By Burgess Everett
June 13, 2016
Democrats are running a shock and blah campaign for the Senate.
The shock comes courtesy of Donald Trump, whose rhetoric has Republicans debating whether their own nominee is racist and Democrats more confident than ever it will deliver them control of the Senate.
The blah comes from the Democratic candidates themselves, who are abiding by a cardinal rule of politics: When your opponent is self-destructing, get out of the way. They’re intentionally playing it safe and boring, figuring their elections will mostly be a referendum on Trump and that animosity toward the real estate magnate will put them over the top in key swing states.
Take Catherine Cortez Masto, a low-key candidate for Senate here running against Rep. Joe Heck, a wonkish Republican with a voting record beloved by the right. Cortez Masto speaks about potentially becoming the first Latina senator and her record as state attorney general, but she inevitably brings the conversation back to Trump.
“Congressman Heck has not disavowed Donald Trump’s hate language and discrimination. He’s going to support him, and to me that’s the problem with some of our electeds in Washington, D.C.” Cortez Masto said in a recent interview.
But asked about the rift between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, or Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s problems with the left, Cortez Masto refuses to go there: “All of us at the end of the day are going to unify,” is all she offers.
Cortez Masto isn’t alone: Most Democratic candidates are hewing to their talking points this year with almost robotic discipline. Questions about their party’s own struggles are answered with platitudes about their problem-solving acumen and their opponents’ affinity for Trump, the Koch brothers or GOP leaders.
“The most important thing here is that our candidates, No. 1, are working hard and doing what they need to do. And not making mistakes,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Tester of Montana.
Indeed, with Trump at the top of the ticket and worried Republicans starting to spend money in states that should be firmly in their column, such as Arizona and Missouri, some Democrats are privately predicting a blowout will become evident in the polls by early fall. Democrats need to pick up four seats to win the majority, or five if Trump wins.
“If there was ever a national election. This is it,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a former campaign honcho for the Democrats and the presumptive next leader of Senate Democrats.
Added No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois: “History tells us that when you have an extreme candidate, the party of that candidate stays home.”
Republicans privately acknowledge that Democrats are executing an effective strategy, so they are taking a different tack, perhaps by necessity.
GOP strategists are promoting their candidates as technocrats ready to tackle state-level issues and painting their opponents as parrots for the national Democratic Party. Heck is diving into entitlement and health care issues, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is casting himself as a one-man police force against his state’s heroin problem.
The contrast in strategies is glaring in New Hampshire, a top battleground in the race for the Senate. Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is appealing to voters as an expert on national security issues and a protector of military facilities — but is plainly struggling with how to talk about her intention to vote for Trump.
Her opponent, Democrat Maggie Hassan, is an accomplished governor with an inspiring story of discovering public service after her son was born with cerebral palsy. She’s worked out deals to keep Medicaid expansion on track and attack the state’s drug problem.
But she’s an extremely cautious campaigner. In a lengthy interview earlier this year, Hassan avoided any question with even a whiff of controversy. And when she officially filed to run last week, Hassan said Ayotte “has aligned herself with Donald Trump.”
Republican incumbents have more difficulty controlling their message, particularly in Washington, where they can be buttonholed by reporters on a daily basis and asked to weigh in on Trump’s latest controversy. Democratic challengers don’t have to deal with that distraction — they can run their campaigns in their home state, where there are far fewer political reporters.
Some Democrats break the mold, like Ted Strickland, the quirky former governor of Ohio. His penchant for tossing aside his talking points makes for good copy and conversation, but has resulted in ads run against him for quipping that he probably needs a congressional paycheck more than Portman and noting that he ran for Congress back in the 1970s. And Democrats openly backed Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania in her successful ouster of former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, whose penchant for getting off script was seen by party bosses as a major liability in the race against Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
The play-it-safe Democrats do open themselves to criticism for running low risk, cookie-cutter campaigns.
“She wants to run sort of a campaign that’s being driven by the people of Washington that have driven her to do this,” Ayotte said of Hassan.
Republicans say that a wave election at the presidential level doesn’t guarantee a Democratic takeover of the Senate. Asked about the national Democratic strategy, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) brought up the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon won 49 states yet Republicans somehow lost two Senate seats.
“You would have thought that a 49-state landslide would have helped a few Republican candidates. It didn’t seem to help,” Wicker said.
The effort to make the election a national referendum on Trump is being pressed by the likes of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who spent the entire last week linking Republicans to their standard-bearer. Many Republican incumbents — aside from a national figure like Sen. John McCain of Arizona — are dealing with low name recognition. If the Senate races are a referendum on Trump, it could bode poorly for Republican efforts to localize each race.
“They’re hoping for a wave election. But I don’t think it’s going to be a wave election,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.
Republicans believe Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity will be a drag on Democratic candidates, canceling out any Trump factor that could otherwise create a Democratic wave.
“With two candidates with this high unfavorables, it’s just very unlikely the bottom is going to drop out on one side and the other is going to be swept in,” Cornyn said.
Democratic candidates are careful not to fall into the trap of admitting that they’re pinning their hopes for victory on a national referendum on Trump. But he looms over every major race.
When Trump questioned Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s impartiality in a case against Trump University because of his “Mexican heritage,” Cortez Masto wrote about her own Latina roots with a post titled: “I am Judge Gonzalo Curiel.” And as Heck toured a Hyundai showroom in Henderson, Democrats sent people in parrot costumes wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.
“When you have no real policy ideas, you come up with gimmicks,” Heck said of the costumed demonstrators.
So, is Cortez Masto running against Heck or Trump? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
“Discrimination, anti-immigrant, anti-woman,” Cortez Masto said when asked about the two. “Are people angry about that and want to come out and make sure [Trump] doesn’t get elected? Yes. And anybody who doesn’t stand up to that discrimination and hate and anger should be held accountable as well.”
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