BERRYVILLE, Va. — Democratic leaders traveled to a deep red corner of Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock’s Northern Virginia district Monday to unveil a strategy they hope will convince voters they have more to offer than just opposition to President Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Mark R. Warner (Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), stood on a stage in a community park under a blazing sun to roll out their plan, called “A Better Deal.”
“Democrats have too often hesitated from directly and unflinchingly taking on misguided policies that got us here,” Schumer said. “So much so that too many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today.”
In one of the few references to Trump in the hour-long event, Schumer said the president campaigned on a populist message but abandoned working people when he took office.
Democrats’ proposals are designed to appeal to middle-class workers — ways to lower prescription drug prices and provide more federal funding for apprenticeships and job training, and more aggressive monitoring of proposed corporate mergers — all poll-tested ideas that they think will win back voters who supported Trump last year.
“It’s not enough to just identify the problem,” said Van Hollen, who as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is in charge of preserving Democratic seats next year and trying to increase their number. “It’s not enough to simply analyze and empathize. We have to put forward bold solutions.”
Democrats said they would discuss specific legislation later, and Schumer did not answer a question from a resident who urged the party to push for efforts to revive the Depression-era banking regulations of the Glass-Steagall Act.
A relatively convenient 90-minute drive from Capitol Hill for busy lawmakers but a world away from Washington, Berryville is the seat of Clarke County, in the western end of the 10th Congressional District, which Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won by double digits in November.
Trump won the county with 57 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 37 percent — 15 points worse than she performed across the rest of the district.
For Democrats to gain control of the House, they would have to unseat members such as Comstock — a point made by Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“While it’s early, there’s no doubt that this district and so many others are up for grabs in the 2018 midterms,” he said. “This won’t be easy. And Democrats can’t take anything for granted.”
Seven Democrats are competing for the chance to take on Comstock in 2018, a sign of both enthusiasm within the party and a sense that she may be vulnerable.
Before the event, the Virginia GOP tweeted a photo of Comstock in Clarke County and another of her with Clarke officials, in keeping with Comstock’s successful strategy last year of focusing on local issues and refusing to delve into national politics. Comstock beat her Democratic opponent in the county last year, 63 to 37 percent.
Activists from the liberal groups Indivisible and Dump Comstock watched the Democrats’ event as well.
Comstock’s political director, Ken Nunnenkamp, said Democrats trotted out their “most extreme left wingers” for a “bizarre visit” rife with the “same tired talking points.”
Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, likened the Democrats’ event to an in-kind contribution to Comstock.
“I’m glad that Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Elizabeth Warren got to experience Clarke County, where Rep. Comstock is fighting for local issues each day, including the heroin epidemic,” Anderson said in a statement. “Her massive level of support in Clarke County reflects the fact that she’s working hard for the people of the 10th, while Pelosi swings through for a couple hours and leaves without shaking a single hand.”
Warner, who gave a shout-out to two candidates for state delegate in the front row, said later that Democrats can win in places like Clarke County with an economic message. For example, he said, expanding broadband access would allow people to work remotely and remain in their communities.
“I believe it still is how you sort through the economic anxiety that the changing economy brings,” he said.
A few protesters in the crowd silently held signs needling Warner for winning only 39 percent of the vote in Clarke County in his 2014 race.
One of them had a pizza box that said “Still Pelosi” in a knock on the Democrats’ new slogan, “A Better Deal,” which some have mocked as similar to Papa John’s “Better Pizza” tagline.
But after years of watching GOP lawmakers successfully make similar pitches to voters, Democrats have decided they must do things differently, and they think focusing more on pocketbook issues — and less on Trump — will resonate.
Topping their list is the establishment of a federal “price gouging enforcer” who would lead a new agency to monitor prescription drug costs and negotiate lower prices. Cutting the cost of prescription drugs remains a major issue with the public. In a survey in late April by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 64 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans named it as one important step that Trump and Congress could take to improve health care.
The heart of the drug-price proposal — letting the government negotiate the rates at which pharmaceuticals are sold within Medicare — is a policy that Democrats have been championing for more than a decade, without success.
The idea was a major point of contention in 2003, when Congress added prescription drug benefits to the program, known as Part D. During that debate, Republicans, at the urging of drugmakers, kept such direct negotiations out of the law. That makes Medicare, which enrolls about 77 million older and disabled Americans, unlike the nation’s other health-care entitlement program, Medicaid, in which drugs must be sold at the deepest discount that any entity can negotiate.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Anita Gallagher of Leesburg. Gallagher urged lawmakers to push for – not against – efforts to revive Glass-Steagall banking regulations. The story has been corrected.
O’Keefe reported from Washington. Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.