There may be only one thing that gets President Trump angrier than accusations that he’s a racist: the suggestion that he’s failing. Put those claims together, and Trump will explode in fury.
Which raises a question: Have Trump’s fearsome attacks actually succeeded in making those four lawmakers — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — the face of the Democratic Party? How much of a liability is this really for Democrats?
We are now about to have our first big test case that might shed light on these questions.
Next Tuesday, voters go to the polls in the closely watched special House election in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district. This battle — between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Dan Bishop — is being widely described as a big test of both sides’ messaging heading into 2020.
And in that context, here are a couple data points that raise serious skepticism about the strategy of tying Democrats to “the Squad.”
First, the vast bulk of the paid TV advertising from Republicans in this race actually does not focus on those lawmakers, Democrats familiar with ad-buy information tell me.
Second, even with those attacks, this race is effectively a tie — in a district that Trump carried by 11 points in 2016.
Republicans and their allied outside groups have run well over a dozen paid TV and radio ads against the Democrat.
A number of the ads blast McCready as a money-grubbing businessman and corrupt insider (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.) A handful attack McCready as soft on immigration (see here).
Some ads do feature “the Squad.” This one depicts the Squad members as inflatable clowns. This one and this one flash images of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar and label them “socialists.” This one also flashes their images. This one flashes a shot of Ocasio-Cortez.
Of all these ads, around two-thirds don’t mention the Squad at all. What’s more, the ads that don’t mention the Squad have vast sums of money behind them — totaling many millions of dollars, a Democrat familiar with ad-buy info tells me.
By contrast, the ads that do mention the Squad are backed by ad buys totaling a few hundred thousand dollars, that Democrat says.
That alone suggests this isn’t all that effective a line of attack. On top of this, the race is a dead heat, in a district that Trump won overwhelmingly. According to the Cook Political Report’s partisan voter index, the district is 8 points more Republican than the nation as a whole.
Yet polls show that this race remains incredibly close. Which raises the possibility that this attack on the Squad — in addition to not even being potent enough to be heavily featured in GOP ads — isn’t doing much to move the needle for Republicans.
Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, responded this way: “We encourage all Democrats to wrap their arms around the socialist agenda of AOC and her friends if they don’t think it’ll be a liability in 2020.”
A big test for the GOP
The North Carolina race is being widely touted as a test of whether Republicans can win back the sort of suburban districts they lost in 2018, with suburban white voters badly alienated by Trump voting for the Democrats in large numbers.
Given the district’s pro-Trump tilt, you’d think merely energizing the GOP base should be enough to win. But if Democrats can pull off a surprise win in this district, it’ll suggest that the national political environment remains terrible for Republicans, with the sort of swing voters who bolted last time still so alienated by Trump that it’s enough to offset even a major pro-GOP tilt.
Even if Democrats lose but keep it very close, that also bodes badly for Republicans, given that pro-GOP tilt, according to Nathan L. Gonzales, the editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections. It would show that Trump remains a serious liability for the GOP.
“I don’t think this would be a race if there were a different president,” Gonzales told me. “He’s the shadow that looms over this race.”
And so, if Democrats keep this race close, it suggests that to the degree that the national political environment is Trumpified, it remains much more of a liability for Republicans than Democrats.
Michael Bitzer, an expert in North Carolina politics, told me that what happens with suburban voters in the south Charlotte area will be a good test of whether “white, college-educated, suburban women” are still “moving against the president.”
In fairness, as Republicans point out, McCready had a big head start, because he already ran once in an election that was overturned due to election fraud. But still, this is a very Republican district — it shouldn’t be this close.
Gonzales pointed to another key nuance. Even if this race is tight, next fall Republicans could still use the Squad to attack Democratic House members running for reelection, because as incumbents it might be easier to tar them with their more progressive colleagues.
Still, the vast bulk of the districts that will decide who keeps the House next year are not as Republican as North Carolina’s 9th District is. And if this race is close, it will suggest Trump’s continued alienation of swing voters might still be outweighing whatever benefits Republicans get from his energizing of the base.
And the attacks on the Squad, of course, typify all the ways Trump does both of those things. Indeed, even some Republicans recently told the Washington Examiner that those attacks risk further alienating the educated and suburban white swing voters that Republicans need to win back next year.
So no matter how many times Trump tweets about his own brilliance in turning Democrats into the “Party of the Squad,” the idea that this works for Republicans deserves serious skepticism.