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Democrats Mix Politics With Policy Rollout in Virginia

‘Better Deal’ agenda seeks to unite party factions

Congressional Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, center, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, left, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján, right, rolled out their new agenda on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Congressional Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, center, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, left, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján, right, rolled out their new agenda on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)


BERRYVILLE, Va. — The visit by House and Senate Democrats to a rural Virginia county that voted for President Donald Trump wasn’t technically all about politics, but they were unavoidable.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California led off the event on a sunny summer afternoon in a small-town park next to a public library to unveil the agenda Democrats are calling “A Better Deal.” 

“This is not simply aimed at 2018. This is what we feel America needs. And you’ll find, in the House and in the Senate, we will be offering amendments. We will be having lots of different kinds of fora to spread the word,” Schumer said. “If our Republicans don’t come around and help us … yeah, I think that this will hurt them.”

It was a rare venue where Mark Warner, Virginia’s senior senator, could draw more applause than liberal firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren of another commonwealth (Massachusetts). And while Warner focused his remarks on pillars of the agenda regarding job training and research and development, he also noted the ever-present politics on his home turf.

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“You know, we’re here talking about what we’re going to try to do as Democrats in Washington, but the truth is, in Virginia, we never get any time off. We have very important state elections this year,” Warner said, getting cheers for a pair of Democrats running for the Virginia House of Delegates, and calling for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam to be elected governor this November.

Location, location …

And New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said it was not a coincidence that the announcement came in Berryville, which sits in Virginia’s 10th District.

Democrats launched their new platform in one Republican lawmaker’s backyard — and in a congressional district at the top of the party’s target list in 2018.

“While it’s early, there’s no doubt that this district and many others will be up for grabs in the 2018 midterms,” Luján said. “But it won’t be easy and Democrats can’t take anything for granted.”

Virginia’s 10th District — in the northern part of the commonwealth and not far from the nation’s capital — is one of 23 districts where voters elected a GOP House member and also voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. These Clinton-GOP districts are key targets for Democrats looking for a net gain of the 24 seats necessary to win back the House.

GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock won a second term in the 10th District last fall by nearly 6 points, but Clinton carried the district by 10 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican. A Democrat has not represented the 10th District since 1980, when Republican Frank R. Wolf was first elected. He held the seat until he retired in 2014.

Comstock will have to make sure Republicans in the district, home to scores of federal workers, will continue to back her even if they are unhappy with Trump. So far she has distanced herself from the administration and GOP leadership by calling for an independent investigation into Russian meddling in the election and voting against the Republican health care bill.

There were “dump Comstock” lawn signs and T-shirts in the crowd for what was an official event, with local Democratic activists in attendance.

The 2018 race shaping up in the district exemplifies a conundrum facing Democrats across the country: a crowded Democratic primary. The primaries show an increased interest and energy among Democrats, and could help vet untested candidates. But they could also drain campaign coffers ahead of competitive general elections. 

It’s the economy …

Democrats believe their economic message unveiled Monday is an opportunity for unity among the members of the various caucuses in the House and Senate.

As part of the discussions that went into drafting the agenda, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gathered information on voters’ opinions on Democratic goals. The firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research conducted focus groups on the economy in Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

The firm also conducted an online survey of 1,000 Democrats and 1,000 swing voters in 52 congressional districts.

The respondents had a generally negative view of the economy, with just 17 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of swing voters saying their own economic situations were improving, according to results shared with Roll Call.

The survey found that certain ideas were supported by both groups of voters, including increasing wages and supporting a living wage, helping improve small businesses, increasing college affordability and access to skills training, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and stopping jobs from leaving the United States. 

When asked why there were no vulnerable Senate incumbents on the stage, Schumer said that portion of his conference was represented by Warner, who was re-elected narrowly in 2014. Notably, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was not at the event. He is up for re-election this cycle.

Schumer also dismissed the idea that this national economic message might not find success in more traditionally Republican areas.

“You will be hearing in future days from a lot of our red-state Democrats. They have been very much part of this agenda,” Schumer said. “They can tailor it. You think people in North Dakota want to see drug prices keep going up? You think they want to see big companies take advantage of them?”

“The interesting thing is, what resonates in North Dakota or Montana or Missouri resonates in California, New York and Massachusetts. There is not that divide on economic issues,” Schumer said. “What happened is the Democratic Party forgot to emphasize them. No more.”

Trump campaigned successfully on a populist message, arguably seizing it away from Democrats. In including stronger antitrust enforcement in their “better deal” proposal, citing the cost of airline tickets and cable TV, Democrats seem to be trying to gain ground on that turf.

Schumer is known for his travels around New York state, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said that aside from the optics of holding Monday’s event in a small town, it is important for Democratic senators to visit the more rural corners of their states.

“I go to all 87 counties every single year, which Schumer also does in New York — he doesn’t have nearly as many,” Klobuchar said. “In some of those counties, I’ve gone to every single town.”

“In the smaller towns, especially, it’s not just that you’re in rural America, but you get a better sense of where people are. I think it gives you a better sense what’s going on,” she said.

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