weeks, Clinton’s aides — who had sought to end the campaign with a feel good message — felt compelled to go negative.
Democrats in Congress have been working on their message since the defeat.
In July, they unveiled “A Better Deal,” an economic agenda aimed at winning back the hearts of traditional Democrats — including the working class — who didn’t back the party in 2016.
Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) acknowledged his party had a messaging problem last year.
“The number one thing that we did wrong is we didn’t tell people what we stood for,” Schumer said on ABC’s This Week when the new economic agenda was unveiled.
Now the question is whether Democrats will stick to their guns in next year’s midterms, particularly if they win New Jersey and Virginia by going all in against Trump.
“The Democrats have to come up with some kind of vision that can be neatly articulated and proposed as the alternative. Without that, you’re probably not going to see this tidal wave of reaction that they’re hoping for,” said Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “They never really sorted out clearly what their message is absent of drawing that contrast with Trump. I don’t think they ever got closure on it.”