In the Trump era, that stark contrast between Republican pugilists and Democratic pacifiers has emerged in races around the country — from a House contest in Virginia to a state legislative race in Wisconsin to several top-tier Senate contests.
Republicans cast themselves as hard-charging as President Trump, focused on storming Washington to fight governing elites on behalf of average Americans. Democrats, seizing on congressional dysfunction, present themselves as pragmatic and willing to move beyond political division toward compromise.
It’s a messaging battle that will help define the coming campaign season, with voters getting the final say.
“Donald Trump’s America is defined by division and divisiveness. Most voters are hoping to find a way to move past that,” says Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster working on the midterm elections. “There is a virtue to being un-Trump.”
At the root of the strategy is a growing confidence that in the era of Trump, Democratic base voters will go to the polls, even if their candidates talk moderation. If anything, candidates cast their own calm demeanors as a forceful antidote to the president.
“Most Arizonans are just tired of the tweeting and the personal attacking and the divisive language,” Sinema said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Here they are, busting their tails trying to put gas in their car and trying to take care of their kids, and they see a bunch of politicians in Washington fighting like children.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are focused on motivating their base voters in a midterm campaign season; historically, such elections have favored the party out of power. And they must do it in a GOP where Trump has moved the boundaries of acceptable provocation for many conservatives.
In Tennessee, for example, the leading Republican Senate candidate, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, came out swinging with an introductory campaign spot that stopped just short of fire and brimstone.
She boasted of packing a pistol in her purse and embraced liberal epithets like “wing nut,” while calling herself “hard core” and “politically incorrect.” Her reference to efforts to stop “the sale of baby body parts” led Twitter to refuse the spot as a paid promotional ad because the language was too inflammatory.
Her likely Democratic opponent, former governor Phil Bredesen, kicked off his campaign with a video of himself speaking in dulcet tones while sitting on a porch, as calming piano music played in the background. He spoke of “working across party lines” and bringing “common sense back to our government.”
“The Democrats are going to have the enthusiasm because it is an anti-Trump year, so they don’t have to ramp up the base,” explained one Republican strategist working on midterm races.
That dynamic frees Democrats to focus on winning swing voters. It’s a strategy that has already delivered results. After winning a Wisconsin state Senate election in January in a district that went for Trump by 17 points, Democrat Patty Schachtner explained her 10-point win with a gentle admonition. “My message has always been be kind,” she told reporters.
Virginia’s new Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, an even-keeled military doctor, won by contrasting his disposition not just with that of his opponent, who was forced to embrace the policies of Trump, but with that of the president himself. In one of his last ads, Northam announced a willingness to work with Trump, despite the objections of liberal activists to the strategy.
And in the Alabama Senate race last year, the Democratic winner, Doug Jones, built his campaign around the notion that it was time to stop Washington fighting and work in a bipartisan way, a stark contrast to the defiant approach of Republican Roy Moore, who rode a horse to the polls and pulled out a pistol at a campaign event.
Joe Trippi, a campaign consultant for Jones, said that even in deep-red Alabama, he regularly came across Republican voters in focus groups and at campaign events who were desperate for a change from Trump’s combative tone.
“The words that people would use were ‘chaos, exhaustion,’ ” Trippi said. “Particularly with Republican women, you would talk to them and they would say, ‘I don’t necessarily like this feeling of being constantly on edge.’ ”
Just appearing nice and reasonable, several Democratic strategists have advised their candidates, can help draw a clear contrast with an unpopular president, who continues to dominate news cycles with jarring claims, such as accusing Democrats of treason or describing African nations as “shithole countries.”
“I have never seen anyone, anywhere complain about Trump ideologically,” said one Democratic strategist who has been conducting focus groups on midterm races. “They say they worry about him personally, even among his supporters.”
In a January Washington Post-ABC News poll, 60 percent of Americans did not trust Trump to responsibly handle his authority to launch a nuclear attack, including 1 in 4 voters who said they leaned Republican. Sixty-six percent said Trump’s use of Twitter hurts his presidency.
Republican election strategists acknowledge the risk and have been encouraging the White House to tone down the disruptive rhetoric. They hope to focus the race on more friendly terrain, such as recent economic gains and the stimulative effects of the Republicans’ tax bill.
They point to the president’s broadly appealing and optimistic State of the Union address and the recent heat Democrats took for their role in shutting down the government as two recent wins against the Democratic messaging.
“They are trying to say the Republicans are crazy,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster working on a number of House and Senate races. “I don’t think that message is going to have legs for them, especially with them running against good Republican candidates.”
For Blackburn, a movement conservative who became a tea party champion, the aggressive introductory ad, with clips of her firing a pistol, fit her record and her strategy.
“Tennessee families aren’t looking for someone to pat everyone on the head and tell them it’s going to be okay,” said Andrea Bozek, a Blackburn campaign spokeswoman. “They are looking for someone to change the dysfunction in Washington and get things accomplished.”
But Democrats see that same approach as an opportunity. Polls commissioned by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last year found that Bredesen started in the race with much lower negative feelings among voters, despite similar name identification.
The same poll found that the recent rightward tilt of the state was not due to growth in Republican voters but a seven-point shift since 2002 in the share of voters who identify themselves as independents instead of Democrats. Bredesen’s strategy depends on winning back many of those moderates.
“Phil’s approach is to try to get something positive done,” said Byron Trauger, a longtime friend and adviser to Bredesen. “And I guess he has followed the lead of former United States senator, a Republican, Howard Baker, who is famous for saying that we need to remember that ‘the other fellow may just be right.’ ”
That’s an itch that Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer, is trying to scratch in her campaign for Virginia’s 7th District, currently held by Rep. Dave Brat, a Republican Freedom Caucus member who won reelection by more than 15 points in 2016.
Brat, who appears frequently on cable news to engage in political combat, recently scheduled a telephone town hall for his constituents with Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), a firebrand who boycotted a recent joint address to Congress by Pope Francis, speculated that a white-supremacist march last year in Charlottesville may have been organized by liberals, and asked the U.S. Capitol Police to check identifications at last month’s State of the Union and arrest “any illegal aliens in attendance.”
Spanberger, by contrast, speaks a lot about decency and divisiveness, and has hinged her campaign on the idea that the district is looking for someone who is less combative. Her opening ad is called “Integrity” and says the country needs to stop fragmenting itself by political party.
“People say we just need decency, and Trump doesn’t represent decency,” she said of the people she has met at house parties in the district. “So many of us are running because we believe that. Though it will not be easy to change the culture of Washington, just changing the tenor will positively impact the conversations.”