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Democrats Stick to Health Care Message Amid Russian Intrigue

Party sees health care as more salient campaign issue

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., says health care is the issue that concerns her constituents the most, adding that she has gotten “zero questions about Russia.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., says health care is the issue that concerns her constituents the most, adding that she has gotten “zero questions about Russia.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Despite the daily drip about Russia and the Trump administration, national Democrats who hope to exploit Republicans’ vulnerabilities in 2018 are focusing their messaging squarely on health care before the July 4 recess.

Just minutes after former FBI Director James B. Comey concluded his testimony Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee — in which he said the president lied to the America people — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted out a release.

The subject? Nevada Sen. Dean Heller’s reported support for phasing out Medicaid expansion.

The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm issued no public statements about the Comey hearing. 

Democrats are careful to say that just because Russia isn’t a major campaign issue today doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a year from now. The 2018 cycle is still young, as is the unraveling of details about Russia’s involvement in last year’s election.

Most salient issue

But for now, many Democratic strategists and lawmakers say, the ins and outs of Russia’s meddling in U.S. politics is not the most pressing issue for voters.

“Literally, I have gotten zero questions about Russia. Zero,” Rep. Cheri Bustos said Thursday as she was leaving the Capitol after the last votes of the week. 

The Illinois Democrat was describing the interactions she has had so far this year at her “Supermarket Saturday” events, where she swings through grocery stores to chat with constituents in the aisles.

One of three co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, Bustos is the only Midwestern member in House Democratic leadership. Trump narrowly carried her district last fall. 

“Things that Washington, D.C., is obsessed about, in some cases, are barely even a blip in a rural area like mine,” she said. 

Health care is the issue her constituents have raised the most, Bustos said. “People with pre-existing conditions are freaking out,” she said. 

The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA released a “messaging guidance” memo late last month with a similar conclusion. Nearly half of the presidential-year voters surveyed expressed concern about Republicans supporting the GOP health care bill; only 35 percent had concerns about Republicans opposing an independent investigation into the Kremlin and Trump. 

“It’s not to say Russia is not relevant, it’s just not as pertinent to people’s lives,” a longtime Democratic strategist said. 

Pocketbook issues 

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who conducted an internal review of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 2016 election efforts, said he doesn’t like to veer too far from the bread-and-butter issues that worry families in his district. 

“It’s hard to compete with somebody’s mortgage, or their retirement or the cost of their kids’ college,” Maloney said as he exited the Capitol ahead of the weekend break.

“We should not assume that ordinary Americans understand this and care about this as much as people in Washington,” he said of Russia. Maloney said that while his constituents take the Russian election interference seriously, they’re also wary of Washington.

“They are understandably suspicious about how politics can get played in this town. And they see that as being at odds with what’s important at their own families’ kitchen tables,” Maloney said. 

“A distraction” is how Bustos characterizes the Washington frenzy over Russia. Part of her job as DPCC co-chairwoman is helping the party craft its message, especially in rural and swing areas of the country like hers. 

“I just say, ‘This is distracting members of Congress from what we need to be focusing on,’” Bustos said, rattling off a list of other priorities — such as a farm and infrastructure bill — that she wants Congress to get done.

Maloney cautioned that it’s too soon to tell whether Russia will emerge as a more salient campaign issue. “The facts may be so serious that they cannot be ignored,” he said.

Keeping up the heat

That uncertainty over what’s going on with Russia is one reason some Democrats are finding it more helpful to talk about health care.

“Right now, the story is that something very troubling is happening in Washington, D.C. The middle and end of this story — we just don’t know yet,” said a Democratic strategist who works on Senate campaigns.

The troubling aspects of the GOP health care plan, at least from the Democrats’ perspective, are much more clear-cut. And for a party largely on defense in Senate races next year in states that Trump won (and where he remains popular), Democrats see health care as a strong offensive message, especially against their top two targets, Heller and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.

Earlier this year, the DSCC released non-skippable YouTube ads attacking the GOP health care plan for hurting older Americans and those with pre-existing conditions. Majority Forward, a nonprofit allied with Senate Majority PAC, also made health care the subject of its ads in Arizona and Nevada released earlier this year.

But Russia continues to dominate the news cycle. 

“At some level this is all a gift to Republicans because it takes focus off of this disastrous health care bill,” Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said Thursday.

So it’ll be up to Democratic groups to find ways to communicate their health care message to voters this summer.

“It’s important to let people know that as these investigations are going on, Trump and the Republicans are trying to pull the health care rug out from under the Americans,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the DSCC chairman. “We need at least bifocals here.”

 A false choice?

The party can — and should — keep its eye on both things, said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran of the DCCC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“It’s a false choice between talking about health care and talking about Russia,” Ferguson said. In fact, he said, the two messages even amplify each other.

Democratic campaigns aren’t ignoring Russia completely, and with the liberal base motivated on the issue — Indivisible and both called for impeachment proceedings immediately after the Comey hearing — they can’t afford to. 

The DCCC called on Republicans to support a “bipartisan, independent committee to investigate Russia’s interference in our democracy” after the Comey testimony. A smattering of Democratic House challengers released similar statements.

Russia is more salient in some districts than others. In its Thursday statement, the DCCC took a shot at California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, whose conduct in the Russian investigation has earned him a spot on the committee’s target list in 2018. Increased attention on Russia has also helped put the district of another California Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, on the map. 

American Bridge, a liberal super PAC, is the rare Democratic outside group that has invested in paid communications on Russia this year. 

But it’s also been vocal about health care. It’s partnering with House Majority PAC on its Congressional Accountability Project this summer.

“Make no mistake, pocketbook issues like health care ought to be front and center in Democratic messaging,” American Bridge President Jessica Mackler said in an emailed statement. “But Democrats can also walk and chew gum at the same time.”

“The Trump administration’s Russia scandal must be investigated and Republicans who refuse to do their job and demand an independent investigation should be held accountable. We can do both,” Mackler added.

Democrats see the Russia developments taking a toll on the president’s popularity and boosting their party in the generic congressional ballot (with a longtime Democratic strategist pointing to the nearly 8-point edge his party has in FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot tracker as a good sign for 2018).

“In the end, the Trump administration, and their contortions and their lying about what happened, is feeding the perception they can’t be trusted,” Ferguson said. “That perception makes it impossible for them to sell their health care agenda to the American people,” he added.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report. 

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