All Politics May Be Local in the Midterms

GOP strategists are urging House candidates to stress issues of regional concern rather than get in fights over President Trump.

Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska
AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
April 20, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

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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