Like many Democrats, Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut hasn’t been hesitant to attack Donald Trump. She accused him when he was president of bullying and racism and said his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, posed a grave threat to democracy.
Yet in a new ad, Hayes boasts of teaming up with both Trump and President Joe Biden to pass legislation helping veterans. She is running for a third term against Republican George Logan, a former state senator, in a district Biden carried by more than 10 points in 2020. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Likely Democratic.
“This is not an endorsement of Donald Trump,” Hayes said in an interview. “If you can’t work with whoever's in office to get things done, you don’t deserve this job.”
Hayes isn’t the only Democrat this cycle running ads that name-check Trump and emphasize bipartisanship. While access to abortion remains the focus of many of the Democrats’ TV ads, some incumbents in competitive districts are shifting their messaging to highlight their willingness to forge strategic alliances with Republicans, even one as polarizing as Trump.
Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat whose northeastern Pennsylvania district went for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, debuted an ad featuring a guy in a red MAGA cap sitting on a park bench with a Biden supporter. “Matt’s working to bring jobs back from China, and I like that,” the Trump voter says.
In Virginia, former Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman cut an ad for Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat locked in a tough reelection campaign. Riggleman urges voters to support Spanberger, vice chairwoman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, because she’s willing to work with Republicans.
And in Iowa, Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne, who’s been criticized by Republicans for being too cozy with Biden, is airing an ad touting her alliance with Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley to pass a bill addressing monopolies in the meat industry.
“Frontline House Democrats are focused on our ‘people over politics’ agenda and will work with anyone serious — Democrat or Republican — to deliver lower costs, more jobs, and safe communities for American families,” said Chris Taylor, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Republicans say the Democrats casting themselves as aisle-crossing moderates are actually hyperpartisan liberals who support their party’s big-spending agenda, which the GOP blames for fueling inflation.
Hayes, for example, has voted with fellow Democrats on votes that split the two parties 99.2 percent of the time since she arrived on Capitol Hill in 2019, slightly more than the Democratic average of 98.2, according to CQ vote studies. So far this year, she’s voted the party line more than 121 of her colleagues, while 86 Democrats had higher party unity scores.
Liz Kurantowicz, general consultant for Logan, Hayes’ opponent, says the Democrat’s claim she worked with Trump was “laughable.” Hayes voted with Trump on only nine of the 102 votes on which he took a position in 2019 and 2020, fewer than 132 of her fellow Democrats but more than 43 of them, according to CQ vote studies.
“The congresswoman’s record speaks for itself,” Kurantowicz said.
The bill Hayes cited in the ad would make veterans who were exposed to radiation while responding to a 1966 hydrogen bomb accident in Spain eligible for disability benefits. It was part of a larger measure passed earlier this year that provides health benefits to veterans who became ill after being exposed to burn pits, radioactive material and other toxic substances. Republicans in the Senate initially blocked the bill, but it ultimately passed that chamber by a bipartisan vote of 86 to 11.
Incentive to compromise
Campaigning on bipartisanship might seem out of step in what’s often viewed as a hyperpolarized era. But it’s a smart strategy, said Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a political scientist at Northwestern University. The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in a president’s first midterm election, and Biden’s sputtering popularity rating, along with voter concerns about rising costs, has created conditions that benefit Republicans.
“Those are all reasons why members in competitive districts want to differentiate themselves from the party and say, 'Hey, you might be frustrated with the Democrats as a whole, but here are reasons why you should still vote for me,’” Harbridge-Yong said. “Individual legislators have a greater incentive to focus on bipartisanship and compromise at a time when being tied to the party is threatening or risky.”
Collectively, she said, Democrats want to show how they’d be the better choice in office than Republicans.
“But on an individual level, members who are in more marginal or competitive races want to bridge the gap between the two parties and highlight how they’re not just a stereotypical Democrat,” Harbridge-Yong said.
That’s been the approach taken by Axne, who won a second term in 2020 by just 1 percentage point and is in a reelection race that’s rated a toss-up. “I’ll work with anybody,” she declared in a recent interview. “The vast majority of Iowans want bipartisanship. Do we still have polarization? Absolutely. There are lots of Trump signs out in rural Iowa, still, and there are a lot of folks who want us to move forward” with a liberal agenda.
Axne’s record since she took office in 2019 shows she is among the Democrats most likely to break with her party, with just 17 colleagues posting lower party unity scores during that time. Still, Axne joined the Democratic majority on 1,090 of 1,163 divided votes, giving her a unity score of 93.7 percent, according to CQ vote studies.
She says her willingness to cross the aisle has drawn criticism from some members of her own party. At a local festival recently, she said she was approached by a Democrat who chided her for working with Republicans.
She said she told the critic: “I’m going to continue to do whatever I need to do to get policies passed for Iowa, and if it does mean working with people you're not that fond of, I'm sorry. I can’t change that.”
Republicans say Axne is a Democratic partisan who hews close to the Biden agenda. “Cindy Axne is a reliable vote for whatever Joe Biden wants,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Mike Berg said in a statement.
‘Needed him to sign my bill’
Hayes, a former public school teacher who had never run for political office before winning the open seat in Connecticut’s 5th District in 2018, says she quickly learned that working across the aisle is the only way to get anything done in Congress.
Trump, she says, “did things while he was president that were a threat to our democracy. I can agree with that and also say that as president, I needed him to sign my bill … to help veterans. I understand this job, and I recognize my role is to try to get results, and if that means I have to work with Republicans, if that means I have to make a case to the sitting president for why my bill should be [supported], that's my job,” she said.
Ultimately, candidates portray themselves as bipartisan because that’s where most voters are, said Harbridge-Yong. She surveyed voters and found political independents and "weak partisans" reward bipartisanship. “In a competitive election, you need to win over those voters,” she said. “The majority of people are in the middle, not at the ideological extremes.”
Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.