Democrats weigh tying GOP candidates to Trump’s hush money verdict

  • June 2, 2024
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Less than 20 minutes after the guilty verdict landed, Democrat Mondaire Jones lashed out against his Republican opponent, Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.), for supporting Donald Trump despite his conviction in the hush money case.

“The Republican Party is nominating a criminal convict as its presidential nominee, and Congressman Lawler is supporting the guy for the third consecutive time,” said Jones, the former lawmaker who is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 17th Congressional District.

Other Democrats running in competitive races also jumped on Trump’s resounding conviction as a way to question their Republican opponents’ judgment heading into a pitched battle for the House majority in November. It’s a question Democratic candidates downballot have faced every two years since 2016, trying to determine how much they should wade into the Trump muck in trying to tie their opponent to the scandal.

There hasn’t been a consistent answer over the years, but in the few days since Trump was pronounced guilty, House Democrats so far feel comfortable raising the issue in the battleground districts that will determine which side holds power next year. And it stands in stark contrast to House Republicans, led by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who are angry and lashed out at the judicial system.

“Don Bacon has endorsed a criminally convicted felon for President and enabled this lawlessness. That level of judgment has no place in the United States Congress,” Tony Vargas, a state senator running against Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), said after the verdict.

It seems as if national Democrats are on board with leaning into the guilty verdict. By early Friday afternoon the House Majority PAC, the super PAC affiliated with Democratic leadership, began issuing statement after statement under an “I support crime” headline for each embattled GOP incumbent defending Trump.

Democrats have centered their message on saying the verdict shows that every American faces consequences for their actions and to remind voters in competitive House districts, many of which favored President Biden four years ago, that their Republican counterpart cannot be independent from Trump.

“No one, no matter how powerful, is above the law. It also means that my Republican opponent Scott Baugh is now officially supporting a convicted felon,” said David Min, a Democrat who is running to replace retiring Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) in a seat that gave Biden a more than 10-point cushion in 2020.

In southern Arizona, where Biden edged Trump by less than one percentage point, Kirsten Engel, a Democrat, accused Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.) of undermining the judiciary by publicly opposing the jury verdict, tying him to far-right figures who tried to overturn Democratic victories in Arizona in recent elections.

“Trump loyalists are attempting to sow seeds of doubt for a political end, just as they tried to undermine our election systems after the 2020 and 2022 elections,” Engel wrote on X.

Democrats say that this strategy, a sharp contrast from their successful 2018 campaign of avoiding Trump’s personal scandals, is warranted because so many of today’s House GOP incumbents in swing districts have fully embraced their party’s presumptive nominee — the first felon to serve as a major-party nominee for president.

Where Republicans in battlegrounds six or eight years ago distanced themselves from Trump, today’s GOP incumbents went right into the fray within hours of Thursday’s verdict.

Ciscomani accused Manhattan prosecutors of having political motives in bringing the false-financial-records case and said that Arizonans don’t care about the case involving payouts to alleged mistresses.

“The voters I talk to every day — Republican, Democrat and Independent — aren’t interested in these games. This is exactly why the American public is losing faith in our judicial system,” he wrote on social media.

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), whose Long Island district favored Biden by about 14 percentage points in 2020, issued a roughly 90-word statement that was spelled out in all capitals in the stylistic bombast of Trump himself.

D’Esposito called the New York case a “shameful witch hunt” and mentioned “Biden’s failing campaign,” stock phrases for Trump. “Our best revenge is victory in November,” he wrote.

D’Esposito has been considered a fairly moderate Republican, but among GOP lawmakers responding to the verdict, he sounded like he hailed from a deeply conservative district.

In response, Democrats apparently see no reason to hold back against opponents who are linking themselves to a presidential candidate convicted of 34 felonies.

“You do not need to shy away from calling Donald Trump a convicted felon,” said Meredith Kelly, a political consultant who helped run the press shop for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2016 and 2018 campaigns.

But Kelly is careful in advising clients that they cannot make Trump scandals the centerpiece of their campaigns.

The felony convictions, she believes, can be folded into the broader argument of MAGA extremism that was successful in many Democratic campaigns in the 2022 midterm elections, linking it to election deniers and the January 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol that attempted to overturn Biden’s victory, along with the Supreme Court’s ruling nullifying abortion rights.

And, to be sure, every Democratic candidate needs to come up with their answer for assuaging voter concerns about persistent inflation.

Democrats learned this lesson the hard way in 2016, when at several points they focused their campaigns on Trump’s character and forgot to also sell their solutions to everyday issues.

In July 2016, the DCCC launched a major campaign against 10 House Republicans from suburban districts, calling them out for Trump being a “school bully” and lacking any “standards.” That effort went into even higher gear after the early October 2016 Washington Post report on Trump bragging about assaulting women during an appearance on Access Hollywood.

But those Republicans, such as Barbara Comstock (Va.) and Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), had shaped their own political brand and were already running away from Trump. Northern Virginia voters had known Comstock since her first state legislature race in 2008, and Curbelo had served five years on the local school board.

They couldn’t be turned into Trump clones — Comstock called on Trump to drop out of the race after the Access Hollywood report — and they each won comfortably. In 2018, Kelly recalled, Democrats sharpened their strategy to focus almost exclusively on “kitchen table” issues that middle-of-the-road voters most cared about.

Comstock faced ads in 2018 accusing her of being “Barbara Trumpstock,” but they focused on her votes for the $2 trillion tax cut and supporting Trump’s agenda “98 percent” of the time. She lost by about 12 percentage points to Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), as Democrats swept to the House majority.

The 2024 election, just five months out, has each party within grasp of the House majority. If politically safe vacant seats are allotted to each party, Democrats will enter November with 214, needing a net gain of just four seats to claim the majority.

Of the four trials Trump is facing, the Manhattan hush money case most resembled the Access Hollywood moment because it involved Trump’s personal behavior toward women, rather than other charges for attempting to overturn the 2020 election and Trump’s possession of classified documents post-White House tenure. Some Democrats might hesitate to jump into this personally muddy scandal.

But this trial consumed a ton of media attention. Trump’s rambling Friday morning statement about the trial dominated news sites. And once swing-district Republicans jumped into the fray by condemning the verdict, Democrats decided it would have been political malpractice not to try to frame the Trump verdict in their own terms.

Lawler, whose district favored Biden by more than 10 points in 2020, issued his own statement defending Trump within 30 minutes of the guilty verdict. “Our elections should be decided at the ballot box, not by partisan prosecutors,” he wrote.

Bacon and Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.), both retired military veterans from districts Trump lost, issued statements calling it an “unprecedented prosecution” and a “revenge” trial for political motives.

“No amount of rigged trials can cover up the damage that Joe Biden and the Democrats have done to our country,” Kiggans said.

And national Democrats appear to agree with responding vigorously.

Dan Pfeiffer, the former White House communications director in the Obama administration, wrote several essays calling on Democrats to push very hard on the conviction and allow Biden to say little to try to stay above the fray.

“Our opponent in the election was convicted of serious crimes; we should make him answer for it at every opportunity. The Republicans running up and down the ballot are slavishly devoted to defending that criminal. They should explain why,” Pfeiffer said.

Outside Los Angeles, Will Rollins took up that task against 16-term Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who went on a conservative talk radio show Thursday to call for Republicans to rally around Trump.

Rollins, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Calvert two years ago, decried Calvert’s bid to curry favor with Trump.

“We deserve a representative who cares more about the 750,000 of us in Riverside County than one convicted felon in New York,” he said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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