Dean Phillips, a Democrat running for Congress in a suburban Minneapolis battleground district, had just opened and closed a 75-minute debate by railing against the corrupting influence of money in politics, the hallmark issue of his campaign.
Shortly after he got off stage, he read the news that three Republicans close to President Trump were indicted on, convicted of, or pled guilty to charges of financial fraud or breaking campaign finance law.
“Making the argument through anecdotes or through my experience is one thing,” Phillips said in an interview Wednesday. “But when the news headlines bear the facts in a much more bold and public way, it absolutely supports the contention.”
In interviews Wednesday, national Democratic strategists described the benefit of Tuesday’s legal dramas as potent though indirect—they bolster the narrative of toxicity in Washington and in doing so strengthen the anti-corruption message that candidates like Phillips and super PACs are already pushing on a race-by-race basis.
With the conviction of Paul Manafort and the guilty plea of Michael Cohen, the ongoing investigation of Trump and his 2016 campaign have sucked up most of the oxygen this week. But ethics scandals have also plagued the House Republican Conference throughout the cycle.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California was charged with federal crimes Tuesday, two weeks after Rep. Chris Collins of New York endured the same ordeal (the two lawmakers were the first to endorse Trump during his presidential campaign). A Virginia special prosecutor is investigating whether aides of Republican Rep. Scott Taylor illegally forged signatures to secure a ballot spot for a third-party candidate likely to pull votes from his Democratic opponent. And the House Ethics Committee is probing Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona and his chief of staff for potential impermissible use of official funds.
Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida is facing criticism for purchasing a multimillion-dollar yacht the same day that Republicans passed a tax bill with a loan from a foreign-owned bank that lobbied heavily in favor of Republicans’ tax overhaul. And Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa was accused of violating House ethics rules by obscuring his role in a company that he created that also featured a false testimony from one of his congressional staffers.
On the trail, dozens of Democratic nominees have crafted a drain-the-swamp platform. In Southern Illinois, Brendan Kelly touts his background fighting companies that hike prescription-drug prices and big banks that swindle potential homeowners. In Orange County, Katie Porter made a name for herself by blowing the whistle on the impending housing bubble.
In Minnesota, Phillips blasts his opponent, Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, for receiving one of the largest amounts of special-interest money of any member of Congress.
Nearly 100 Democratic House and Senate candidates have taken the pledge to eschew corporate PAC money, according to an analysis from End Citizens United, a campaign-finance-reform group. Polling has indicated that the increasing role of money in political campaigns is a concern among voters.
“The way we advise candidates to talk about it is that the system is broken, it's being abused,” said Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for that organization. “Politicians are rigging it for themselves, for their donors, and people around the country are paying the price.”
Republican strategists Wednesday said the latest legal developments, like previous scandals rocking the Trump administration, are unlikely to boost or depress turnout with either party’s base. More than half of voters in one CNN poll this month said they had mostly tuned out Manafort's trial, though a three-quarters majority in a Monmouth University survey released Monday said they had seen or heard about the case.
“I know what a lot of people in Washington D.C. think,” said Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy, “but I don’t think that … the cultured, cosmopolitan, bacon-wrapped-shrimp-eating crowd in Washington, D.C. is necessarily reflective of what the American people are thinking.”
The key, Democrats say, is to integrate a campaign against corruption into the kitchen-table issues that are top of mind for voters of both parties in November. Some in the party warn that an anti-corruption focus can’t come at the expense of critiquing the GOP’s tax law and plans to overturn provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
“Even as egregious as all this is, voters think both parties are dirty and Democrats should stick to the penetrating messages on health care, economic fairness, and priorities for working families,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone. “All the other stuff is baked into the cake."
Democratic groups and challengers have tried to directly saddle House Republicans with the Collins and Hunter indictments, calling on incumbents to return donations that they have received from the embattled congressmen.
But many candidates for the most part Wednesday avoided the topic altogether. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat seeking reelection in North Dakota, told reporters she is focusing on agricultural and health care policy and that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation should continue without undue politicization. “The judiciary and the Department of Justice are doing their job, I’m going to do my job,” she added.
Still, Democratic campaigns have the bandwidth and resources to carry out several messages and it’s possible to tie them together. House Majority PAC, Democrats’ flagship House super PAC, released two ads Tuesday accusing two vulnerable members of Congress, Reps. Steve Knight of California and David Young of Iowa, of serving donors and special interests over constituents with votes they have taken in Congress.
Democratic outside groups have already spent months linking Republican Senate candidates’ official actions to special interests. End Citizens United launched a TV ad in Montana on Wednesday accusing Senate nominee Matt Rosendale of accepting “thousands in insurance industry contributions” while he “rubber-stamps proposed insurance-rate increases.”
Senate Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action have mirrored that message against state attorneys general Josh Hawley of Missouri and Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, saying that Hawley sued to “deny health care” to those with preexisting conditions after “getting contributions from the insurance industry,” and Morrisey failed to “police the opioid industry” after he and his wife lobbied on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.
“It’s another proof point that work needs to be done to have independent senators that are rooting out corruption and aren’t beholden to people that aren’t their voters,” said Senate Majority PAC spokesman Chris Hayden.
Forces on the Democrats’ left are already taking Tuesday’s news to renew calls for Trump’s impeachment. Tom Steyer plans to cut a TV ad redoubling its call for the president’s removal from office after Cohen’s guilty plea. Polling conducted for Steyer’s Need to Impeach campaign found that Democratic voters want their party’s candidates to talk about impeachment.
But in interviews Wednesday, Democratic strategists said candidates should still avoid an issue that’s proved to be a double-edged sword. In fact, few, if any, Democrats running in competitive races have made impeachment part of their campaign platforms.
“If it’s a swing district, you’re not going to win on a referendum on impeachment,” said John Rowley, a Democratic media consultant. “It’s such a hyper-partisan message.”
And Phillips said the indictments have not changed his plan to withhold judgment on impeachment until Mueller concludes his investigation and all the facts are known: “I caution people from getting on that bandwagon too soon.”