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Mueller report isn’t changing 2020 campaign dynamics — yet

Conclusions have emboldened some Republicans, but Democrats still aren’t talking about Russia

While some Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham used the Mueller report to double down on defending Trump, Democrats signaled they’d continue their 2018 focus on economic issues  — and not the Russia investigation — heading into 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
While some Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham used the Mueller report to double down on defending Trump, Democrats signaled they’d continue their 2018 focus on economic issues  — and not the Russia investigation — heading into 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As news of the just-completed Russia investigation engulfs Washington, not much has changed on the campaign trail — for either party.

The full report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has yet to see the light of day. And with the 2020 elections more than a year and a half away, plenty could change between now and then. But so far, the calculation on both sides isn’t too different from the past two years.

The most vocal Republicans are using Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of the Mueller report to double down on their argument that Democrats only care about obstructing President Donald Trump and the GOP agenda. But Republican lawmakers facing touch races aren’t eager to bring up Trump if they don’t have to.

Democrats are brushing off attacks that their party has overreached, stressing the need for transparency and checks and balances. But rather than talk at length about Russia, candidates and lawmakers in competitive districts are mostly sticking to the kitchen table issues they believe helped them net 40 House seats in last fall’s midterms.

“Unless something drastic changes when the full report comes, I wouldn’t expect that to change,” said one Democratic strategist involved in House races.

Also watch: Lindsey Graham calls for a special counsel investigation on ‘the other side of the story’ following Mueller report

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GOP on the attack?

In the wake of Barr’s letter to Congress, a flurry of emails from Republican campaigns made the case: “No collusion!”

“Democrats lied to the American people,” read a press release from the Republican National Committee.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was golfing with the president when Barr released his letter Sunday, said he’s interested in investigating whether there were political motivations to the counterintelligence probe.

“Going forward, hopefully in a bipartisan fashion, we will begin to unpack the other side of the story,” Graham said at a Monday press conference. The Senate Judiciary chairman is up for re-election next year in a state Trump carried by 14 points in 2016.

For some Republicans, Barr’s conclusions weren’t just about exonerating the president; it was a piece of evidence to use against Democrats.

The National Republican Congressional Committee went after several 2020 targets, specifically freshman Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida, for suggesting in 2017 tweets that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Some strategists see the Mueller report giving the party more of an offensive message that could play well in a district like Cunningham’s, which backed Trump by 13 points. In a statement Monday about his tweet, Cunningham said, “Rushing to judgement without all the facts was a mistake.” (Mucarsel-Powell, however, sits in a seat Hillary Clinton carried by 16 points.)

That’s also likely to be the case when it comes to linking vulnerable House Democrats to their colleagues’ ongoing investigations.

“After the ultimate exhaustive, two year investigation, the question now is will Democrats do what’s right for America or will they continue manufacturing outrage and demanding perpetual investigations?” said Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership.

The group’s Senate equivalent — the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — deployed a similar message against Virginia  Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Mueller’s report “exposed Mark Warner for pushing conspiracy theories at the expense of his own constituents,” SLF spokesman Jack Pandol said in a statement. But Warner’s re-election race is not expected to be competitive. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic.

Although some Republicans are looking to make Mueller’s report a 2020 issue, it remains to be seen whether they will put money behind that message in campaign ads, especially in Senate races in purple states such as Colorado, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Maine or in the suburban House districts where Trump remains unpopular.

The reaction to the Mueller report from Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for example, stood in stark contrast to the more bullish message coming from the likes of Graham and the RNC.

“With the investigation now complete, it’s time to accept his findings and move on,”  he said in a statement Monday.

“Right now, the issues that actually move numbers, if you look at polling on a number of issues — jobs, economy, health care, border security —  that’s top of mind for a lot of voters,” said one GOP source. “I think that is where the conversation is going to be.”

Democrats hold steady 

Since Mueller turned over his report to Barr on Friday, Democratic lawmakers and outside groups have sent out fundraising emails and petitions demanding the full findings be made public. But don’t expect messages about the Mueller report to animate campaign ads.

Democratic strategists agree that health care and the economy — not Russia — is what moves voters.

“Our strategy is and always has been to talk about the ways that Donald Trump has hurt American families economically by enacting policies that are meant to help corporations and the wealthy. Nothing has changed,” Priorities USA spokesman Josh Schwerin said Monday. The Democratic super PAC already launched digital ads in key battleground states last week making that argument.

On the first day back from recess, the House Democrats’ campaign arm was blasting out press releases about the town halls freshman lawmakers have held. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t push out any comments about the Mueller report. It isn’t polling on the Russia probe, focusing again on health care, jobs and taxes.

“Talking about Russia and Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily hurt Democrats in any way,” said Tyler Law, formerly with the DCCC.

The subject has — and will inevitably — come up on the campaign trail, with many Democrats during the 2018 cycle using the cloud over Trump to paint a broader message about dysfunction in Washington. But when it comes to paid communications, Democrats found Russia wasn’t a winning message.

“It’s not the best strategy for both reaching persuadable voters and also motivating our own base to turn out and vote,” Law said.

Republicans will inevitably attack all Democrats for overreaching — both on policy priorities and the Russia investigation — whether or not they’ve actually backed the Green New Deal or made claims about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But Democratic lawmakers who are attacked over the Mueller investigation or oversight on Capitol Hill shouldn’t apologize for supporting transparency, strategists said.

“Voters expect a check and a balance,” Law said. “They voted for that in 2018.” Democrats netted 40 seats last fall, in part, by defeating GOP incumbents in districts where Trump was unpopular.

“President Trump was always the mood music, even if candidates were not focused on talking about him,” Law said.

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report. 

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