May 26th, 2020

The Nation

Dems tiptoe around Trump in competitive House races

James Hohmann

By James Hohmann The Washington Post

Published Oct. 30, 2018

GLEN ALLEN, Va. - The 2018 midterms are a referendum on Donald Trump, who has been omnipresent on Twitter and television during the homestretch and seems to suck up all the political oxygen on the national stage. That's why Republicans are poised to pad their majority in the Senate, where the battlegrounds are red states the president carried by double digits two years ago. And it is why Democrats are favored to win the House, where control will be decided in suburbs where Trump has never been popular.

But many Democratic candidates in the country's most hard-fought congressional districts barely talk about the president. They think he is loathed enough on the left that they don't need to throw red meat to raise money or attract volunteers. They're worried that if they spend their time attacking Trump, voters won't know what they stand for. And they're trying to woo moderates who want a check on the president without more gridlock or divisiveness.

As the map of competitive races has expanded, there are also plenty of toss-up contests where the president isn't as unpopular as one might presume. It all adds up to a jarring disconnect a week out from the election between the conversation at the national level and the one on the ground in places like this suburb of Richmond.

Trump's name, for example, did not come up once during a 90-minute campaign event here Saturday night for Democrat Abigail Spanberger. The former CIA operations officer is challenging Rep. Dave Brat, who toppled then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary four years ago. Two dozen people fanned out across six plush leather couches arranged in a circle in the middle of a strip-mall barbershop for a freewheeling roundtable discussion.

Spanberger was joined by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who is coasting to reelection against Republican challenger Corey Stewart two years after Hillary Clinton tapped him as her running mate. Attendees could ask whatever they wanted and were encouraged to chime in. Health care was the No. 1 concern, followed by education. The unchoreographed back-and-forth covered issues from how to make middle school more useful for children to improving the juvenile justice system, increasing access to Small Business Administration loans and making it easier to launch start-ups.

After the event, Spanberger said it's "100 percent" normal for no one to bring up Trump in settings like this, and she does not do so either. "That's one of the things I've had to contend with is, when people kind of talk at me about my district, making sure that's not a talking point," she said in an interview. "We talk about the anger, and we talk about divisive rhetoric. All of that points in his direction, of course. The highest leadership sets the tone. He's set a tone that a lot of people find inappropriate and lacking decency, but it doesn't have to be about him."

She said there are "notable exceptions," identifying Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, his tariffs and his child separation policy as three moments when she has unabashedly called out the president.

Trump carried this district by six points in 2016, as Brat was reelected by 15 points. Of Virginia's 11 House seats, this is one of four that Democrats could realistically pick up next week. It has become a national bellwether because it captures in miniature many of this cycle's dynamics: an impressive young female challenger running for the first time (a 39-year-old mother of three), who is outraising the incumbent and making inroads in a fast-growing suburban district that has leaned Republican.

Kaine said it's smart for candidates not to talk much about Trump because they don't need to. "My theme on my campaign is 'A Virginia that works for all,' " the senator said in an interview. "That's not a Trump thing. When I talk about the 'for all' thing, I do point out that we've got a president who is a for-me guy, not a for-all guy. So I'll do a little bit. But Donald Trump, you can say this about him, has one of the lowest percentages of people who are undecided about him of anybody ever. So if you spend a lot of time talking about him, you're wasting your time. People know what they think about him.

"At a Democratic event, you can get a lot of applause by talking about Trump - criticizing him for this and for that," he continued. "But when they're walking to the car, they'll say to themselves, 'Wait. Wait. What are they going to do for me?' I think an important thing for the Dems is to really be on our front foot about saying, 'Here is what matters to us and here's what we're doing.' "

Looking back on the 2016 campaign, Kaine said that "there should have been much, much more of that."

"I'd be getting talking points from the Clinton campaign every day," he said. "And it would be, 'Here's what we're going to say about Trump today.' And I'd say, 'No, here's what I'm going to say about Hillary today. And then I'll say that thing about Trump.' But the overall thinking was that Trump was a clear and present danger to the country, which he was. That was all accurate, but there wasn't enough being on the front foot. And you've got to be on the front foot."

Kaine's perspective was striking because a Republican strategist in Washington who is involved in decisions about House spending expressed concern in a conversation Friday that Brat is partly in peril because he's not giving Virginians reasons to vote for him. The concern among the consultant class is that Brat's messaging seems to be dominated by grievance and self-pity that they fear comes across as whining and off-putting to a swath of the voters he must win over.

Two weeks ago, while visiting a nearby jail, Brat compared the struggles of drug addicts doing hard time to the attack ads he's been absorbing from Democrats. "You think you're having a hard time? I got $5 million worth of negative ads going at me," Brat told the inmates. "How do you think I'm feeling? Nothing's easy. For anybody. You think I'm a congressman. 'Oh, life's easy. This guy's off having steaks.' . . . Baloney." He later told the inmates, "You got it harder - I'm not dismissing that."

A new poll from Christopher Newport University shows Spanberger's careful approach to Trump paying dividends, with 46 percent of likely voters supporting her and 45 percent backing Brat. The survey from the Wason Center for Public Policy found that Spanberger's lead is wider among voters who said they were definitely going to vote, though that number was also within the margin of error.

Trump's approval rating in the district is 47 percent, with 51 percent disapproving. Overall, 43 percent strongly disapprove of the president's performance, compared with 30 percent who strongly approve. A 16-point "enthusiasm gap" could be determinative: 78 percent of Democrats say they are "very enthusiastic" about voting, but only 62 percent of Republicans do.

These numbers indicate that the energy is there for Spanberger without her needing to tee off on Trump. She noted that 622 volunteers canvassed for her around the district on Saturday. Many came from parts of Northern Virginia without competitive races.

"With typical Democratic-voting people who may not vote in midterms or who may not even vote every four years, we've been really intentional about making sure that those voters know that this race is winnable," she said. "Especially in a historically Republican district, part of the hurdle is a lot of people just don't get out and vote if they don't think there's any reason to vote. So we've made sure people know we've moved it to a toss-up. A toss-up means we could win or he could win so you have to vote. I think we've had a fair amount of success with that."