With the political world, and the president himself, transfixed by multiple Russia investigations hanging over the White House, Democrats are growing increasingly concerned that movement on Republican legislative priorities will fly under voters’ radar.
This week, Democrats are adjusting their focus — and, they hope, that of the public — toward GOP-led efforts in the Senate to repeal Obamacare, an issue party strategists anticipate to have more sway in next year’s midterm elections than myriad investigations. As Senate Republicans aim for a vote on yet-to-be-finalized legislation by the July 4 recess, Democrats are employing tactics to slow their progress and spotlight the process.
This comes ahead of a highly anticipated special election Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District that Democrats hope will serve as a referendum on President Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress.
The close race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in suburban Atlanta has become the most expensive House campaign in history, with $50 million raised by the candidates and outside groups. The district, which Trump narrowly won and that has been represented by Republicans for decades, is the type Democrats are eyeing in their ambition to regain control of the House. And there, health care has been a focal point of Ossoff’s campaign, not Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
“The kitchen table issues are what people are going to show up to the polls for. When it comes down to it, and you talk to voters in the 6th, they’re more concerned with health care and economic issues than others,” says Michael Smith of the Georgia Democratic Party. “I don’t think Russia is playing a significant role in this election whatever.”
Back on Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers are balancing congressional oversight tasks as they relate to the Russia probe with other voter concerns.
“I think it’s time we start focusing almost all of our attention on health care. This is a red alert moment, this bill is speeding to the floor,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy told RCP last week. “Bob Mueller is going to continue the Russia investigation, and I’d be advising Democrats for the time being to put a little pause on the high-profile Russia hearings and focus all our energies on a health care bill that could ultimately ruin our nation’s health care economy.”
Murphy said Democrats “will focus like a laser beam” over the next few weeks on the GOP repeal plan in hopes of driving down public approval of it even further. Senate Republicans have yet to agree on their own replacement measure, and have garnered criticism by some in their own party about the closed-door nature of the bill-drafting process. Polls show low public support for the House version of the American Health Care Act. Democrats have pointed to the president reportedly calling the House version “mean” in his meeting with Republican senators recently.
Senate Democrats moved Monday to slow the chamber to a near halt, using procedural tactics to stall votes and other business, possibly even committee hearings, in protesting the way Republicans are moving forward with their legislation. It’s not yet clear what this will portend for a scheduled intelligence committee hearing on election safety and Russian interference later this week. “We have to make the point that this isn’t the way to legislate,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein told reporters. “We will get to the Russia hearing. … [But it’s] about how many people are going to die if we don’t do the right thing.”
Democrats believe various economic issues are more important to voters than the Russia investigation, particularly in districts that supported Trump. Asked how his constituents are processing the latter, Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester told RCP: “It’s not even on the radar screen.”
“The budget is much more on the radar screen than that,” said Tester, who is up for re-election next year in a state Trump won by 20 percentage points. “I think the better message is to talk about the economy and jobs, and have Russia be the secondary message. But I think it’s also critically important to get to the bottom of this, for democracy’s sake.”
Democrats lost a special election for an at-large House seat in Montana last month to a Republican candidate who was charged with assaulting a reporter on the eve of the election. Businessman Greg Gianforte had embraced Trump’s policies, while his Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, made his closing ads about health care. The seven-point win ran counter to national Democrats’ theories about Trump’s toxicity.
But the Georgia district is more reflective of the areas where Democrats can succeed, operatives and strategists say. Voters there are affluent, highly educated, and aren’t aligned with Trump’s style of politics, even if they are Republican. Mitt Romney won the 6th by 24 points in 2012, while Trump carried it by just one. Handel, the Republican secretary of state, has kept the president at arm’s length without overtly distancing herself from him. She also has focused on more traditional GOP themes and painted her opponent as an out-of-town liberal (Ossoff lives outside the district). Republican leaders in Congress have come to Georgia to campaign for her.
On Monday, Trump tweeted his support: “The Dems want to stop tax cuts, good healthcare and Border Security. Their ObamaCare is dead with 100% increases in P’s [premiums]. Vote now for Karen H.” Her campaign sent a last-minute fundraising email promoting the tweet.
Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer and documentary filmmaker, first framed his campaign as a clear referendum on Trump but has nearly abandoned that theme, even as resistance groups pour money into the race on his behalf. Ossoff has tried to court independents and moderate Republicans by pledging to cut wasteful government spending, and to work with both parties in Congress.
On health care, he has criticized Handel for the House GOP bill’s changes to coverage for pre-existing conditions. The Republican candidate has not voiced full support for the legislation, but noted during a debate that her sister has a pre-existing condition. Ossoff has also run ads condemning Handle for her opposition to Planned Parenthood while she was an executive at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, an issue over which she resigned.
A poll conducted earlier this month by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found health care to be a top issue among voters in the district, with 81 percent calling it an important priority. Ninety-percent of those voters said they supported Hillary Clinton in last year’s election. The survey also found that just 25 percent of district voters approved of the GOP health care bill in the House.
Democratic strategists say that while support for an independent Russia investigation remains high in polling, and that respondents often say they trust fired FBI Director James Comey more than the president, the issues involving Russia won’t likely drive people to polls in this race.
“When you’re making an evaluation of two distinct candidates, it’s going to be on something more personal to you and your family. It’s going to be health care,” says one Democrat working on House contests.
That’s not to suggest that the Russia investigations don’t carry weight for Democrats. Strategists attribute the president’s low approval rating — 40 percent in the RCP polling average — to the various controversies surrounding the administration.
Polling by the Democratic group Priorities Action found that by a margin of 47 percent to 35 percent, voters were more concerned about a Republican lawmaker’s support for the House health care bill than they were about a lawmaker’s opposition to an independent probe into Trump and Russia.
Democrats argue that lawmakers and national party leaders should continue to press Republicans and the president on Russia. “But it’s also imperative that Democrats and progressive allies communicate directly with voters about health care and similar issues that impact people’s lives,” says Josh Schwerin, communications director for Priorities Action USA. “As much as the American people dislike what they hear about Trump and Russia, the Republican actions on health care bother them even more.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill say independent counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will allow them to focus on their issues, especially as the midterm elections ramp up next year. “People know how serious it is. They wouldn’t want a foreign adversary to essentially invade an American election and take it away from the voters,” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine told RCP. “The good news is that right now with a special prosecutor, we’re going to get to the bottom of it. … That frees up some mental energy and now we’re really going to focus on health care.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.