As both parties seek to make sense of the fallout from one of the lowest points of Donald Trump’s presidency, the two sides can agree on one thing: However momentous, even the conviction of Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, a guilty plea involving hush money by his personal lawyer and the indictment of a key congressional ally wasn’t enough to dramatically alter the trajectory of the midterm elections.
In any other election year, definitely. But not in the Trump era, and not this November.
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“This kind of adds another layer into the ether into all of the other distractions that are out there,” said South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune. “I think that a lot of this is baked in, people know this stuff is going on.”
Interviews with more than a dozen Republican and Democratic strategists and officials reveal Tuesday’s bombshells are largely being greeted with cautious, measured optimism on the left and shrugged shoulders on the right. Nearly all agreed it was too soon, and there were too few data points, to draw any conclusions about the November impact.
“At this moment in time, 12 hours into this, it’s ride or die,” said one Republican strategist who has worked on multiple congressional races this year.
Few Republicans were willing to be quoted on the record, in part because of a tone set from an unpredictable White House that keeps track of slights and any hint of criticism. Many expressed a sense of unease. Those who would go on record doubted the week’s events could persuade large numbers of voters against a hardened political backdrop marked by partisan tribalism and a mercurial president who is rewriting the laws of political gravity.
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said the “optics” of Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleading guilty and implicating Trump were bad, but he wasn’t convinced that it would sway voters.
“I think it can solidify opinions but it’s not changing minds that aren’t already changed,” he said. “I can’t imagine there’s a single American who supported Trump on the contingency that the Stormy Daniels stuff wasn’t real.
Yet several Republican consultants expressed fear that the weight and severity of the legal cases against Trump’s former campaign manager and personal attorney, coupled with the constant drumbeat of negative stories and scandals, had the potential to turn off key constituencies — especially suburban women — and threatened to curb overall GOP voter enthusiasm in the fall.
“There’s only so much of this shit-show a soccer mom wants to hear about and explain to her kids,” said one top Republican consultant representing House Republican candidates on both coasts. “Payoffs and porn stars and affairs and indictments and all this stuff doesn’t Make America Great Again in the suburbs.”
Another Republican strategist involved in Midwestern races echoed that sentiment, speaking to the gaping gender gap confronting Trump and Republicans that surfaced in the polls long before this week: “Suburban women aren’t going to put up with this shit.”
Strategists in both parties didn’t expect a clear picture until new polling and focus groups had been conducted to see whether voters would respond differently than they have to Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation and other scandals over the past 18 months.
But Democrats expected, if nothing else, to see their ongoing “culture of corruption” messaging amplified by the Manafort and Cohen developments — as well as the recent indictments handed down against GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, a leading congressional supporter of Trump, and GOP Rep. Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to back Trump’s then-improbable presidential bid.
That corruption theme, which helped propel the party to oust the GOP House majority in 2006, is already set into motion by Democrats in various House races. It’s tied to two key issues: health care and the Republican tax bill.
“Every day there’s a new cherry put on top of the story of corruption in Washington is what this is doing,” said Navin Nayak, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “From the public’s perspective, it’s disgust. I do really think it helps tie the narratives together in what is wrong with Republicans controlling Washington.”
The advice Democratic strategists are giving their clients: use the conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Cohen‘s guilty plea to tee up fundraising appeals and communications to drive voter turnout. But stay the course on paid ads that focus on taxes and health care.
That’s why House Democratic candidates may never actually run an ad attacking Cohen’s campaign finance violation or Manafort’s conviction.
“I don’t know if that you’re in a House race and you’ve only got $1 million your smartest strategy is necessarily to focus on [Trump] because he is his own worst enemy, creating so much more negative news … than three ads in [Ohio’s 1st District] might generate,” Nayak said.
Vulnerable congressional Republicans are more likely to sink based on their individual votes, said Ken Snyder, who heads a Democratic consulting firm working on congressional races across the country.
“The fallout of the Mueller investigation at this point looks more likely to impact turnout than stick, per se, to any one candidate,” Snyder said. “I think the main thrust of paid persuasion communications will be on issues that have a more direct effect on families.”
Those issues, based on early battleground TV ads from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, have tended to hammer Republican incumbents for their health care and tax votes — while linking those votes to an odious pay-to-play culture in D.C.
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) “took over a million in campaign contributions from Wall Street and financial interests and voted to give them huge new tax breaks,” a narrator argued in a DCCC ad out last week.
In another spot, House Majority PAC charged on Monday in an ad that Rep. David Young (R-Iowa) “took hundreds of thousands from insurance companies and Wall Street and voted for a tax bill that gives them a huge tax cut.”
“Trump’s problems are the background music to the problems of Republican incumbents who are vulnerable,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who ran the DCCC’s independent advertising arm in the 2014 election. “Generally, voters care a lot about intention and why a lawmaker does something. So while it is powerful to say a Republican gutted coverage for people with preexisting conditions, it’s even more powerful to say they did it while raking in big money from insurance companies. They didn’t just give tax breaks to the rich for fun, they gave them because they’re funding their campaigns.”
On a Senate map where many of the most competitive races are being fought in states that Trump carried, there were few early signs that Republican candidates were scrambling to get distance from the president in the wake of Bombshell Tuesday.
Patrick Morrisey, the GOP Senate nominee against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia — where Trump appeared Tuesday night and didn’t address the criminal cases — called the investigations a “witch hunt.”
“None of us know all the facts. What I can tell you is that I stand with President Trump, strongly, because he’s done so many good things for West Virginia,” Morrissey said on local radio. “I think it’s so critical that people know, one, there’s no collusion. And we haven’t seen anything that implicates the president in that.”
In a state Trump carried more narrowly than West Virginia, Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who’s challenging Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, was a bit more circumspect.
“I think all of us would like to get the facts out there and we’d like to get it behind us,” he said of the Mueller investigation on Fox News Wednesday morning. “It’s been going on for quite a while.”
Scott Bland, Marc Caputo and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.