That quartet represents the most endangered Senate Democrats and could decide the Senate majority next year: If all four win, Republicans probably have no path to getting the 51 seats. These Democrats say inflation is a big concern for their voters, not the former president.
“Things like the price of gasoline, the price of ground beef or groceries or prescription drugs, especially if they’re a senior,” Kelly said in a brief interview. “You know, they’re not looking back at an old — an election a year ago. They’re thinking about, ‘What affects my family?’”
That message has echoes of 2018 when Democrats won the House majority on a similar message, imploring candidates to avoid the bright lights that Trump messaging brings.
But some Democrats fear that this is letting the ex-president’s allies off the hook. They believe that voters, both the liberal base and some swing voters in the suburbs, need to hear a message that links GOP candidates to the attempts to overturn President Biden’s victory and future threats to elections.
“Yes, Democrats need a positive narrative about the work we are doing for the American people,” Stop Him Now, a super PAC formed last month, said in releasing its first ad. “Yes, we need smart, aggressive, localized campaigns against individual opponents. … But it won’t be enough.”
It begins with video of rioters attacking the Capitol and transitions to various GOP candidates shaking hands with Trump, ending with the image of a police officer getting crushed by rioters on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Republicans in ’22 means Trump in ’24,” the ad reads in its final image, with shattered Capitol windows in the backdrop.
These strategists expect candidates to occupy the traditional lanes of voicing a positive agenda about what incumbents have delivered and also striking back at their opponents with negative ads specific to their own history.
“Our concern was that lane three — the Trump lane — was being abandoned,” Mandy Grunwald, a veteran strategist who co-founded the Trump-focused PAC, said in an interview Friday.
That fear grew in the weeks after Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race, after his closing weeks focused on tying now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to Trump.
He came up short in a state Biden won comfortably. Many Democrats deemed that approach too risky, favoring the 2018 approach of appealing to swing voters’ pocket books.
Geoff Garin, the pollster for Barack Obama’s successful 2008 and 2012 campaigns, is also calling for a sharper focus on linking these candidates to the ex-president.
“More important than Trump himself is what has happened to the Republican Party in the wake of Trump. This is a party that in many ways has become extreme and radicalized,” Garin wrote in an email exchange.
A CNN poll released Friday showed a small silver lining for Democrats advocating a get-tough-on-Trump message. Yes, by 42 percent to 32 percent, voters said they preferred a congressional candidate who opposes Biden.
But by a bigger margin, 44 percent to 27 percent, voters prefer candidates who oppose Trump.
Garin wants to remind the current president’s 81 million voters that many of this fall’s GOP candidates will be vocal supporters of the former president, who is very much considering another national campaign.
“Trump personally is relevant to the extent that voters see Republican victories in 2022 as setting the stage for Trump’s comeback in 2024,” he wrote.
Democratic incumbents have embraced the traditional path for running in tough midterm elections: localizing the races and creating separation from their party’s unpopular president.
“When I’m home and I talk to Nevadans, it’s the kitchen-table issues. It’s health care, access to health care, prescription drug negotiations,” said Cortez Masto, who served as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the successful 2020 elections. “It is the cost of prescription drugs. It is economy and jobs and education. Those are the top things.”
“I’m really focused on the work when I’m here, trying to get this child tax credit expanded or extended. I’m focused right now on the high cost that Georgians and other Americans are facing,” Warnock said in a brief interview Wednesday, pledging to “hold these corporate entities responsible” for price gauging.
Warnock released a new ad Friday that touted his willingness to work with Republicans to get things done for Georgians.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Cortez Masto’s successor as DSCC chairman, wants his candidates to thread a needle.
“I think it’s incredibly important to clearly focus on things that are impacting families today, which are the bread-and-butter issues, and candidates need to lean in to those issues,” Peters said. “But they should also bring up the fundamental threat to our constitutional democracy being posed by all too many Republicans.”
He thinks a Trump-focused message can help energize liberal voters, so that ads and direct mail might be tailored to talk about the former president to that bloc of supporters.
“You always have to know your audience,” Peters said.
Grunwald’s camp, while understanding that House and Senate incumbents will be reluctant to talk about Trump controversies, is pushing party leaders to embrace an outside effort to even target suburban swing voters with this message.
Rather than just sitting in a defensive crouch talking about local accomplishments, they say Democrats should roll the dice with their own national message, tying their opponents to the ex-president and his desire to reclaim the presidency even after the Jan. 6 riots.
They believe the DSCC and super PAC allies could fill this lane, especially since Trump has already christened front-runners in the Nevada and Georgia Senate races and expects to be out on the trail with rallies in the fall.
“The biggest ally we have is Trump himself. He’s not going to allow Chris Christie or Ron DeSantis or anyone else define the future of the Republican Party. He wants the decision of whether to run again be something that he alone decides,” said Saul Shorr, a veteran Democratic media consultant who co-founded Stop Him Now.
But senators themselves grimace at the thought of focusing on Trump, especially in states like Arizona, where Biden won by a little more than 10,000 votes out of more than 3.3 million ballots cast.
Asked about the insurrection, Kelly likened it to his days as an astronaut.
“I was at NASA when we had the space shuttle Columbia accident,” he said, referencing the deadly 2003 crash.
“You do an investigation. And you figure out, ‘Why did this happen?’ And then you come up with a plan,” Kelly said.
He suggested that the House select committee might come up with proposals to ensure something like that “does not happen again,” but he does not believe it will be a central issue in his campaign.
“The American people are focused on what’s going on in their lives,” Kelly said.