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Democrats struggle with midterm message on impeachment

A senior Senate Democrat warned on Wednesday that Americans would soon grow “tired of” the Trump-Russia scandal, tamping down the impeachment fever spreading through his party’s base.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia moderate who would take over the Intelligence Committee should Democrats win back the Senate in November, played down the idea that he would devote the panel’s work to a renewed investigation of the president’s Russia ties.

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“The notion for those who may be partisans in the crowd … ‘Well, gosh, if Democrats take control, they’ll be able to really ramp these up’ — I think the American public will be tired of it if this is not wound down in this calendar year,” Warner said during a technology and politics conference in Southern California.

Warner’s comment, which clashes with calls for impeachment and fresh investigations by several Democratic candidates, illustrates the party’s internal conflict over how to talk about Russia. Many party leaders believe it is dangerous to fixate on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, especially at the expense of kitchen-table issues like jobs and health care. The question is particularly sensitive given that Republicans insist they can energize their own voters with talk of Democratic overreach on a scandal that many of their core voters consider bogus.

Democratic investigators in Congress have compiled lists of Trump-allied witnesses they’d like to interview and documents they want to subpoena that look to outside observers like road maps if they were put in charge of the Russia investigation. On the campaign stump, some Democratic candidates are promising to lead the impeachment campaign against the president.

Then there are the party leaders who are urging caution about trying to take down the president. They’ve been pushing a 2018 midterm campaign message that centers on a proactive policy agenda and a pledge to focus on ethical lapses by the Trump administration if they can return to power for the first time since the early Obama years.

“It’s a target-rich environment,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and a spokesman for former Sen. Harry Reid when Reid was majority leader. Manley argues that the party should “spend less time talking about impeachment and more time on what [Trump] corruption actions are having on real people’s lives.”

But, he added, Democrats will be hard-pressed to stick with any one campaign plan when they’re competing with a news cycle that has been dominated by Russia stories.

“I get there are folks who want a clean message focusing on the agenda, but that’s not the world we live in,” Manley said.

Complicating the party’s thinking is a brutal 2018 map in which 10 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in states Trump won. And those senators say Russia is not top-of-mind on the trail.

“It’s not a high priority back home that I hear about,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

For Democrats, one big challenge is a base that’s clamoring both for aggressive investigations and movement to remove Trump from office before 2020. Leading the charge are Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who ended her speech earlier this year at the state Democratic Party’s annual convention with an “impeach 45” chant, and Rep. Al Green of Texas, who posted a message to Twitter on Wednesday that likened Roseanne Barr’s recent ousting from her popular ABC sitcom to Congress firing Trump.

“We have reached a point where many will dare to call Trump’s actions bigoted, but dare not call him a bigot & hold him accountable. #ImpeachmentIsNotDead,” Green wrote.

Several aspiring lawmakers trying to break through in primaries this summer are making their own pledges to give Trump hell if they get elected.

Florida state Rep. David Richardson, a Democrat running for an open House seat in Miami, sent an email to supporters last week with the subject line “obstruction of justice!!” and a promise that one of his main priorities, if elected to the South Florida House seat, would be punishing the president.

“Clearly Trump is unfit to be president,” his campaign wrote in an email that closed with a poll asking whether Trump should be impeached. “And if I’m elected to Congress, I will join House Democrats’ fight to remove Donald Trump from office on Day One.”

Richard Painter, a former ethics official in the George W. Bush White House who has switched parties to run for the Senate as a Democrat in Minnesota, has also made the Russia inquiry and Trump’s wider ethical controversies a focal point of his campaign against the state’s junior senator, Tina Smith. In one recent tweet, Painter cited the Constitution’s requirement of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” as the only grounds for a president to be removed.

“What would the founders have said about a president doing all three and Congress doing nothing about it?” Painter wrote. “Do we value democracy or not? Now is the moment to decide.”

Democrats making pledges about impeachment or other Russia-related investigation matters are campaigning in a very uncertain environment, where the reality of a Russia inquiry on several fronts threatens to upend the midterms in real time.

While special counsel Robert Mueller has so far secured five guilty pleas and 17 indictments from his work, the list of unknowns in his sprawling investigation remains long. Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman, is scheduled for trial in late July, meaning a verdict could come before the November elections; federal investigators in New York are looking into Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney; and, indeed, several of the congressional investigations remain open.

“It’s the biggest parlor game out there,” said a senior Democratic operative working on a 2018 race. “For those of us who are out doing campaigns, and doing them for a long time, there’s a sense we have to take all the conventional wisdom and throw it out the window and say we have to see what happens and go from there.”

Several senators waging reelection campaigns of their own told POLITICO that while they expected the Russia investigation to weigh on voters’ minds by the time November arrives, it isn’t yet coming up with any frequency when they connect with constituents. That’s in part because the special counsel’s work isn’t finished, with new names and investigative threads opening up almost every week.

“If you’re working two jobs and trying to make ends meet, it’s hard to follow the bouncing ball,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) said. “I find it challenging myself.”

While Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer talks about Russia on the floor almost daily — whether it’s to criticize Trump or a House Intelligence Committee investigation that long ago veered into strict partisanship — Democrats have largely decided to focus their messaging on the economy and corruption in the Trump administration, reasoning that neither Mueller nor Russia will help their incumbents who are running for new terms in states that Trump won two years ago.

John McCain is pictured. | Getty Images

A party strategist, granted anonymity to discuss Senate Democratic tactics, said there was no point spending money to defend Mueller on the airwaves with such a grim Senate map ahead of them. Some Democrats also fret that if they go too far on Russia, they will give Trump more ammunition to paint the special counsel as a partisan rather than a respected former FBI director and nonpartisan actor.

During a CNN town hall recently, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi skirted a direct question about why she didn’t support joining the left flank of her party agitating to remove Trump from office.

“I have hesitated to use impeachment,” she said. “People wanted me to impeach President [George W.] Bush for going into Iraq. And they impeached President Clinton. … There is an investigation. If it takes its course, let it take its course. But I do not think that impeachment is a policy agenda.”

Democrats with memories of past campaigns during high-stakes investigations know there are consequences of talking up outcomes like impeachment while campaigning.

“I don’t think the American people want Democrats in charge to be pursuing impeachment,” said former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was one of the “Watergate babies” first elected to the House in 1974 on the heels of President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Indeed, Republicans in the 1998 cycle suffered when party leaders closed their midterm campaign with a message emphasizing Clinton’s impending impeachment. The result was a pro-Clinton backlash. Democrats ended up gaining five House seats during an election cycle in which Republicans had expected to be the big winners — an outcome that also helped lead to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ouster.

But others in the party say it doesn’t make sense to sidestep the biggest story of the Trump administration.

“It’s a strange world where you have a president that potentially is on the side of Russia and against the FBI and the CIA, a Republican president,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who ran his party’s 2016 campaign operations and now faces his own tough reelection race. “So, I don’t know if you counter it or not, but the bottom line is we need to get the facts.”

A woman passes political posters during the California Republican Party convention. | AP Photo

Trump and his allies appear to be willing to forgo a midterm campaign centered on what the president has done during his first two years in office, and instead have jumped on a strategy that the path to salvaging their majorities in Congress is to tout the threat of a Mueller-fueled, Democrat-led impeachment against the president in 2019.

“You have to put Donald Trump on the ticket,” said Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House strategist and 2016 presidential campaign chief executive. “You’re not voting for Congress. You’re voting for Donald Trump.”

Trump himself is pushing the message.

“We have to keep the House, because if you listen to Maxine Waters, she goes around saying, ‘We will impeach him! We will impeach him!’” the president said during a recent rally near Detroit.

Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign is also trying to rally its base around the issue. A mid-May text message to supporters noted the one-year anniversary of Mueller’s investigation with the subject line “THEY THINK THEY CAN INTIMIDATE US” and a landing page soliciting upward of $ 2,700 donations “to show the witch hunters that NOT A SINGLE PATRIOT backed down from our fight.”

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and onetime presidential candidate who is now Trump’s personal lawyer, said in an interview that he expected both Democrats and Republicans to seek a political jolt from the Russia inquiry as Election Day draws near.

“There could be a little advantage for us. A little advantage for them,” Giuliani said in an interview. “But once you get past Sept. 1, if this stupid investigation is still going on, the Democrats will be paying a big price for it.”

But Giuliani said he expected that Trump would return repeatedly to themes surrounding Mueller and Russia on the campaign stump, making an appeal to voters that support for congressional Democrats will translate directly to his impeachment.

“I have no reason to believe that wouldn’t work to keep control of the Senate for sure and the House probably,” Giuliani said.

He added that it took just a few Democratic candidates agitating for Trump’s ouster for the strategy to work to the president’s advantage: “That’s all you need to lead the charge.”

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