Dems vs. Trump: How low do we go?

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., speak at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

President Donald Trump told American congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from. He vowed to revive a racial slur to tear down Elizabeth Warren, promoted a wild conspiracy theory linking a past political opponent to the death of a high-profile sex offender and blamed Friday’s stock market slide on a low-polling former presidential candidate.

And that was just over the past six weeks.

With 435 days until the next presidential election, the Democrats seeking to oust Trump are bracing for the nastiest contest in the modern era, one that will almost certainly tear at the moral and cultural fabric of a deeply divided nation.

Knowing what lies ahead once their own divisive primary is decided, Democrats are confronting a critical question: Just how low should they go to push back against Trump?

Political strategists and recent history suggest there may be more risk than reward for candidates wishing to fight Trump on his terms. But Democratic primary voters, energized and enraged by Trump’s turbulent presidency, are increasingly calling for the candidates to fight fire with fire.

“The high road isn’t going to win this time,” Blake Caldwell, a 71-year-old retired physician, said at a recent event hosted by candidate Pete Buttigieg in rural South Carolina. “If we go high when they go low, we will lose.”

Several White House hopefuls opened their campaigns with a firm plan to focus on substance and rise above the Republican president’s personal attacks. But as primary voting approaches, many candidates are embracing a more aggressive posture as they work to convince primary voters they have what it takes to stand up to Trump.

Most of the leading candidates have called for Trump’s impeachment. Virtually all of them have openly called him a racist.

Joe Biden is the notable exception on both. The former vice president and early Democratic front-runner has sidestepped both questions as he works to maintain an optimistic outlook while highlighting the gravity of Trump’s leadership.

Others, like Warren and Kamala Harris, generally lean into charged language against Trump only when asked. Bernie Sanders, however, seizes on Trump’s behavior in his standard stump speech.

“The United States cannot continue to have a president who is a racist, who is a sexist, who is a homophobe, who is a religious bigot, who is a xenophobe, and who is also a pathological liar,” Sanders declared at a recent town hall meeting in northern New Hampshire.

Sanders’ chief strategist, Jeff Weaver, said the senator would not shy away from aggressive criticism of Trump when necessary. Especially on issues of race and immigration, he said, calling Trump a racist shouldn’t be something candidates are afraid of.

“You can’t give into the bully. You gotta lean in and tell it like it is,” Weaver said. “That’s what people appreciate about Bernie.”

Jef Pollock, a pollster for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign, concedes that “there’s a lot of nervousness about how you attack Donald Trump.”

While primary voters may want toughness, persuadable general election voters are more likely to say they want bipartisanship and civility. Yet it’s not so simple, Pollock said.

“I think it would be a mistake for a candidate to think they could just go high. We’re not in the age of Barack Obama anymore,” he said. “It’d be a mistake to think you can just rise above it all and not engage him at his level.”

There are obvious risks. Just ask Marco Rubio.

Alex Conant advised the Florida senator’s 2016 presidential primary campaign against Trump, which took a nasty turn near the end. Among other personal attacks, Rubio seized on Trump’s hand size.

Conant believes that nothing matters so much as authenticity when going up against the brash billionaire.

“If you’re not the kind of person who makes personal attacks on other people, don’t try it for the first time against Trump,” Conant said. “You feel so much pressure from your supporters, from your donors, from the media to punch back. The key is to find ways to do it that are authentic and consistent with your image.”

Some Democratic allies are urging candidates to stay away from attacks against Trump’s character and temperament altogether. That was a pillar of Hillary Clinton’s message against Trump in 2016, and it ultimately failed.

The pro-Democrat super PAC Priorities USA, which backed Clinton, instead wants the 2020 candidates to focus on the policies enacted under Trump and their effect on voters’ lives.

“Our strategy is not to go nasty,” said Josh Schwerin, the super PAC’s senior strategist. “It’s much more effective to say you’re paying more for your medicine every month and Donald Trump gave drug companies a massive tax cuts than to say Donald Trump is a jerk.”

Republican pollster Frank Luntz has studied the art of negative campaigning extensively over the last 18 months. He insists there’s far more risk than reward for candidates who go negative — especially against Trump.

It’s all about context and subtlety.

“Do they appear pained as they deliver the body blow? Do they look and feel like they don’t want to be there, like they’ve been forced into it? It’s one of the most subtle arts at a time when politics feel so much like championship wrestling,” Luntz said. “Most candidates don’t know the difference.”

But back in South Carolina, Caldwell says she isn’t interested in a cautious candidate. She wants the ultimate Democratic nominee to be someone who can confront Trump with force.

“We’ve been too meek,” she said. “This is going to be the most vicious campaign in history.”

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Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Will suburban women determine midterms?

Virginia State Sen. Jennifer Wexton. (AP Photo.Steve Helber)

Suburban women could hold the keys to control of Congress this election year. Once considered reliably Republican, college-educated, affluent women may be turned off by President Donald Trump and some of his party’s policies, recent polling has shown, and Democrats are eager to offer them an alternative.

The outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., provide a case study.

Virginia’s 10th Congressional District stretches from the wealthy precincts of McLean, just outside Washington, through very suburban Loudoun County and west to rural areas surrounding Winchester near the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Two-term Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia is one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress in a year when Democrats are hoping to pick up dozens of seats and take control of the House. The district has been represented by a Republican for more than three decades, but the affluent, highly educated area is diversifying and newcomers are not showing party loyalty.

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Democrat Jennifer Wexton, a state senator and former prosecutor, won a six-way primary for the right to take on Comstock and has been highlighting her dual roles of attorney and mother.

Both women are spending millions of dollars in the pricey Washington media market.

WHY IT MATTERS

Democrats need to add at least 23 members to regain control of the House. Districts like Virginia’s 10th, which Hillary Clinton won by double digits in 2016, are prime targets. With commuting federal workers, a thriving tech sector and sizable defense contractors based in the area, the district is filled with the sorts of highly educated, independent voters who have been resistant to Trump. It remains to be seen how the contentious battle to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh will play out among those same voters.

WHAT TO WATCH

This race could provide an early sign on Election Night of how Democrats are performing. If Wexton does well, winning by double digits, Democrats across the country will feel more confident about their strength in suburban areas.

The heart of the district, Loudoun County, is a swing county in a swing state, routinely vacillating between Democratic and Republican control. It is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, and has seen tremendous growth over the past few decades. Many of its residents are newcomers and political free agents.

Wexton lives in Loudoun County, while Comstock lives in neighboring Fairfax County, which is closer to Washington.

DON’T MISS

While the Comstock-Wexton battle has received national attention, it is one of four Republican-held House seats in Virginia where Democratic women look to have a strong chance to flip Republican districts.

In the 2nd District, former Navy commander Elaine Luria is seeking to unseat Rep. Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, in a Norfolk-based district with a large military population. In the 7th District, a swath of central Virginia with a population base in the suburbs of Richmond, former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger is challenging Rep. Dave Brat. The college professor turned congressman shook up the political establishment in 2014 by knocking out then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.

And in the sprawling 5th District, which stretches from Charlottesville to the North Carolina border, former “60 Minutes” producer Leslie Cockburn is running against distillery owner Denver Riggleman for an open seat being vacated by Rep. Tom Garrett, who dropped his re-election bid after announcing he’s an alcoholic.

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved