(Bloomberg) — Elections over the next month in three Republican-held congressional districts will test voters’ frustration with GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare and whether Democrats can capitalize on President Donald Trump’s sagging approval ratings.
Democrats are focusing on pocketbook issues in special election campaigns in South Carolina, Georgia and Montana — races that will preview the party’s effort to wrest control of the House from Republicans in 2018.
The Democratic candidates are remaining largely silent on the biggest issue in Washington: investigations into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, as well as the president’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. That’s because undecided voters are more interested in the economy than in the investigations, said Doug Usher, a managing partner at Purple Strategies, a bipartisan political consulting firm.
“People are not paying as much attention in the short term to some of these Washington scandals as you would think,” Usher said.
Democrats say their best tactic is focusing on Republican policies, including dismantling the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, Republicans in the special elections are standing by the May 4 House vote for health care legislation that would allow insurers to charge more for people over age 50 and for patients with pre-existing conditions and a gap in coverage. The bill also would limit Medicaid coverage for the poor.
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‘Wear That Vote’
“We’re going to make sure they wear that vote everywhere that they go,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Health care issues are “bread and butter stuff,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in an interview Monday. “That keeps people up at night.”
The three elections will fill seats vacated when Trump appointed Republican lawmakers to his administration. They won’t come close to shifting the balance of power in the House, which Republicans control 238-193. Montanans vote on Thursday, while the elections in Georgia and South Carolina will be on June 20.
In Georgia, the contest is for a district previously represented by Tom Price, now the Health and Human Services secretary, while the South Carolina race is for the seat formerly held by Mick Mulvaney, now Trump’s budget director. In Montana, candidates are competing for the seat that was held by Ryan Zinke, now Interior secretary.
Trump won the congressional district in Montana by more than 20 points, South Carolina by 18 percentage points and Georgia by 1.5 percentage points. Democrats have invested more in the Georgia and Montana races than in South Carolina, which they see as less competitive.
Danger for Democrats
Polls show the danger Democrats may face in criticizing Trump in districts dominated by Republican voters. A May 17 Politico/Morning Consult poll found that while Trump’s job approval rating was 43% among registered voters, it was 84% among Trump voters after he fired Comey earlier this month.
The same poll gives Democrats an edge on health care: 45% of all registered voters trust Democrats more on the issue versus 35% who trust Republicans. After the health care vote, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved 20 congressional districts in Democrats’ favor.
The Montana race, in an at-large district that covers the entire state, features musician Rob Quist, a Democrat who has made health care a central part of his campaign. His Republican opponent, tech millionaire Greg Gianforte, said through a spokesman early this month that he needed more information before deciding whether he favored the health legislation, while on the same day he praised the bill during a private conference call, according to the New York Times, which said it obtained a recording of the call.
“Greg Gianforte says he’s thankful for the new health care bill — the one that eliminates protections for people with pre-existing conditions and raises premiums on every Montanan that has one,” Quist says in a TV ad released last week.
‘Make Trump Angry’
Democrats also are campaigning on jobs and the economy.
The Democrat running in a district in suburban Atlanta, former congressional staff member Jon Ossoff, began his primary campaign with a pledge to “make Trump angry,” but has since pivoted to focus on the economy in his race against former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. In one TV ad, Ossoff sits at a kitchen table and lays out his plan to cut spending, reduce the deficit and create technology jobs.
South Carolina Democrat Archie Parnell, a tax lawyer and former senior adviser at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., has been touting his knowledge of economics. “I know enough about our crazy tax code to bore you to tears,” Parnell says in a TV ad aimed at voters in a district that stretches to the state’s northern border. GOP candidate Ralph Norman, a wealthy real-estate developer and former state legislator, won the party nomination in a close race last week, the Associated Press reported.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (Photo: Ryan)
Republicans running in these three districts are promoting party unity to boost turnout.
During a 2016 gubernatorial campaign, Gianforte distanced himself from Trump and lost against incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock by 4 percentage points. This time around he’s campaigned twice with Donald Trump Jr. and embraced the president’s “make America great again” slogan.
“We need someone who has a strong voice to go back to Washington and work with President Trump, not with Nancy Pelosi,” Gianforte said during a May 11 rally, referring to the House Democratic leader. “I want to help Donald Trump drain the swamp out there.”
In Georgia, Handel has offered a more lukewarm embrace of the president. She called this month’s House health care vote “the first step in a long process” and said Comey’s firing was “probably overdue.”
On May 15, House Speaker Paul Ryan, architect of the health care bill, campaigned with Handel and said the GOP needed her help to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
While Democrats say the health legislation gives them an advantage in the special elections, they’re seeking to downplay expectations by emphasizing that the districts historically favor Republicans.
If Democrats win in Montana, “It’ll be great, it’ll be absolutely marvelous,” said Senator Jon Tester, who represents the state and has appeared at campaign events with Quist. “If Republicans win this race it’s because they’re supposed to.”
—With assistance from Jennifer Epstein.
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