The Democratic Party is embroiled in a debate over where they should focus their efforts to win back political power: health care or Russia.
The party’s campaign committees and many of Democrats’ leading super PACs have spent virtually all their energy this year on shaming Republicans for their push to repeal Obamacare, an issue that clearly touches voters’ daily lives.
But on the other side of the split, American Bridge — the party’s outside-group research arm run by David Brock, the well-known Hillary Clinton ally — is among those convinced the investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials is one Democrats would be foolish to downplay or wait to take advantage of.
A raft of data has already tabbed the House Republican health care bill as highly unpopular. But after last week’s explosive developments related to the Russia investigation, Democratic groups have commissioned polling to gauge just how damaging the probe could be to Republicans in the 2018 midterms. They’ve also begun testing theories on how to make Trump’s Russia problem into House and Senate Republicans’ Russia problem.
The debate in some ways reflects the post-mortem from the presidential election, in which some Democrats felt Clinton did not focus enough on the economy and other pocketbook issues, while Clinton’s own team invested more resources in painting Trump as personally unfit for the presidency.
Strategists on both sides of the Democratic divide downplay the extent of the split. They argue the party has an embarrassment of riches to use against Republicans, and they note that different groups fill different niches in the party’s ecosystem — Bridge deals with day-to-day rapid response, while the party committees are already focused on individual races in November 2018.
But they also whisper about motivations, with some strategists speculating the Brock-led American Bridge may have more of an eye on wooing donors intensely interested in the Russia investigation than picking winning issues for 2018.
“Democrats have to talk about Trump’s Russia scandal, which has revealed that congressional Republicans are more concerned with protecting an ineffective and reckless president than the interests of the American people,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker who previously led communications for the DCCC. “But you’ve also got to remind folks that this scandal is paralyzing the government and impacting their lives. The round-the-clock chaos has prevented any progress on health care, jobs, or education. Voters thought they were getting a manager, instead they got a mess.”
Other strategists are also wary of focusing too narrowly on the investigation, fearing that complicated Russia chatter will drown out what they believe is a potent package of health care messaging, with a Republican plan that hits older voters especially hard.
“We should focus on the issues that affect people’s lives, not just on what the media in the D.C. bubble is talking about,” said Symone Sanders, the press secretary at Priorities USA.
Some Democrats are also concerned an overtly political stance on the investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. politics early on could make the findings less politically potent later.
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who leads the DSCC, noted approvingly that his party has placed health care at the center of its messaging in this year’s special elections. And he said it can’t just be Democrats pushing the Russia news at voters.
“My view is, the whole issue of the Russia investigation needs to be discussed on a bipartisan basis,” Van Hollen told POLITICO. “It’s important for us to call upon our Republican colleagues to work with us to get to the bottom of this. So I think we need to discuss that in that frame.”
Elements of the Democratic base are still tuned into the Russia investigation, even if Robert Mueller’s appointment as a special prosecutor fulfilled one of their major asks. Republicans are wrong to “think it’s going to die away just because there’s a special prosecutor in place now,” said Murshed Zaheed, the policy director at the liberal group CREDO Action and a former Senate Democratic aide. “If anything, intensity is going to rise in the districts and pressure is going to only mount on the House side.”
American Bridge and the Center for American Progress, both of which have anti-Trump war rooms, have been the center of Russia messaging so far. CAP has pushed the so-called Moscow Project, which aims to be a one-stop shop for research and messaging on the scandal.
“I think something everyone can agree on is that accountability will be a major theme of the midterms,” said Adam Jentleson, a senior adviser at CAP who was previously a top staffer for Sen. Harry Reid. “And Russia will be a top issue in the accountability discussion.”
Last month, Bridge released a poll conducted by the Democratic firm Anzalone Liszt Grove arguing the Russia mess could harm GOP incumbents. The poll found 71 percent of persuadable voters in GOP-held districts supported an independent commission to investigate Russian interference in the election.
“By highlighting the links between Trump’s top campaign aides and the Russian government and the concerns such links have created among U.S. intelligence officials, Democrats can make GOP opposition to an independent commission an even bigger vulnerability for Republican incumbents than it already is,” the pollsters wrote.
American Bridge has also spent on digital ads pressuring Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the two most vulnerable Republicans on the 2018 Senate map, to support an independent investigation.
But the group has also spent money on digital ads focused on the health care debate, and strategists at American Bridge emphasized Democrats should be able to make more than one argument at a time.
“Democrats need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time if we’re going to be successful in the future,” said American Bridge vice president Shripal Shah. “That means we have to make a comprehensive argument against Trump and the GOP that’s multifaceted. Russia needs to be a part of that, just like health care, taxes, defunding Planned Parenthood, and broader economic issues. No one is saying we should only focus on one, and we certainly aren’t.”
Meanwhile, the schism among Democratic strategists has yet to seep into the network of liberal activists who have bombarded Republican lawmakers at town halls in a bid to turn Obamacare repeal into a politically toxic issue ahead of the midterms. Grassroots anti-Trump groups are elevating their focus on Russia, but most also say health care remains their biggest issue.
“For us, the ACA has been our top priority and continues to be,” Angel Padilla, policy director at the protest group Indivisible, said in an interview.
But “Russia continues to be a priority,” he added, and one that more local activists have been pushing as “a little bit of attention has fallen away” from Obamacare after the House narrowly approved its repeal bill.
Just because health care has gotten more attention from activists thus far doesn’t mean Russia will get short shrift, Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green said in an interview.
"Democrats have to be disciplined enough to continue speaking to economic populism issues that are bread and butter for everyday working families while figuring out how much to lean into Trump’s impeachable offenses," Green said, describing the left’s focus as "60/40 one way or the other" between Russia and pocketbook issues like Obamacare.