Goading the Democrats Off Message

I’ve noted before that the Senate Republicans saw Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation to the Supreme Court as a way of protecting their majority, even though they knew it would simultaneously hurt their party’s chances of holding onto the House. How it hurt and how it helped depends on which constituency you are looking at, but nowhere was it more helpful than in statewide elections in red states. One of those states is Ohio, where the Democrats are trying to take over the governor’s mansion and get Sherrod Brown reelected to the Senate. The reason Kavanaugh worked for the GOP in Ohio is because a lot of the Obama-Trump Democrats just simply do not care about issues like the #MeToo movement.

David Betras, the chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, said liberal social causes “can’t be a centerplate issue’’ for Ohio Democrats, and preached a focus on pocketbook fare instead. “Most voters,” he said, “don’t give a whit one way or the other” about the former. (He did not say “whit.”)

You can see some of the Kavanaugh effect in Tennessee, too.

In Tennessee, Republican Marsha Blackburn has overtaken former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. In the new poll, 49% back Blackburn, 45% Bredesen. That reflects a reversal since a mid-September CNN poll found Bredesen with a five-point edge over Blackburn.

Men and independents are now less apt to say they support Bredesen, with the Democrat’s backing among men dropping from 42% in September to 36% now. Among independents, Bredesen has gone from 54% support in September to 47% now.

It’s not just that these voters lack a sympathetic ear for women who claim to be victims of sexual assault. They also tend to have little patience for complaints about racism or police misconduct, and they’re sympathetic to the president’s hardline stance on immigration.  That’s why Trump is running a nakedly racist advertisement at the close of the campaign.

Robert Verbruggen at the National Review makes an implausible case that the president’s ad isn’t an appeal to racism at all, but he’s probably not wrong when he says this, “I wonder if part of the thinking behind the ad was to goad liberals into making racism accusations that the GOP base would find ridiculous.”

I’d only dispute that we’re talking strictly about the GOP base. Trump is trying to hold onto the voters he poached from Obama, but many of them have been coming home to the Democrats, especially in the Midwest. If Trump can goad the Democrats into getting off message and talking about “social issues” rather than bread-and-butter stuff like health care and jobs, then he’s going to do better holding onto his Democratic voters.

The problem is that this kind of politics only works on a narrow band of voters, and it does real damage with a broader set of people who will decide the House elections. Going full racist at the close here might help the Republicans beat Phil Bredesen in Tennessee or win the governor’s race in Ohio, but it’s making it just a little more difficult for countless Republican candidates who are already endangered.

And when Paul Ryan complains about it, Trump just tells him to screw himself.

The Democrats have to be smart about this. They can’t act like Pavlovian dogs and respond exactly how they’re expected to respond. If they stay on message, Trump’s last-second gambit may well fail, and we definitely don’t want to see this kind of politics rewarded.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.