Democrats are making a bet that with the help of a wave of TV and digital ads they can finally make the upcoming election about health care and taxes.
They just need to hope voters will tune out Donald Trump long enough to listen.
Since the president’s election, Democratic Party leaders have vowed to emphasize pocketbook issues, convinced that an economic focus was necessary to win over the most voters in November. But Trump has made it difficult, using his bully pulpit — and the all-consuming attention he commands in the media — to compel Democrats to discuss anything but the economy, from kneeling NFL players to special counsel Bob Mueller’s investigation.
Now, however, Democrats say the election gives their candidates and allied groups a chance to force the conversation back to economic issues by paying for messages delivered directly to voters.
“What Democrats need to do, because Trump is all encompassing on cable news and earned media, is continue to talk about consequences of health care and the tax bill,” said Patrick McHugh, executive director of the Democratic-aligned Super PAC Priorities USA. “And you’re seeing that already.”
McHugh, like nearly every Democratic strategist, said the party is planning to focus heavily in its ads on the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act and its tax cuts, which Democrats argue is designed to unfairly help the rich.
“We need to get our message out on economic issues because we can’t rely on the press to do so in this news environment,” he said.
Already, House Majority PAC, the Democratic Super PAC, released an ad this week targeting incumbent GOP Rep. David Young in Iowa, criticizing him for voting for tax cuts that will benefit special interests at the expense of the middle class. That followed a wave of ads from HMP in June and July, running in a dozen districts each, that focused on the tax and health care bills.
Democrats think an economic message best unites their liberal base and many of the white working-class voters who backed the president in 2016. Impressions of Trump are already hardened, and trying to change how voters regard the president or how congressional Republicans treat him is a difficult effort even if backed by tens of millions of dollars in spending.
“The voters who are pay attention to the national back and forth will have heard more than enough about Michael Cohen or the Helsinki summit,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. “Our obligation is to make sure they hear about health care repeal and tax giveaways.”
But to some operatives, the belief that a spate of TV ads can meaningfully capture voters’ attention is foolhardy.
“It is so naïve after what we have seen the last three years to expect any share of voice to compete with President Trump,” said Josh Holmes, a top GOP strategist. “It just won’t happen.”
Holmes added that if Democrats do want a discussion about the economy, the GOP and its candidates would welcome the debate. Indeed, Republicans appear ready for it, with Trump tweeting regularly about what this week became the longest bull run in stock market history.
Democrats note that midterm elections are fundamentally different from presidential races, because voters are much less likely to hear or see media attention about their targeted local lawmaker. There will naturally be more focus on them in the media instead of Trump, they argue.
But regardless, Democrats say they need to avoid Trump and focus on economic issues to reach the most voters — including their own base. McHugh said many Democratic voters need to believe their party can help them in tangible ways, citing the positive, education-focused message then-Democratic candidate Doug Jones used to help pull off an upset in the Alabama special Senate election last year.
“Our goal is to talk to our base members who are not inclined to vote because of Trump,” McHugh said. “It will be an affirmative reason why turning out to vote will lead to positive change in your community. For a lot of people trying to commit to vote for somebody to stop bad things from happening is simply not enough.”