House Republicans wrote the book on nationalized elections after President Obama took office in 2009. Now, as they gear up for the first midterm of Donald Trump’s presidency, GOP strategists plan to flip the script, pushing members to focus on local issues to insulate themselves from turmoil at the national level.
More than a year and a half out from the 2018 midterms, Republican strategists are already advising lawmakers to stay out of the fray when it comes to Trump. Instead, they say, members should find non-polarizing issues to champion in their districts—similar to the strategies of some Senate Republicans in 2016.
That guidance comes as Trump’s favorability has waned during his first months in office, and top GOP policy priorities have stalled on the Hill. While strategists on both sides of the aisle say it’s far too early for the GOP to panic, even leaders of the main House super PAC—who are also tasked with pushing Speaker Paul Ryan’s policy agenda—say they’re designing campaigns around local concerns in the most competitive districts, rather than on health care and tax reform.
“Every member should be focusing on local issues—it’s not a cliche,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund. “[They need to] find the 30,000 to 40,000 people who care about a local issue and start communicating with them ASAP.”
Bliss managed Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s widely praised reelection campaign in Ohio last year. After helping hold the Senate, Bliss is one of a handful of former Senate operatives who have moved over to the more-competitive House battlegrounds this cycle.
Even though Trump won Ohio, Bliss believes Portman’s 21-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland could offer House members a strategy for combating headwinds at the national level. Through his role at CLF, he plans to replicate the Portman campaign’s hyper-local focus across 20 to 30 House races, with a budget of more than $100 million.
“Look at what Portman did working to clean up Lake Erie and combat heroin,” Bliss said in an interview at his downtown office, referring to two issues the senator stressed in his 2016 race. “You have to convince people, one, that [the race] matters, and two, you care about what they care about,” he added.
To do so, CLF is attempting something no other outside group has done. Rather than focus solely on a paid-media strategy, Bliss and his team are opening grassroots field offices in targeted congressional districts, most of which will be staffed by high school and college-aged volunteers. CLF will poll on a handful of local questions, then target just a small number of persuadable and soft Republican voters with information on their member’s work on issues as specific as Lyme disease or water quality. At the top of their target list are a large number of Trump voters—nearly one-fifth of his coalition—who have never before participated in a midterm election.
“If people running for Congress can get half of [those] Trump supporters to vote, they’d win,” Bliss said.
CLF already has offices open to help Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, Reps. David Valadao and Steve Knight of California, and Georgia special-election candidate Karen Handel. They plan to set up shop in three more California districts, including Rep. Darrell Issa’s, and also to help Reps. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, Carlos Curbelo of Florida, and Mike Coffman of Colorado.
“Don Bacon needs 90,000 votes to win. Barbara Comstock needs 100,000. … In a lot of these congressional districts, no matter what, it’s going to be close,” Bliss said. “If we can get a candidate an extra 5 points, that’s a big deal.”
Democrats, for their part, brush off the notion that Republicans can do anything to insulate themselves if Trump’s popularity continues to slide. After three cycles of running against President Obama and Obamacare, Republicans are “out of practice running as the governing party,” Democratic strategist Ian Russell said.
Russell, who served in various roles at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee between 2011 and 2016, pointed to former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas as someone who failed to win by going local, and emphasized that voters simply look at midterms as a way of sending a message to Washington.
“If you’re a Republican in a suburban swing district that Donald Trump’s numbers are just cratering in … you can’t escape the fact that you’re helping pass the agenda of a deeply unpopular president whose policy positions are hurting people in your district,” he said.
But among Republicans who have already run on the ticket with Trump, there’s some optimism that the 2016 results showed voters view him differently than past party standard-bearers.
“There’s more separation with Trump from the Republican brand than there has been with past presidents,” said one GOP strategist who worked on 2016 Senate races. “Democrats want to push the narrative that a Republican wave pushed everyone over the finish line, but that’s just not true.”
Pointing to the campaigns of Sens. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania as examples, the strategist said a nuanced approach to local issues was critical for down-ballot races because a number of senators who won in Trump states did so with differing voter coalitions.
Republicans still see some benefit to nationalizing races, at least when it comes to defining Democrats. In two special elections this month, Republicans who no longer have Obama or Obamacare to talk about ran ads tying Democrats to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In the coming months, CLF plans to announce a second list of offices, this time specifically targeting vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
“One message that still works is good ‘ole Nancy,” said Bliss. “Her image is negative-35—the worst messenger they could possibly come up with. I hope she never retires.”
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