POLITICS
08/22/2018 06:44 pm ET

Trump’s Corrupt Inner Circle Won’t Be Democrats’ New Midterm Focus

The party will focus on a culture of corruption, not the Trump administration’s wrongdoing.
Don't expect to see Michael Cohen's face in many Democratic television ads.
Mike Segar / Reuters
Don't expect to see Michael Cohen's face in many Democratic television ads.

The nearly simultaneous, split-screen convictions of President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer and one-time campaign chairman on Tuesday seemed designed to give the Democratic Party a powerful message heading into the 2018 elections, the same one Trump successfully deployed in 2016: “Drain the swamp.”

The narrative builds itself: The number of close Trump associates linked to criminal wrongdoing is growing, the first two members of Congress to endorse him are both under indictment, his cabinet has already seen two members resign over corruption allegations and Trump has never separated himself from his businesses, turning Mar-a-Lago into an invitation for bribery. And for armies of armchair campaign strategists, railing against the Trump administration’s corruption is a message Democrats can ride to victory in 2018 and 2020.

But Democratic campaigns in competitive general elections have been slow to embrace the messaging. National party strategists believe the Trump administration’s corruption – constantly covered in both the national and local news media – is the “mood music” for the midterms, and voters don’t need paid advertising to remind them of it. When Democrats do talk about corruption, it likely won’t be in the form of broad-scale attacks on the Trump administration, but in promising to clean up Washington with good-government reforms.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have eagerly talked up reviving the party’s 2006 messaging about a culture of corruption on Capitol Hill, believing it will help the party create a similar wave 12 years later after it first helped them reclaim the House. But direct attacks on the Trump administration have been few and far between in Democratic television ads, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG.

Just 12 percent of all ads aired by Democratic House and Senate candidates in 2018 deal with corruption, according to the data. By comparison, about 13 percent of all ads aired by Republicans in 2018 have dealt with corruption. And most of the ads have dealt with localized scandals ― for both Democrats and Republicans, the race with the most ads focused on corruption has been Missouri’s Senate contest.

In that race, Democrats haven’t touched on former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s scandals or Cohen’s campaign finance shenanigans. Instead, a Democratic super PAC controlled by allies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has seized on state Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley’s ties to the state’s disgraced former governor, Eric Greitens, and to various wealthy donors. Meanwhile, Republicans have attacked Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill for growing wealthier while in office.

Democrats plan to hammer local scandals in other races. In Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, Democrats are ready to center the fall campaign around Rep. Scott Taylor’s wrongdoing in helping a third-party candidate make the ballot. While GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan’s decision to buy a yacht the same day the House passed the GOP’s tax law is a sure-fire issue in Florida’s 16th Congressional District.

The localized strategy isn’t enough for some. “Corruption and accountability are the defining issues of the election now,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the director of the Moscow Project. “We have a president who directed a criminal conspiracy and who is being investigated for conspiring with a hostile foreign power to interfere with the election. Yet the Republican Congress is not only doing nothing to hold Trump accountable they are actively working to protect him.”

A Democratic poll released earlier this month from Navigator Research found just 33 percent of registered voters trusted congressional Democrats more to reduce government corruption, while 29 percent trusted Republicans in Congress. A plurality of 38 percent didn’t know which party they trusted more.

Still, there are some Democratic efforts to push anti-corruption messaging ahead of the midterms. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday rolled out a robust anti-corruption package just hours ahead of Paul Manafort’s conviction. Dozens of Democratic candidates have sworn off taking money from corporate PACs. And Pelosi has made it a key plank of the Democrats’ “Better Deal” plan, rolling out proposals for automatic voter registration, strengthening ethics laws and overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision with a constitutional amendment. 

Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who helped write the platform, said Democratic candidates are beginning to embrace it.

“You get heads nodding, you can feel the sense of frustration and anger and cynicism in the public is broad and deep,” he said. “The broken promise of Trump, that he was going to come to Washington, drain the swamp, clean it up, return power to the people ― he’s reneged on all of them, he’s made the situation worse.”

Pelosi’s effort recalls the Democrats’ 2006 push to use scandals surrounding then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff to tar nearly every incumbent House Republican as part of a culture of corruption. The effort was widely credited with helping Democrats win back the House after 12 years out of power. 

For Sarbanes, however, the corruption message isn’t about hammering away on individual bad actors like Cohen and Manafort, but about showing how a corrupt system prevents good policy – how pharmaceutical company donations drive up drug prices and why Wall Street lobbies against minimum wage hikes. “This anti-corruption, reform message caffeinates every other message we’re delivering,” he said.

“It’s important for people not to get too bogged down in the latest specific scandal. This is like an impressionist painting or something, every breaking development is more paint on this picture of corruption,” Sarbanes said. “If you’re tired of looking at it, you should give Democrats a chance to prove we can do something different.”

But perhaps the best sign Democrats won’t be putting Cohen and Manafort’s perp walks in 30-second ads from now until November came when the first ad mentioning the scandal was announced on Wednesday. The name of the group airing it? Republicans for the Rule of Law. 

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