Trump, Republican corruption issues give Democrats opening for midterm elections
Fredreka Schouten and Eliza Collins, USA Today
August 22, 2018
WASHINGTON – Leading Democrats in Congress are seizing on the tidal wave of legal troubles hitting President Donald Trump's allies to cast the Republican Party as deeply corrupt ahead of the fast-approaching midterm elections.
Democratic leaders say they plan to make ethics a key pillar of their push to take the House majority this fall, arguing their party will serve as a check on what House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calls the Trump administration's "brazen corruption, cronyism and incompetence."
Trump and his allies suffered a triple hit Tuesday: The conviction of Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort on bank and tax fraud, a guilty plea by his former attorney Michael Cohen that implicated the president in violating campaign-finance laws and the federal indictment of one of Trump's earliest congressional supporters, California Rep. Duncan Hunter. Prosecutors say Hunter and his wife used $250,000 in campaign funds for family vacations, private-school tuition and other personal expenses.
"This is a president who promised people that he was going to be their voice, that he was going to return power to the people. But he's gone in the opposite direction," said Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, who was tapped by Pelosi to lead a "democracy reform" task force for House Democrats.
"Voters can't keep up with every breaking development and every new scandal that comes across the transom every day," Sarbanes added. "But they do understand that the way this president and his allies in Congress and his buddies like Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins are behaving is disrespecting the average person out there."
The stakes are high for both parties.
Democrats need to flip just 23 seats in order to take back control of the House. But they are competing in dozens of districts that either swing between the parties in elections or solidly backed Trump in 2016. And many individual Democratic candidates have steered clear of attacking the president or those in his orbit in favor of pushing pocketbook issues, such as rising health care costs.
Strategists in both parties, however, say red-state Democrats risk energizing Republican voters if they focus too narrowly on ethics issues and raise the specter of impeaching a president who has still has high approval ratings in his party.
“For a lot of Republicans, particularly base Republicans, (impeachment) is a really powerful motivator," said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the grass-roots group Tea Party Patriots that helped sweep Republicans into Congress in 2010, said the GOP should use Democrats' arguments to rally the base about an impeachment threat.
“Anyone who was not paying attention before now knows this is a battle for the presidency,” Martin said Wednesday.
Democrats acknowledge the tightrope.
The party's candidates must “avoid blind hatred of Trump,” said Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., when Democrats swept to power in 2006 amid an array of Republican ethics scandals.
“It’s not enough to rail against Trump and the unprecedented level of corruption,” he said. “Democrats have to tie it back to the impact it’s having on things such as clean air, clean water and the massive tax benefits for wealthy corporations.”
Earlier this month, following Collins' arrest, Pelosi issued a memo to her Democratic colleagues reminding them that "a key part" of their agenda was an anti-corruption message. But Tuesday she issued another memo that said that message was just a plank in a larger platform.
"It is our duty as Members of Congress to seek the truth, and hold the President and his Administration accountable to the American people, and we will," Pelosi said in Wednesday's memo. "As November rapidly approaches, we must also stay focused on delivering our strong economic message to hard-working families across America."
The fight already has begun.
Hours after the Hunter indictment, the Cohen plea agreement and Manafort guilty verdict came down, the national Democratic Party sent a fundraising email lambasting the “culture of corruption that Donald Trump brings with him everywhere.”
“If we don’t do everything we can to fight back, the consequences could be catastrophic,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez wrote. “This November’s elections are an opportunity to fight back and reclaim our democracy.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a potential 2020 Democratic contender, this week called for new anti-corruption measures in Washington, including a lifetime ban on former presidents and members of Congress working as lobbyists.
And Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democrat running against Hunter, seized on the indictment as he seeks to gain an advantage in a San Diego-area district Hunter captured by 27 percentage points in his last election in 2016.
Voters “see Hunter now as a poster child for all of the division and the chaos and corruption that has plagued Washington for so long," Campa-Najjartold USA TODAY on Wednesday.
But Hunter, who has been stripped of his committee assignments, remains in Congress and defiant. In a local TV interview Wednesday, he cast the Justice Department as the "Democrats’ arm of law enforcement."
"It's happening with Trump, and it’s happening with me," he said, "and we’re going to fight through it and win, and the people get to vote in November, so we’ll see.”
Back to the future?
In some ways, Democrats are reaching back into their history and the 2006 campaign in which they repeatedly attacked a "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill after a dozen years of Republican domination.
Democrats regained total control of Congress in that election, after highlighting several high-profile scandals, including one that sent then-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others to federal prison.
“I understand why Democrats would want to play that tune again because it was successful 12 years ago," Holmes said, "but the circumstances were very different."
David Wasserman, who tracks House races at the nonpartisan "Cook Political Report," said many Democrats learned in the 2016 presidential election that focusing exclusively on Trump and "his outrageous statements" did not persuade red-state voters to reject him.
“Democrats running in swing and red districts are likely to let the convictions speak for themselves and focus on health care and the Republican tax bill," Wasserman said.