House Democrats appear to have found a campaign message more than a year and a half before the midterms: President Trump turned his back on the working-class voters who sent him to the White House.
As Republicans’ trademark campaign promise to repeal Obamacare imploded, top House Democrats described the fumble not as a silver bullet for 2018 but the beginning of two years of GOP policies that will prioritize the wealthy at the expense of a rural, blue-collar electorate that helped Republicans win total control of Washington.
With tax reform up next, Democrats see the potential for another major data point to add to their argument.
“If he continues along those lines and does tax breaks for his buddies and his cronies and the people like he has sitting around his Cabinet, that’s going to be a problem in a district like mine,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who cochairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and who holds a rural seat carried by Trump. “We don’t have a whole lot of millionaires and I don’t think we have any billionaires.”
Rep. Denny Heck of Washington, who heads recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the health care bill “a $600 billion tax cut for the very wealthiest of Americans” and warned that Republicans will fail again if their tax-code-reform efforts end up helping the rich “at the expense of vulnerable people.”
“If they keep trying to do things that America doesn’t want, then they’ll be held accountable—very straightforward,” Heck said.
At a press conference Tuesday morning at their national party headquarters, House Democratic leadership blasted Trump and House Republicans as charlatans for campaigning on plans to boost blue-collar voters, then declining to put forth major legislation to benefit them in the first 67 days.
They contrasted the stimulus package and Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that were passed in the first month of a Democratic-controlled government in 2009 to the millions of working families who could be left uninsured under the GOP’s health plan.
Moderate Republicans in affluent, suburban swing seats made headlines as they abandoned the repeal. But Democrats also noted it would have been especially detrimental to rural constituencies. Districts like those held by Republican Reps. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin and Bruce Poliquin of Maine, which are more than 70 percent rural and both backed Trump handily, would have lost more in tax credits than neighboring urban districts.
“At some point they’re going to start figuring out—’Wait a minute, this was just a whole bunch of campaign hype out there,’” Democratic Rep. Ron Kind said, citing the “devastating” impact that both the Obamacare repeal and Trump’s budget would have on his rural Wisconsin district, which the president won.
Democrats have already started making that case to midterm voters. The Caucus policy committee has hit Trump’s budget for its proposed cuts to programs that provide rural job-training and infrastructure funding. The DCCC launched a five-figure digital ad campaign blasting Republicans who voted the health care bill out of committee, and it released a poll conducted this month of 1,000 voters in 52 battleground districts that found 54 percent opposed to the GOP plan and only 30 percent in favor.
Still, it’s not clear if Trump and House Republicans are on the same page when it comes to tax reform. On the campaign trail, the president emphasized help for the middle and working classes, but the congressional plan is expected to bring less relief to those groups.
Rep. Linda Sánchez of California, one of six Democrats on the tax policy subcommittee, said House Republicans are crafting their bill in secrecy, leaving her skeptical that the GOP plans to take tax reform in a direction that would benefit working families.
“I have been begging our chairman. I have been begging our Republican colleagues to try to invite us in on that conversation,” said Sanchez, the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Republicans insisted there is still time to challenge a narrative that their policies are at odds with the populist bloc that elected them. House Rules Chair Pete Sessions of Texas said Democrats have to wait until next October before writing the book on GOP priorities.
Trump’s proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure plan could provide a legislative victory, an economic stimulus, and a chance to work with Democrats in one hit. And House GOP leadership announced Tuesday its intent to keep working on an Obamacare-repeal plan.
“I don’t think in any way this is an indication that we’re not going to rally back with a good plan that would be good for not only the middle class but every single person that needs a better health care system,” said Sessions, a former two-term chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
From the start, Democrats have said they have to run on more than an anti-Trump platform even as controversial legislative plans take shape. The party has plenty to offer working-class Americans, Democrats said, they just have to work harder to make sure voters are aware.
Bustos pointed to legislation she’s worked on to boost export centers for small businesses and use American steel in water-infrastructure projects.
“Go on the back of a pickup truck on the perimeter of a corn field and just sit down and talk about what we are doing,” she suggested. “Let people know that not only have we not forgotten them, but we are fighting for them.”