A week out from a midterm election that saw the Democratic Party gain the majority in the House of Representatives, two Senate seats in the Southwest, and governorships across the nation, candidates, party officials, and the party’s largest super PAC took away a clear message going into 2020: Focusing time and attention on President Trump and the activities of the White House alone is not going to cut it.
“To succeed in 2020, a Democrat will need to have the skill and discipline to deftly pivot from Trump’s BS to the issues that matter,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told The Daily Beast. “If you are trying to get retweets and social engagement, you are going to optimize for all things Trump and in doing so, you are playing his game.”
It’s a necessary word of caution from operatives who are keenly aware of Trump’s ubiquity given the mainstream media’s fascination with every twist and turn of his presidency. They point to cable news segments devoted to the latest palace intrigue and stories that have already been written about the nicknames the president is crafting for prospective opponents and a core base of supporters that delight in him taking on fights.
The 2020 campaign, of course, will not take place within the same confines of say a suburban congressional district in Kansas. There will be moments, Democrats concede, when it will become necessary to directly respond to Trump and any potential nominee will likely face microphones at every campaign stop where the first question will be about something the president said about them.
“When Donald Trump in 2020 has somebody to caricature every day and is lobbing attacks that are strewn with falsehoods every day, it becomes a lot harder to maintain that similar level of discipline,” Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, told The Daily Beast. “So what I think that puts a premium on is having somebody that is compelling unto themselves.”
Besides the strict message discipline that accompanied most of the Democratic campaigns going into the midterm elections, the party sought and got a number of candidates whose personal biographies appealed to voters and who used these personal narratives to great effect both in their on-the-ground pitches and in viral videos.
Thanks in part to the president’s unpopularity and Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Democrats picked up at least 32 House seats, with a number of races still not called. They flipped Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada and gained seven governorships spanning from Maine to Nevada, not to mention over 300 state legislative seats. Democratic candidates largely stuck to a disciplined and affirmative message on healthcare that evaded the pitfalls of responding to every provocation, scandal and staff shakeup coming from the White House .
Even when candidates were the subjects of the president’s personal ire, they used them in fundraising appeals while mostly avoiding head-to-head confrontations.
“No one has survived it,” Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for Clinton’s campaign, said of using Trump’s tactics against him. “There is evidence it doesn't work. And I think among the reasons why Democratic candidates had some success and won is that they largely stayed away from him. Look at [Montana Senator Jon] Tester. Trump went to Montana four times and [Tester] never engaged him and he won.”
Lack of engagement will end up not being an option as the 2020 campaign wears on, but what Democrats are yearning for is a candidate who can retain his or her authenticity without a daily mudslinging spat with the president—even as those fights tempt as an easy way to attract cable news coverage.
“I think what we want for 2020 is we want an authentic candidate who has a backbone,” Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz told The Daily Beast. “Are you doing it for votes or are you doing it for retweets. That’s going to be the fundamental question for 2020.”
Several operatives pointed to Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, and Texas Democratic Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke as three examples of individuals who remained steadfast to who they were while attracting national attention and attacks from the president. O’Rourke came up just short of a stunning upset in Texas, while Gillum and Abrams are both trailing in races that have yet to be called. All three, though, seemed to show how Democrats can run competitive races in challenging states on their own terms.
A post-election presentation from Priorities USA, the Democratic party’s largest super PAC, found that the approval and disapproval ratings for the president remained relatively static since April of 2018. The top negative issue that they tested in a survey conducted between November 9th and 11th was on the issue of Medicare and Social Security and the prospect of Republicans cutting those entitlements in order to address the increased deficit which resulted from tax cuts.
Overall, 56 percent of respondents, including 63 percent of voters who went from voting for Trump in 2016 to voting for a Democrat in 2018, cited health care as their most important issue in deciding who they would support in 2020.
The PAC concluded that Democrats should continue to focus on the president’s “weakness” on economic issues, specifically the cost of healthcare and personal cost of living outweighing the benefits of the Republican tax cuts.
Going into 2020, Priorities named Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nevada as the core states of focus for any prospective candidate with the possibility of expanding the map in Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia. The other states they want to watch where Democrats are either surprisingly weak or especially strong are Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Virginia, Colorado and Texas. If the presidential election were held today, based on their surveyed data, they found that a Democrat would earn 269 electoral votes with Wisconsin remaining a toss-up.
Even as Trump framed the midterms as a vote on his presidency so far, a Wesleyan Media Project study of 2018 advertisements found that just 9.9 percent of ads aired from September 18 to October 15 mentioned the president. Trump was mentioned most often in Senate campaign ads, often in ads from Republicans in red states.
“I think every candidate will have policy to talk about, I’m more interested in a candidate who can tell a consistent and compelling story about America that is about much more than Trump,” Pfeiffer said.
—Sam Stein contributed reporting