By Reid Wilson
Democrats planning their bid to win back control of the Senate will run hard against the Washington swamp next year, repurposing one of President Trump’s most effective campaign messages from the 2016 election as their own.
Top party operatives are poll-testing messages aimed at winning over voters who are fed up with a gridlocked capital, searching for ways to build an advantage among swing voters who may still like Trump, but not the senators who are seeking reelection in 2020.
And while Democrats could not convince some of their best-known candidates to forgo long shot presidential campaigns in favor of bids for Senate seats, the party will now rely on a once-unorthodox stable of candidates with little or no experience in elected office.
It is a strategy reminiscent of 2006 and 2018, when House Democrats ousted Republican majorities on the backs of candidates with unusual profiles. This year, the stable of Senate Democratic candidates includes more women and veterans than has been typical in recent cycles.
“In races around the country, there are strong Democrats stepping up to run who fit their states and will be a breath of fresh air with new perspectives to bring to the Senate,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
When former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D) opted against challenging Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Democrats turned to M.J. Hegar, a veteran and businesswoman who lost a closer than expected bid for Congress last year.
In Iowa, another former congressional candidate, Theresa Greenfield, is Democrats’ preferred candidate against Sen. Joni Ernst (R), though she faces a primary fight.
Arizona Sen. Martha McSally (R) will face Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut making his first run for public office. In North Carolina and Maine, Democrats recruited two state legislators to challenge Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Those candidates will pitch themselves as fresh-faced outsiders who can shake up a corrupt and broken political system — even if, as is the case in Texas, Iowa and North Carolina, the favored Democratic candidate has lost a race before.
“In this race for Senate, it’s time for somebody who will stand up and fight, to build an economy that works for everybody, for the health care that each family deserves, and to reform the corrupt political system in Washington,” former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D) said in a video announcing his bid to unseat Tillis.
Complicating matters for Democrats, only two states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 have incumbent
Republican senators today: Maine and Colorado. To win back the Senate majority, Democrats must win states like North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa and even Texas — all states that gave Trump their electoral votes three years ago and where he remains either popular or at least competitive today.
That has Democrats also focusing on a different villain: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Several Democratic groups are testing whether portraying Republican senators as McConnell’s minions can be effective.
Those surveys and public polls show McConnell is surprisingly well-known, and not in a good way.
A Harvard-Harris Poll survey conducted in May pegged McConnell’s favorable rating at just 23 percent, lower than Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), at 36 percent, or Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), at 27 percent. His unfavorable rating stood at 44 percent, lower than Pelosi’s 50 percent but higher than every other politician tested except Trump, Clinton and Vice President Pence.
In a poll conducted for the Democratic group End Citizens United, Global Strategies Group found reading messages against McConnell moved voters toward Democratic candidates more effectively than messages against Trump or the Republican Congress at large.
“Mitch McConnell is beholden to special interests and he’s blocking progress on everything from making prescription drugs more affordable to addressing political corruption to making health care more affordable,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, who heads communications for End Citizens United.
McConnell appears twice in Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon’s (D) video announcing her bid against Collins. Greenfield lumped Ernst and McConnell together in her own video. In Texas, Hegar called Cornyn “that tall guy lurking behind” McConnell.
More than half of the 295 advertisements the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is currently running on Facebook show McConnell’s image or mention his name.
Attacks against national party leaders are nothing new to Republicans, who spent several cycles using Pelosi as shorthand to tie every prominent Democratic challenger to liberal San Francisco values.
Republicans aren’t convinced that McConnell will be the poison pill that they saw in Pelosi.
“You use party leaders in midterms to polarize an electorate when you have registration advantages in the state or district. In a presidential election the electorate is polarized and motivated. The middle isn’t making a decision to show up for a presidential election based upon a three-way bank shot in the side-pocket about whether a senator serves in the same conference as somebody else,” said Josh Holmes, a longtime Senate Republican strategist and top aide to McConnell.
“The reality for him is that any resource spent attacking Mitch McConnell is a resource that is not used to attack his Republican colleagues, and that’s just the way he likes it,” Holmes said.
But Democrats hope the focus on corruption can be the beginning of a discussion of other issues, too: That health care costs rise because of pressure from special interest groups or that gun safety legislation has not passed because of the power of the National Rifle Association.
Democrats “can make the case that Mitch McConnell and special interests in Washington are the ones preventing these priorities from being addressed,” Burgwinkle said.