ALISO VIEJO, Calif. — Democrats are increasingly conflicted about how forcefully to press the issue of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Fearful of alienating voters who appear more concerned about the economy and health care, Democrats campaigning in districts across the country are de-emphasizing Russia in their rhetoric — and some are warning that a persistent focus on the Russia investigation could backfire.
“In the races where I’m working, I think voters think that Russia is important and that the questions need to get answered,” Bill Burton, a veteran Democratic consultant, said at a political convention this past weekend. “But they’re mostly sick of hearing about it, and they want to hear politicians talk about things that are more directly important in their lives.”
In a state that is critical to the party’s efforts to retake the House, Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist whose California Target Book handicaps races in California, called Russia a “distraction” and said Democrats “are going to be in deep, deep trouble if they don’t start talking about what voters care about.”
“We need to talk about what people think about when they wake up in the morning, and it’s not Russia,” Sragow said. “The more we talk about stuff that voters don’t truly care about in their daily lives … it confirms that the Democratic Party’s brain has been eaten by the elites in Washington who have been sitting fat and happy for a lot of years while working Americans have lost their jobs and lost confidence in the future.”
Public polling suggests the electorate is deeply suspicious of Trump’s ties to Russia — but also tired of the months-long inquiry into possible collusion between the president’s campaign and Russia. According to a Quinnipiac University Poll released this week, 63 percent of American voters believe Moscow interfered in the 2016 election, and in a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll last month, more than half of voters said it was inappropriate for Donald Trump Jr. to meet with an attorney linked to the Russian government.
But a plurality of voters in the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll said Congress should not seek to impeach Trump. An earlier Harvard-Harris Poll found nearly two-thirds of American voters say investigations into Trump and Russia are hurting the country.
In that polling, wary Democrats see shades of 1998, when Republicans were widely believed to have overreached on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, losing five House seats in the midterm elections.
“Obviously, you don’t know how everything’s going to come out and what cycles we’re going to go through with the independent counsel and the report,” said Mark Penn, the Harvard-Harris Poll’s co-director and former adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton. “But if you were to ask me as of today, Democrats are doing a lot better on health care than they’re doing on Russia … There’s a risk that they repeat ‘98, that the Republicans create a campaign on issues and [Democrats] get tagged too much with only being about negative arguments.”
The Russia investigation has proved alluring to Democrats for both the seriousness of the allegations and for the angry response it has provoked from Trump. And for Democrats bidding to unseat Republican incumbents — even those who have generally supported the investigation — the various probes have provided a platform on which to yoke Republican House members to Trump.
Brian Flynn, one of several Democrats challenging Rep. John Faso in New York, said, “The effect of Russia isn’t people think John Faso is involved in Russia … What it is doing is showing the betrayal of the people who put them in office, and that is how we’re using it.”
Still, Flynn said, “I don’t talk a lot about it … We’re not going to win on an anti-Trump, anti-corruption approach.”
Hans Keirstead, one of several Democrats challenging Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California, said Russia “is not the story … it’s an opener.” Running against Rohrabacher, a fierce defender of Russia on Capitol Hill, Keirstead said, “Russia just shows he is paying attention to things that are not district-focused.”
Even so, the Russia issue and it’s near-constant stream of developments remain a staple for many Democrats. On Thursday night, critics of Rep. Michael Burgess confronted the Republican lawmaker on Trump’s Russia ties at a town hall in Texas, while in California, Democrat Doug Applegate took to Twitter to mock GOP Rep. Darrell Issa as “Trump’s lapdog.”
Earlier this week at a gymnasium in Rohrabacher’s Orange County district, several hundred activists joined in a game of “Who said it? Dana or Putin?”
In a room off the gym floor, Rep. Ted Lieu said, “I think it depends what happens with this special counsel investigation … No one knows. It could be issue No. 8 in voters’ minds, or it could be No. 1 if they find collusion or people start getting indicted.”
Democratic National Party Chirman Tom Perez speaks at a rally to protest against President Donald Trump's firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey outside the White House on May 10. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Later, at the podium, Lieu told the crowd, “Here is a fun fact for you: the first article of impeachment for Nixon was obstruction of justice.”
Scott Simpson, a Democratic consultant who works on races throughout the country, doubted focusing attention on the Russia investigation would alienate voters or hurt Democrats in the midterm elections. But he said voters are “not attuned” to Russia and that health care is “just so much more top of mind.”
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s running for governor, was even more direct in a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The Russia investigation, he said, “doesn’t do anything for Democrats at all … It’s a loser.”
It’s not just the complicated nature of the Russia probes and their distance from many voters’ immediate concerns, that are leading Democrats to question the value of the issue on the campaign trail. Most voters who consider Russia a significant issue will tie the controversy to Trump, not members of Congress, said Colin Rogero, a Washington-based Democratic media consultant.
And unlike on health care, Republican House members believe they have little cause for concern on Russia, with many echoing Trump’s charge that the investigation is “fake news.”
“Democrats have forgotten one of the edicts of one of the wise men of their party, Tip O’Neill, who said ‘all politics is local,’” said Dave Gilliard, a strategist for four of California’s targeted Republicans — Reps. Jeff Denham, Mimi Walters, Issa and Ed Royce. “Russia is the furthest thing from those voters’ minds … If you went out on the street right now and asked 100 people what the most important issue right now is, I would be shocked if one said ‘Russia.’”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul last month called the Russia investigation a "witch hunt,” and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has said Washington should “stop chasing Russian ghosts around the closet.”
Even Rohrabacher, who would appear to be the most susceptible House member to any anti-Russia sentiment, dismisses any concern. After audio leaked of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying, supposedly in jest, that he suspected the Russian president of paying then-candidate Trump and Rohrabacher, the congressman said he posed for a photograph with McCarthy at a fundraiser last month — both of them holding drinks known as Moscow mules.
“I think that health care and tax reform will determine who controls the House of Representatives and who controls the Senate,” Rohrabacher said. “Republicans made a serious error when they started yakking away about ‘Within 100 days we’re going to do this and that,’ which was totally unrealistic.”
As for Russia, Rohrabacher said, “This is not an issue that voters are concerned about — not in my area, and certainly I don’t think throughout the country.”
Rohrabacher was heading to the beach for a meeting about shark detection technology, which he said has promising implications for swimmers along the coast.
“That’s the type of thing that I think impresses voters more than telling people that the Russians are just as evil and threatening as they were during the Cold War,” Rohrabacher said. “I’m confident about this election, and it’s not going to be about Russia.”