Dec 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Vulnerable Democrats: Less Trump talk

Illustration of a hand with a needle about to pop a speech bubble in the shape of Donald Trump's head.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vulnerable House Democrats are convinced they need to talk less about the man who helped them get elected: President Trump.

Why it matters: Democrats are privately concerned nationalizing the 2022 mid-terms with emotionally-charged issues — from Critical Race Theory to Donald Trump's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — will hamstring their ability to sell the local benefits of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

  • The push by centrist lawmakers, especially from the suburbs, to keep the conversation away from Trump is frequently derailed by the party's loudest voices — and their insistence to talk about him at every turn.
  • “People don't want to hear about Donald Trump,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), told Axios. "They're going to vote because they want to see people get sh-t done.”
  • "All politics is local," Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) tweeted last week. "Whether it's advocating for the equitable redevelopment of Gwinnett Place Mall, or securing funding for our local trailway system, every day I am working in Congress for our community."
  • "All politics are local," Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) echoed during an interview with Axios. "I don't believe you run national campaigns for Congress."

Driving the news: Democrats took a drubbing in the Virginia gubernatorial election early last month.

  • When swing-district lawmakers returned to Washington after their Thanksgiving recess, they felt convinced about the wisdom of not running for re-election on national issues, one told Axios, requesting anonymity to speak freely.
  • While many of them surfed an anti-Trump blue wave to office, they believe strongly that continuing to run on kitchen-table issues is their only hope of re-election with Trump now out of office.

The big picture: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is walking a fine line between stoking anti-Trump animus — to help raise money and motivate activists — and giving their vulnerable "frontline" members space to talk about issues that matter to suburban voters.

  • "The leading role is getting big things done,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the DCCC, told Axios.
  • Any discussion of Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection should come after focusing on Biden's agenda. It's a “one-two punch,” Maloney said.
  • “We're delivering results at scale, for the size of the problems,” he said, citing enactment of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. “That's key, but the Republicans being reckless and irresponsible and motivated only by power is also going to be important.”

The bottom line: After Virginia, Democrats are on notice about the challenge confronting them next year.

  • Even the most elegant individual effort to localize a House race may not matter if there's a national anti-Democrat tsunami.
  • “It’s going to be really really hard to distinguish yourself from your national brand,” said Sean McElwee, executive director of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. “It’s functionally impossible for House members to do.”
  • Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg said Democrats need to capitalize on their successes and paint Republicans as extremists.
  • "The process of defining the Republicans as unfit will not be about Trump," he told Axios, but instead about how each Republican has adopted "unacceptable positions."
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