Once on defense, Dems grow confident in Trump country

House Democrats started off the 2020 cycle looking to protect roughly four dozen vulnerable members, including 30 whose districts voted for President Donald Trump four years ago.

Now as they enter the final month, Democrats are scaling back defensive spending and funneling their remaining millions to knock out vulnerable Republicans and expand their 34-seat majority, according to a POLITICO review of recent advertising data.

The Democrats’ media-buying strategy in the last weeks of the campaign offers perhaps the clearest portrait yet of the party’s confidence in protecting their toughest House seats, and cementing the GOP’s minority status for years to come. Two years after flipping 43 seats, national Democrats are playing just as much offense as it is defense — a surprising turn of events in a cycle when their most endangered members once dreaded the thought of sharing a ballot with Trump.

“I have had conversations in the last week that I would not think was possible,” said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), who has been heavily involved with Democratic recruiting and campaigning in recent cycles.

“We have a shot at winning in Alaska, we have a shot at winning in Montana,” Kuster said.

In a sign of their growing optimism, Democrats canceled millions of October TV reservations for lawmakers like Reps. Jared Golden in Maine or Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania — in two districts that Trump had won by about 10 points in 2016. And party officials also nixed ad time in a pair of purple Michigan districts belonging to freshman Reps. Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin, which Trump also won in the last presidential election.

Now Democrats are pouring that cash into capturing red seats — in Michigan, Colorado, Montana and Alaska — that the party hadn’t been eyeing until late in the election cycle as Trump sagged in the polls and GOP campaigns entered crisis mode.

The NRCC, the House Republicans campaign arm, declined to comment.

Overall, Democratic groups are providing air cover to protect roughly two dozen of their members and running offensive TV ads in about as many GOP-held districts from the third week of September through the first week of October, according to an analysis of data by from the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

At the same time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is sitting on nearly $105 million and armed with polling that shows Democrats ahead in districts that the president carried handily in 2016.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) said in a brief interview, stressing that party officials began early with recruitment and on-the-ground staff in battleground districts. “We’re raising money like it’s falling from the sky.”

But Bustos also said that having Joe Biden at the top of the ticket for Democrats makes a difference in winning the kind of seats, as well as electoral votes, needed for an all-around victory in November. Recent polling shows Biden ahead by an average of about 7 points.

“Joe Biden is viewed as a guy who can sell in rural America,” Bustos said. “We probably won’t win a lot of these small towns, but you've got to be able to pick up enough votes where it adds up, and we can win these races. And that’s how Joe Biden is going to win these races, too.”

Democratic lawmakers and party officials insist they’re not making any assumptions in 2020, working aggressively to protect their endangered incumbents, particularly in Trump country.

But they also acknowledge that Republicans’ recruitment failures have shored up their incumbents and saved them millions of dollars. Members in swing districts, like Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Josh Harder (D-Calif.) are in such strong shape that the DCCC and House Majority PAC, Democrats’ chief congressional outside group, aren’t airing any TV ads to help them.

And they realize that the GOP’s dismal showing, as well as Biden’s consistently strong polling, has helped stretched the map into Arizona, Texas and North Carolina — unlike four years ago, when a less popular Hillary Clinton was seen as a drag in some House races.

“Not only are people feeling good about Biden, he’s up in a lot of places where Hillary wasn’t. He’s not toxic to voters,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said.

“They may not be enthusiastically supporting him, they may even support Trump, but they don’t have malevolent feelings about Biden. That’s tremendously helpful because you don’t have the drag on our down-ballot races when the person is, not only going to the polls and voting for Trump, but they hate the guts of our candidate,” said Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Democrats are so confident heading into November that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has begun eyeing more elaborate math that goes beyond her majority in the House — specifically, looking at the party breakdown of state delegations in the unlikely event that the House would need to decide the election this fall. Pelosi has been looking specifically at states like Alaska or Montana, where a single win could hand Democrats control of the delegation.

Swing-district Democrats, particularly freshmen, are entering the final month of the election better positioned than they ever could have expected a year ago.

Just before the pandemic, endangered Democrats’ biggest threats would have likely involved GOP attack ads on the subject of impeachment, the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.

But the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout upended this year’s narrative, making health care — once again — the biggest issue of the 2020 campaign.

Virtual town hall events for the most endangered Democrats now focus squarely on the health crisis and its battering of the economy, a far cry from a year ago, when question-and-answer sessions at lawmakers' events were more likely to draw attacks against self-described socialists within the Democratic party, than present real questions about health care access.

Another seismic political event last week — the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the abrupt threats to the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights — only further solidified health care as Democrats’ biggest selling point in the final weeks.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, who won a swing seat in 2016 and has gone on to help other moderate Democrats win in Trump country, said strong polling of Democrats, including Biden, does help incumbents breathe a sigh of relief.

“Unlike in other races, you don’t see Democrats running away from the top of the ticket as you might in other campaigns," she said. "Certainly, that’s probably easier than having to run as a Democrat, running away from your top of your ticket.

But she also cautioned that polling — on both the state and district level — didn’t guarantee a win for Democrats if they can’t also deliver the votes.

“I really don't know any pollster who has a good handle of what turnout is going to look like in a pandemic. So I think everybody really needs to keep running through the tape as hard as they can, irrespective of what the polls say,” Murphy said.

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Coronavirus upends the battle for the House

The impeachment furor that consumed Washington for nearly a year has dissipated amid a far more urgent political storm: the coronavirus outbreak.

Any trace of President Donald Trump’s impeachment has vanished from Capitol Hill, cable news and the campaign trail. And long gone is the pervasive sense of anxiety that once gripped vulnerable Democrats after their votes to impeach Trump, which they feared could cost them their seats and possibly control of the House.

Instead, the battle for Congress is more likely to be redefined by a highly infectious and mysterious virus that has spread into every state, pulverized the economy and thrust lawmakers into a crisis-governing mode unseen since the Great Depression.

“It’s always about, ‘What meeting are you going to on the virus?’ or, ‘What are you going to do on the virus bill?’” said Arizona Rep. Tom O’Halleran, one of the many Democrats in Trump-won districts who had been initially reluctant to pursue the president’s impeachment.

“I’ve been through a few decades, and I haven’t seen anything like this,” O’Halleran said of the outbreak, adding that the flood of phone calls he once got on impeachment have subsided.

Democratic campaign officials say the dual threats to public health and the economy have upended an election they worried — and Republicans hoped — would focus on Trump’s impeachment.

Campaigning has all but ceased in the traditional sense: Fundraising is down, and campaign officials on both sides say they’re being more careful about when and how to attack their opponents.

In a recent memo sent to House Republicans, Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, accused Democrats of politicizing the novel coronavirus and warned his caucus not to do the same.

“You should not fundraise off coronavirus directly as the Democrats have done,” the Minnesota representative wrote. “Be sensitive that your donors may have suffered financial losses during this pandemic.”

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who leads the House Democratic campaign arm, said she’s working with the caucus’ most vulnerable members and urging them to follow federal health guidelines to stay safe which, recently, has meant no public gatherings of any kind.

“Nobody knows how long this is going to last,” Bustos told reporters in the Capitol just before the House departed for recess. “And here’s the thing, it’s not like coronavirus hits Dems and not Republicans.”

The economic disaster fueled by the spread of the virus has also become a dominant concern for voters, according to a national poll conducted by the House Democratic campaign arm in mid-March, just as schools and businesses began shutting their doors.

Nearly 50 percent of the 2,005 registered voters surveyed said they believed the economy was getting worse, up from 22 percent who felt that way in February, according to the poll obtained by POLITICO. Meanwhile, 28 percent think their own personal economic outlook had worsened.

It also showed that 49 percent of people approved of how Democrats in Congress were handling the response, slightly above the 45 percent approval rate for Trump and the 42 approval rate for Republicans in Congress.

Some Democrats privately believe the coronavirus outbreak could create an opening for a more robust debate on health care, perhaps providing for a repeat of the 2018 elections that flipped the House in their favor after Democrats campaigned heavily on that topic.

The national focus on the cost of testing, vaccines and other health issues could dovetail with the message that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was already pushing. The DCCC’s first major TV ad campaign of the 2020 cycle focused on a prescription drug bill.

FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2019 file photo, Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., walks to a group photo with the women of the 116th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. A mass departure of top aides is shaking House Democrats’ campaign arm after Hispanic and black members of Congress complained that the staff lacked diversity. Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos is chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She’s issued a statement saying she’d ‘fallen short’ and would work to make the staff ‘truly inclusive.’ (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

But others say the political reality on the ground may be more complicated — the election cycle has been frozen at a point when it would normally be gearing up.

“This is just going to dominate American life through Election Day,” said one Democratic strategist who closely tracks House campaigns.

Some have compared it to the 2008 campaign, when the Democratic presidential primary was largely defined by the Iraq War — until Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in September helped set off a financial collapse that quickly became the dominant issue in that November’s election.

The coronavirus outbreak has halted the lives of millions of Americans, wreaking havoc as layoffs pile up and the death toll mounts. The virus has also had a direct effect on some of the caucus’ most endangered members: Freshman Rep. Ben McAdams has tested positive for the virus and is recovering at his home in Utah.

A half-dozen other “frontline” Democrats announced they are self-quarantining after contact with McAdams, including Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, and Kendra Horn of Oklahoma.

Still, politics goes on. The GOP’s campaign arm accused New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim of raising money off the coronavirus when the freshman Democrat included a link to his fundraising page announcing the cancellation of his campaign kickoff events.

Congressional candidates are relying more heavily on reaching donors via phone. There’s some concern among fundraising teams that their wealthiest supporters might pause donations as financial markets continue to plummet.

And some campaigns are questioning how long they can continue to send email solicitations or run online advertisements without seeming tone deaf.

In conference calls over the past week between Democratic House campaigns and allied consultants and outside groups, strategists have been brainstorming ideas for how to fundraise tactfully, according to people familiar with those calls.

One Republican, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, said he would pause fundraising for his reelection. He was one of 40 GOP lawmakers who voted against the House’s coronavirus relief package.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 2: Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, left, listens during the House Oversight and Reform Committee markup of a resolution authorizing issuance of subpoenas related to security clearances and the 2020 Census on Tuesday, April 2m 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

And a Democratic super PAC this week announced it would spend $5 million on digital ads skewering Trump’s response to the coronavirus — marking the party’s first major ad buy related to the outbreak.

The onset of the pandemic has also left some campaigns struggling to find the right tone. House Republicans’ campaign arm has so far embraced an aggressive posture — NRCC taunts to House Democrats have left even some GOP lawmakers wincing — but Emmer in his memo urged caution in campaign communications.

“At times like this you need to ask yourself if your press release or snarky comment are in poor taste,” he wrote.

For the most part, however, the GOP’s lines of attack couldn’t look more different than two months ago, when the nation was affixed to the Senate’s six-day-a-week impeachment trial and the vote to acquit Trump on Feb. 5.

Impeachment had consumed Capitol Hill practically since Democrats took back the House majority after the 2018 midterms. First there was the question of whether to pursue it after Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Then after a whistleblower complaint surfaced in September about Trump’s bid to push Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, it became a matter of when, not if.

For the dozens of freshmen representing swing districts, it was a political nightmare. All of a sudden, they were staring down millions of dollars worth of attack ads — which skewered Democrats as attempting to undo the 2016 election instead of delivering for their constituents — when their reelection campaigns had barely begun.

The American Action Network, a nonprofit aligned with GOP leadership, dropped $11 million worth of ads knocking Democrats throughout the fall and early winter, but those have been off the air since early February.

Some Democrats said they never expected impeachment to stretch into the 2020 campaign and insist the national frenzy had quieted down shortly after the Senate acquitted Trump.

“I haven’t heard about impeachment since the Senate failed to do its job. People have moved on before coronavirus,” said Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who holds a battleground district in the Las Vegas-area.

“I heard a lot about it when it was the issue,” he said of constituents eager to discuss impeachment. “Now they’ve shifted and there’s a lot of concern about what people need to be doing to stay healthy and to make sure that our economy doesn’t decline.”

“Welcome to a 24-hour cable news,” added Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.). “And in two months, we’ll be talking about something else — hopefully — other than coronavirus.”

It’s a whiplash that political operatives say is already familiar, with Congress constantly sputtering to avoid disaster. In 2019 alone, the House saw the longest-ever government shutdown, followed by the Mueller probe and a vote to impeach a president for only the third time in history.

“We’re living in an age when crisis is followed by crisis,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, who flipped a GOP-held seat in New Jersey in 2018 and faces a stiff reelection challenge from the son of a former governor.

But, the New Jersey Democrat said, Trump’s behavior amid the coronavirus outbreak only strengthened his belief that he made the right choice in voting for the articles of impeachment and that Trump abused his power.

“Some of his reaction and what he says — ‘I didn’t want the people off that boat because I like the numbers where we are’ — that reminds me of the president we impeached. Because, again, it’s about thinking of the self-interest ahead of the nation.”

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