At the beginning of this cycle, I had conversations with strategists on both sides about the challenges for each party going into 2018. Democrats were worried that Trump had his own ‘brand’ that would make it hard to try and link GOP candidates to the unorthodox and unconventional president. Trying to hold a sitting Republican member of Congress accountable for Trump’s tweets wouldn’t pass the smell test with voters.
Republicans, meanwhile, were going to localize their races to help insulate their vulnerable incumbents from any Trump drag.
But, with just under three weeks left until the election, there is no distinction between the Trump brand and the GOP brand. The GOP brand is Trump. Plus, it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who have made a national political figure the centerpiece of their 2018 strategy. Nancy Pelosi is getting more air time in GOP ads than Trump is getting in ads run by Democrats.
Since the beginning of September until mid-October, Republicans in House and Senate races have run 61,741 ads that mention House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Many of these ads are running in affluent suburban districts where Trump is deeply unpopular, but where Republicans hope that a ‘liberal’ take-over of Washington will be even more unappealing. Voters in places like Orange County and suburban Dallas say GOP strategists, are low-tax, less-government conservatives who may not like Trump’s style of politics, but dislike government over-reach even more.
In fact, the "tax and spend liberal" playbook is getting more use than immigration; an issue that many thought would be the ‘go-to’ for Republicans looking to label their Democratic opponents as out of step with the district. Over the last six weeks, Republicans have run fewer ads on the issue of immigration (47,001) than on Pelosi (61,741).
Meanwhile, Democrats have run a little over half as many ads that mention President Trump (39,737) than Republicans have run against Pelosi. But, in a sign of just how polarized the country and the 2018 Senate map is, Republicans have run almost as many pro-Trump ads (32,643), as Democrats have run anti-Trump ones.
In fact, of the 134,021 ads run between September 1 and October 15 that mention Trump and/or Pelosi, 70 percent were run by Republicans. So much for all politics is local.
Democrats, as I’ve written previously, continue to emphasize healthcare in their campaign advertising. Between September 1 and October 15, Democrats ran 266,321 ads on healthcare — that’s almost six times as many ads they ran on Trump. So why are Democrats running healthcare ads like these that criticize Republicans for their support of legislation that would no longer mandate that insurance covers pre-existing conditions, instead of slow-mo images of Trump rally footage or screen grabs of his tweets? To win control of the House, Democrats need to win in districts where Trump isn’t totally toxic. And, of course, to win seats in the Senate, Democrats need to win in places where Trump is popular.
There is also some political PTSD going on with Democrats. In 2016, they believed that Trump’s biggest liability was his personality and style. The Clinton campaign led with a message that emphasized her stability and his lack of judgment and decency. That didn’t work out so well. This year, they are leading with bread and butter issues and leaving the debate over Trump’s tweets to the cable TV panels.
The conventional wisdom from earlier in the year — that it would be impossible to try and morph or link the unconventional president to more conventional GOP incumbents — still holds. But, Democrats don’t need to make the race just about Trump when the signature issues of the GOP-controlled Congress, the (failed) repeal and replace Obamacare legislation and the successful tax cut bill, are also unpopular.
And, it’s clear that the healthcare issue is taking a toll. Republicans have run 96,396 ads on healthcare over the last six weeks. Unlike in years past when Republicans were on offense against Obamacare, this year, they are playing defense by trying to change the topic. Republicans aren’t defending their vote on repealing Obamacare, but instead charge Democrats with planning to raise taxes by trillions to support a government-run health care program. Or they are defending themselves against charges that they support the gutting of pre-existing condition protection.
This election — like every midterm before it — is a referendum on the president. Democrats don’t need to remind their voters of this — their voters have been ready to rebuke Trump since early 2017. Republicans, however, are taking a different tact on dealing with a polarizing president of their own party than previous candidates did under similar circumstances. They aren’t trying to show their independence from Trump - as many Democrats unsuccessfully did with an unpopular Obama in 2010 or Republicans did with an unpopular Bush in 2006. Instead, Republicans are trying to win back their formerly committed GOP voters by stressing the loyalty their Democratic opponent shows to Pelosi.
Ultimately, fear of the future unknown is tougher to sell than fear of the present. Which makes the Pelosi-fear-factor ads a tough sell. I still think that Trump’s approval rating in a GOP-held district is a better gauge of whether it is vulnerable, than Pelosi’s image in that district. And, instead of weakening Pelosi, these ads may actually embolden her bid for Speaker. If Democrats win the House, Pelosi will be able to crow to her members — even those who said they’d vote against her — that she was the topic of more ads than Trump — and still won.