Senate Democrats have landed on a new boogeyman for a cycle mostly playing out on turf friendly to President Trump.
In a break from the anti-Trump messaging that defined last cycle, Democratic strategists predict that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could in some races prove a more potent villain than the president, particularly in places where Trump easily defeated Hillary Clinton.
The reasoning cited for McConnell’s sudden usefulness in campaigns beyond a Republican primary: Trump’s approval rating is better than average in several GOP-leaning states, while Congress—and, by extension, McConnell—is far more disliked.
“Why not make the foil the less popular Congress and McConnell than the relatively more popular Trump?” Democratic media strategist J.J. Balaban said. “McConnell seems to represent the swamp as much as anyone in politics today.”
Democratic consultants predicted that McConnell-based messaging could take on a heightened focus in deep-red states such as West Virginia, North Dakota, and Montana, where incumbents are playing defense and Trump is still relatively well-liked. Ten Senate Democrats up this year represent states that Trump won, including five by double digits.
McConnell attacks could also assume a higher profile in Democrats’ top offensive target, Nevada, where Rep. Jacky Rosen is challenging Republican Sen. Dean Heller. The Republican leader has already percolated in Heller’s primary race against frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian.
Three-fourths of Nevada voters know who McConnell is, and his favorability is 40 points underwater, according to a Nevada Democratic strategist who cited statewide focus groups and polling. While Trump energizes the Democratic base and is also unpopular, the strategist added, Nevadans view McConnell and congressional Republicans with much more hostility.
“McConnell sticks out as being the most effective boogeyman for attacks on Heller with persuadable voters in a general election,” said the strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly.
The Nevada State Democratic Party unveiled a mascot earlier this week called “Mitch McTurtle,” designed to highlight Heller’s ties to the majority leader. And a recent digital ad released by campaign-finance-reform group End Citizens United included a photo of McConnell, though it was not centered around him.
Helping to prosecute the anti-McConnell case, Democratic strategists say, is Trump himself. Over the summer, Trump chided McConnell for failing to pass health reform, and the two Republicans at times have had a frosty relationship. With the passage of the tax bill and after GOP efforts to dismantle the health care law, Democrats also see room to accuse McConnell and GOP candidates of pushing policies that hurt working Americans.
“McConnell certainly is in a much higher-profile position this cycle than he has been in the past,” Democratic consultant Martha McKenna said.
Republicans for years have demonized House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a tactic they successfully used in a special election last year to hold a suburban Georgia district. This year, House Democrats believe they can take a similar tack with Speaker Paul Ryan, convinced he symbolizes a broken Washington.
But GOP strategists contend that Democrats are exaggerating McConnell’s significance among the general electorate.
“There’s a very small contingent of voters in different parts of the country that are going to make a vote on who the leader is in the Senate,” GOP strategist Dan Allen said.
And not all Democratic strategists say using McConnell is the right strategy.
“There’s enough out there on Republican incumbents and how they vote, on the tax plan, and quite frankly, Trump,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “Putting McConnell up there just gets in the way.”
But after scoring an upset victory in Alabama last year, Democratic strategists say there is glaring proof of McConnell’s unpopularity, even in solidly Republican states. The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund spent millions in a failed effort to save former Sen. Luther Strange, who was repeatedly linked to the majority leader by eventual GOP nominee Roy Moore.
Two weeks before the December general election, internal polling from the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC showed McConnell’s favorability rating was 16 points underwater among all voters in Alabama, 6 points worse than former President Obama’s rating.
Despite McConnell’s standing in that race, SLF president Steven Law said attacks against the majority leader in general elections reflect the same “losing message” deployed by Democrats in 2014 and 2016.
“If Democrats hope to win any Senate races this fall, they’ll need something better than Roy Moore’s playbook,” Law said.
While Democrats anticipate McConnell will play an outsized role this year, party strategists say Trump messaging could still crop up in key races, including in Nevada, Arizona, and Florida—the latter especially if Gov. Rick Scott, a close ally of the president, runs.
In the meantime, McConnell rifts have already begun to define GOP primaries, the first test of how messaging against the majority leader could play out. McConnell has given Republicans leeway to avoid pledging support for him, saying that he will not be on the ballot in any state.
In Wisconsin, state Sen. Leah Vukmir has declined to say whether she would vote for him as party leader, while her rival Kevin Nicholson is promoting himself as an anti-McConnell candidate. Leading GOP hopefuls in other states such as Missouri have ducked questions on whether they would back McConnell.
Given that McConnell is better known to GOP voters than to the broader electorate, some Democratic strategists believe he is most likely to be a dominant issue only in primaries.
“McConnell has come to represent to a lot of populist, Trump-esque Republicans everything they dislike about their own party,” Democratic ad-maker Mark Longabaugh said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sees McConnell as a factor in both primaries and general elections.
“McConnell’s support continues to be the kiss of death for GOP candidates facing primaries, and his agenda is repulsive to the independent voters key to this midterm,” DSCC spokesman David Bergstein said.
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