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Fearing a wipeout, Democrats try to unify around a simple midterm message: Republicans are ‘extremists’

“Democrats would be irresponsible, both morally and politically, if we just went with the same poll-tested stuff about delivering infrastructure,” said Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who is helping craft some of the strategy in the Senate to press Republicans. “There’s a place for all of that, but these people are out of their minds and are really acting with impunity, and we need to say so.”

As one top Democratic strategist working on House races summed up the argument after reviewing internal focus group data which shows a stronger and more lasting than expected resonance to recent Republican moves, particularly around abortion policy: “I understand that you’re frustrated, everything sucks — but that person thinks that you can’t get pregnant from rape, that person believes in QAnon. … I know you don’t like Democrats — but do you actually want to vote for that person?”

Between Biden’s sagging poll numbers and talk of a looming recession, Republicans see all the traditional makings of a midterm romp. Just about every poll shows the economy and inflation remain the top voter concern, leading one Republican campaign operative to dismiss Democratic efforts to talk about extremism as “screaming into the wind.”

Strategy in motion

Still, many top Democrats believe focusing on Republicans is their best shot. The strategy is already being set in motion.

Last week in the House, Democrats brought bills to the floor in an effort to force Republicans to vote against legalized same-sex marriage and the right to birth control. Most Republicans did just that. Senate Democrats are bringing the same-sex marriage vote forward, and many Republicans in the chamber are agonizing over what to do. More votes are planned on social issues, but also on measures like the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which Senate Democrats put on the floor shortly after the Buffalo supermarket shooting.

The Democratic National Committee is coordinating with state parties on ads and local press tours built around words like “dangerous” and “threatening,” and highlighting what they call “MAGA Hot Mic” moments around Republican officials making hardline comments about abortion, democracy and guns. Democratic groups have also primed a barrage of opposition research to release on GOP candidates on everything from once-obscure bills introduced in state legislatures to long-ago Facebook comments, while allied groups highlight features like a Center for American Progress study that found “at least 104 MAGA Republicans have used guns and other deadly weapons in campaign ads.”

On Wednesday, House Democrats will roll out a series of recommended talking points to members that include focusing on a message that “extreme MAGA Republicans care about only one thing: their own power,” according to a presentation viewed by CNN. Republicans, the presentation argues, will criminalize abortion and roll back marriage rights, end Social Security and Medicare, and “continue to attack our democracy, undermine free elections and make it harder for Americans to vote.”

Days of action have also been coordinated with the White House for events back in House Democrats’ districts during the August recess, and include emphasizing proposed Republican cuts to Social Security on August 15, the anniversary of the social safety net, and Republican restrictions on abortion and other reproductive rights on August 26 on Women’s Equality Day. House Democrats are also being encouraged to discuss the threat of gun violence on Sept. 7 in conjunction with the start of the new school year.

“Republicans like to duck. They don’t like to answer these questions,” said Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, who helped craft the platform. She said she’s been surprised both by how much abortion has resonated back home, and by how little most people have registered other issues like democracy and gun control. “You assume people know this. They absolutely don’t know it.”

Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who’s facing a competitive re-election in what’s become one of the swingiest states, said it’s even simpler when making the case against the opponent he expects to emerge from an August primary, a self-funder who’s never held elected office before.

“The one thing we know about him is that he would vote for the Republican speaker. That would be Kevin McCarthy,” Kildee said, referring to Republican candidate Paul Junge and the Republican House leader. “My record is my argument. The most we know about him is that he decided to run under the banner of a party that seems to have lost its soul. That’s the contrast.”

“You don’t have to win every heart and every mind,” Kildee added. “There are a big number of Republicans right now that don’t recognize their party. We can offer them a rational alternative, get a shot at some of those votes. And in a marginal tossup district like mine, that can be the difference.”

Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who won one of the narrowest re-election bids in the country in 2020, said she’s campaigning by talking about her record on trying to lower fuel costs and tackling meat packing consolidation. But Spanberger also said she is taking aim at what she says are her Republican opponent’s “extremist views.”

This November, Spanberger will face off against Yesli Vega, a local elected official who on the campaign trail questioned whether rape can lead to pregnancy and downplayed the January 6 riot as “a group of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.” Spanberger said those positions “are out of touch with voters in the district, but also reality.”

“In our race, I certainly want people to vote for me,” Spanberger said, “but I think the contrast and the options couldn’t be clearer.”

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of House Democratic leadership who spearheads messaging for his colleagues, has been urging colleagues to use a single, disqualifying word to tag Republicans with. He prefers “extreme” rather than “MAGA Republicans,” the phrase Biden landed on after other Democratic strategists determined that to be a more effective way to brand the party than what might come across as standard political name calling.

Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. on April 5, 2022.

“Republicans are extreme on gun safety and want our communities flooded with weapons of war. Republicans are extreme in trying to deny women the freedom to make their own reproductive health care decisions. Republicans are extreme with respect to the January 6th insurrection, and it appears that many of them no longer believe in democracy. Republicans are extreme on Social Security and Medicare, which they want to end in five years, and Republicans are extreme in their inability to actually support legislation that would lower costs for everyday Americans,” Jeffries said. “Republicans are out of touch with the American people and undeserving of the opportunity to govern.”

There’s the talk, and then there are the numbers.

CNN polling this month found that currently most voters see both parties as mainstream, with the exception of abortion, on which most call Republicans too extreme. They also tend to see Democrats as more mainstream on voting rights and election integrity, immigration — but view Republicans as more mainstream on the economy, which remains the overriding issue.

“Everything is on our side,” Senate Republicans’ campaign chair Florida Sen. Rick Scott insisted on Monday at an event in Washington, appealing to donors to keep up with Democratic fundraising. “Joe Biden is not going to get better.”

‘Trying to out MAGA each other’

In an interview with CNN, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said as much as Democrats need to appeal to independents and Republicans uncomfortable with their party’s Trumpist turn, they also have to shock dispirited and disenchanted Democratic voters into turning out.

“These candidates are trying to out MAGA each other and often the MAGA candidate is winning — and even when they don’t, what we have seen is Republicans who eventually fall in line and do whatever Trump wants them to do,” Cooper, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association,said about getting voters to the polls. “That should be a scary prospect for people as we approach these midterms.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks in Chicago on Nov. 1, 2021.

That sense was part of what drove Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to spend millions of dollars in the Republican primary boosting a hardline candidate –because he thought that would make for an easier re-election race, but also because he believes that the only difference between the candidates was that his preferred candidate is more transparent about views that all the others share. That’s been a controversial approach within his own party, and one which Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who serves on the January 6 committee, told CNN this week that he found “disgusting.”

Yet Darren Bailey, who won the Republican nomination with Pritzker’s help, is a Trump-endorsed state senator who hailed the overturning of Roe v. Wade as “historic and welcomed” and supports an abortion ban without any exceptions. His other positions include legislation to remove the “hellhole” of Chicago from Illinois to form the 51st state and saying people needed to “move on” after the Highland Park shooting on July 4th.

Illinois Gubernatorial hopeful Darren Bailey delivers remarks after receiving an endorsement from Donald Trump during a Save America Rally on June 25, 2022 in Mendon, Illinois.

“If you are either espousing those extremist views, where you would force a 10-year-old to carry to term a fetus that was the product of a rape — whether it’s that or the silent Republicans who say, ‘I’m not going to say anything out loud, even if I disagree,'” Pritzker said, “this is what’s happened to the Republican Party. And as far as I’m concerned, we are speaking the truth.”

Bailey’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment.

Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss said the first-time candidates around the country whom he’s been informally advising have been responding enthusiastically when he’s pressed them not to let their opponents campaign as nice people or distanced from the Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election or would support a national abortion ban.

“What we have to refuse to allow Republicans to get away with is to try to divorce themselves from the consequences of the votes that they’re going to take,” Auchincloss said. “Your votes are very damaging not just to our democracy, but to the interests and well-being of the American people. And that is what you are going to be evaluated on.”

Not waiting on Biden

Even some of Biden’s own White House aides wish he was being more forceful in calling out Republicans.

President Joe Biden speaks virtually during an event at the White House, July 25, 2022.

The President has done some of it, sporadically. Announcing limited executive actions in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Biden said, “the choice we face as a nation is between the mainstream and the extreme.” On Monday, in a speech to a Black law enforcement organization, Biden said that Florida Sens. Scott and Marco Rubio, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are not on the side of police because they oppose an assault weapons ban, and that Trump “lacked the courage to act” to stop the January 6 riot.

“You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy. You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-America,” said Biden, who’s repeatedly pointed out that legislation moving through Congress to lower prescription drug prices isn’t getting a single Republican vote.

“If we only focus on affordability, opportunity, rebuilding the American dream, we miss a real chance with the extremity of the values that this Supreme Court has allowed to happen and many governors and states are seizing upon,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who won a tighter-than-expected race for a second term last year.

Murphy said a perfect example is Doug Mastriano, the Christian nationalist Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania whose background includes leading buses of people to Washington on January 6, a commitment to a no-exception abortion ban, and associating with a website known for its violent and antisemitic connections. “If this lunatic in Pennsylvania were to be elected governor in my neighboring state, what are the consequences?” Murphy said.

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks during a campaign rally on May 14, 2022 in Warminster, Pennsylvania.

Mastriano’s Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, has regularly blasted the Republican as extremist on abortion and other policies, and last week tweeted a meme of him as “Little Mr. Conspiracy Theorist.” Mastriano, who generally engages only with media he determines is friendly to him, did not return a request for comment.

Biden “has to” start laying out the terms more clearly himself, Murphy added.

“The President can feel confident in staking out a position — I know I feel confident — because we’re not speculating. These are facts,” Murphy said. “We know exactly what these folks are doing and what they say they will do. You read Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion [on the Dobbs decision]. You listen to Kevin McCarthy. You look at a [Ohio Rep.] Jim Jordan.”

Biden was planning to start sounding out a more forceful argument at a rally in Florida that had been scheduled for Monday, before his positive COVID test last week got in the way.

A Biden adviser told CNN that when the President does come out of quarantine, he’ll be talking about the work his administration has been doing for the middle class, but “you’re also going to hear him continue to talk about congressional Republicans who are talking about taking extreme measures like banning abortion in every state across the country, want to raise your taxes, and are putting your Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block.”

Few are holding their breath, either for Biden to go hard, or for him to do it consistently, with the President often going days or weeks without returning to an attack.

“Joe Biden is Joe Biden. And I don’t expect him to suddenly become a partisan flamethrower, and I don’t think we need him for that,” Schatz said. Anyway, he added, “the people who are most effectively making the case that Republicans have gone over the edge and are now extremists are: elected Republicans.”

Extremism vs. the Economy

In an interview with CNN, Rep. Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican and chair of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, dismissed the extremism talk as Democrats “trying to rationalize their way to the minority.”

All that matters is inflation and the bills Democrats passed last year which didn’t stop it, Emmer said. “You could talk about anything but the issue and the results are going to be the same at the ballot box,” he argued. “When somebody says we’re going to talk about these other things because they’re much bigger, they’re not talking to Main Street.”

Tom Emmer, with his wife, Jacquie, at a campaign event in 2013.

Emmer ducked when asked if he’d consider a federal ban on abortion to be an extreme position, saying, “the only thing that’s extreme is the Democrats’ no exceptions on abortion.” When asked about candidates who were part of or supported the crowd at the Capitol on January 6, he said he wanted anyone who committed criminal acts to be prosecuted.

He argued that it’s not his party which has spun out of control. “There are no moderates left in my grandfather’s Democratic Party. There are only San Francisco liberals, socialists and others.”

But the more moderate, less Trump-allied leaders in the party who hoped that the former President and his influence would fade, have expressed some discomfort with the trajectory of their party.

Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan

In an interview on the sidelines of the bipartisan National Governors Association meeting in Portland, Maine, earlier this month, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — a prominent Trump critic who has said he won’t be voting for the insurrectionist candidate who won the Republican primary to succeed him — said he thinks voters see both parties as moving away from them.

“Republicans are talking about the Democrats as extremists and the Democrats are talking about Republicans as extremists. And in some cases, they’re right,” Hogan said.

Hogan said he believes that most Americans remain driven by the economy and inflation, but he’s not sure where that will lead voters.

Asked what he thought of many of his fellow Republican leaders favoring abortion bans without exceptions, as in the case of those who wanted the 10-year-old Ohio girl to carry her pregnancy to term, Hogan said, “Well, I would say that’s an extreme position.”

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