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‘It doesn’t break through’: Democrats worry about grip on House as Trump overshadows agenda

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a news conference last week on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Democrats are quietly airing concerns that battles with President Trump, including investigations of the president and his administration along with the noisy debate over impeachment, are overshadowing the party’s agenda, threatening its grip on the House in 2020.

That narrative has been fueled by Trump, who has used his Twitter feed and interviews to lambaste Democrats as the “Do Nothing Party,” when in fact they have spent the first five months of their House majority ticking through agenda items they highlighted in the midterm campaign, addressing matters including health-care prices, political corruption and background checks for gun buyers.

But voters aren’t paying much attention, party leaders are finding, leading them to redouble their messaging efforts — including by placing a target on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has blocked consideration of the Democratic bills.

In recent weeks, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has briefed fellow House leaders in private meetings about focus groups the committee commissioned in three key political battlegrounds. The upshot, according to four Democrats familiar with the findings, is that the public’s impression of the new House majority is bound up in its battles with Trump, not in its policy agenda.

That has prompted anxiety about whether the Democratic strategy to hold the House in 2020, by focusing intently on health-care costs and other kitchen-table issues, can be effective amid the president’s attacks.

“Obviously we want to get the word out about the good bills that the House is able to get passed,” said Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), a DCCC vice chairman. “But it seems like there is a preoccupation with what’s happening as it relates to the White House, and so everything else sort of gets drowned out.”

Short of impeachment proceedings, Democrats have aggressively investigated Trump, pursuing inquiries that would shine a harsh light on the incumbent and undermine his standing ahead of the 2020 election.

But the probes are a double-edged sword for Democrats as Trump repeatedly has resisted their requests for documents and witnesses in an ongoing, high-profile confrontation that overwhelms any news of legislative developments.

As Democrats deepen probes, Trump accuses them of being ‘totally out of control’

The anxiety is short of full-blown panic: Multiple Democrats said that internal polls give their party a healthy advantage on the generic congressional ballot and that they retain an edge in voter enthusiasm. The Democrats spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely talk about private discussions and internal polling.

But the concerns are being amplified by vulnerable freshmen who find themselves back in their districts facing voters who do not know much about what they’ve done in Washington. It’s a particularly sensitive issue for Democrats in the districts Trump won in 2016, who are counting on voter engagement on key policy issues such as health care to buy them separation from the president.

“They think we’re spending our time subpoenaing members of the administration in a back-and-forth with the president,” said Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah), who unseated a Republican last year. “When I look at my week, where I’m spending my time, I’m spending zero hours per week, zero minutes per week on investigations and impeachment, and I’m spending a lot of time on the issues that my district sent me here to work on. . . . But it doesn’t break through. People understand controversy more than they understand retirement reform, you know?”

While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has rejected suggestions that there is a political motive behind her careful stance resisting a rush into impeachment, she has also taken extreme care over the past five months to keep public attention as much as possible on the legislative agenda.

But that has been difficult to do in a media environment preoccupied with her battles with Trump — and while leading a Democratic caucus full of dozens who see the president’s alleged misdeeds as the most pressing issue facing the country.

“It used to be that the Democratic Party had one microphone and it was held by the people who were in the highest place of leadership,” said one Democratic lawmaker briefed on the DCCC focus-group findings. “What we’re seeing in some of this polling is just a reflection of, there is not one single Democratic microphone anymore. It’s disbursed — there are a number of mid-sized microphones, there are a couple bigger ones. And on the Republican side, they still have one big microphone.”

The individual spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the findings.

Trump has been especially keen in recent weeks to assail Democrats for stepping up their investigations and openly pondering impeachment while the southern border crisis festers. The two parties have yet to agree on emergency spending to address the rush of more than 100,000 mostly Central American migrants who have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border each month, let alone a wider-ranging immigration bill.

Besides the health-care, anti-corruption and gun bills, Democrats have passed legislation to address gender pay equality, expand civil rights protections to LGBT Americans, renew the 25-year-old Violence Against Women Act, preserve net neutrality rules for Internet providers and give young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children a path to citizenship.

House passes immigration bill to protect ‘dreamers,’ offer a path to citizenship

Other key Democratic priorities remain incomplete: Democrats have yet to move forward on a minimum-wage increase, nor have they formally put forward infrastructure or prescription drug legislation, though party leaders hold out hope for compromise with Trump on the latter two issues.

According to those briefed on the DCCC focus groups, which were conducted earlier this year in Maine, Michigan and Southern California, voters are largely unaware of political developments that don’t involve the president.

That in and of itself is not surprising, given that an election is 18 months away, Democrats said, but it highlighted the difficulty the party will have in driving a message not involving Trump.

One poll that has gotten attention among Democratic leaders, commissioned by the advocacy group End Citizens United, found in early May that voters in 12 presidential battleground states trusted Democrats no more than Trump to crack down on political corruption or limit the influence of money in politics — this, despite the fact that House leaders made a sprawling anti-corruption bill a centerpiece of their early legislative agenda.

After poll respondents were informed about the House bill, they gave Democrats about a 10-point advantage on the issue.

“The big danger here is that the other side of the aisle, namely our president, is conveying a message that nothing is getting done and that all the Democrats are doing is investigating, and that is completely false,” said Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), another freshman who claimed a former GOP seat last year.Part of the issue, she said, is that voters are no longer getting bombarded with TV ads and other election-related messages.

Over the past month, Democrats have stepped up their messaging efforts on some fronts. Late last month, for instance, the advocacy group Protect Our Care spent seven figures on a campaign to highlight Democratic health-care initiatives in 20 House districts.On an individual level, McAdams has held issue-focused events in his Salt Lake City-area district — highlighting Democratic action on health care, transportation and immigration. Schrier said she has made it a point to mention the House bills in local media interviews on unrelated issues.

But the more visible push from top leaders has been to highlight McConnell’s blanket opposition to virtually every major bill the House has passed so far this year.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in April started calling McConnell’s Senate a “legislative graveyard” and has worked behind the scenes since then to build a messaging strategy focused on McConnell’s intransigence.

That tag­line seems to have stuck: Pelosi on Thursday conducted her weekly news conference beside a “McConnell’s Graveyard” placard with stylized tombstones for nine House bills that have yet to see a Senate vote. The week before, a dozen Democratic freshmen marched to McConnell’s office to deliver a letter demanding that he hold a vote on the anti-corruption bill.

“It’s going to be a drumbeat that’s going to continue for months on the things that people care about,” said Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.), one of the freshmen. “I think we’re actually going to ramp up the pressure on the Senate to act on these things that are so reasonable that they’re hard to oppose.”

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