Politics & Government

Democrats want to focus on health care in 2020. Is that possible after impeachment?

Soren Norris wasn’t talking about impeachment, Ukraine, or even President Donald Trump himself when he finally sensed an opportunity to win over a GOP voter.

The field director for a labor-backed group was walking door-to-door in this leafy suburban neighborhood when he met Don Cooper, a self-described Republican who praised the country’s “booming” economy. But when the conversation turned to health care, Cooper readily acknowledged that he thought people with pre-existing conditions should have insurance — and Norris saw his opening.

“I know [Andy] Beshear is for pre-existing conditions,” Norris said, pointing Cooper to a pamphlet that described the health care positions of Kentucky’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Norris, a staffer for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s political arm, was ostensibly there to campaign for Beshear in his competitive race against GOP Gov. Matt Bevin next month.

But his approach to one of the few major statewide races of 2019 is also serving as a test run for Democrats nationally who believe a focus on pocketbook issues — not Trump’s conduct — will be the party’s best path to winning over moderate voters and motivating their base in next year’s presidential election.

“It both speaks to a portion of the electorate that has to turn out as well as a portion of the electorate that is conflicted,” said Matt Morrison, Working America’s executive director, who described their door-knocking strategy as “obvious as water is wet.”

But as Morrison and other Democratic strategists recognize, emphasizing health care and economic issues is easier said than done with a president who often sets the day’s agenda with a single tweet — not to mention the swell of press coverage surrounding the impeachment inquiry targeting Trump.

Deciding whether to fixate on the president’s daily rhetoric or economic issues has been one of the Democratic Party’s signature tactical challenges of the Trump era. It was a riddle Democrats faced in the 2018 midterm elections — one they solved with an avalanche of ads accusing Republicans of wanting to remove protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

But even veterans of that campaign acknowledge that repeating their success in 2020 will be much more difficult.

“We certainly had the advantage over 2020 in that Trump was in the backdrop and not on the ballot in 2018,” said Dan Sena, who was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the last election. “We had the ability to draw a clear narrative against House Republicans and our challengers in his absence.”

Democrats like Sena reasoned that although Trump’s behavior and pet issues, like immigration, ultimately hurt him politically, any attempts to call more attention to them rarely budged voters who were already hyper-aware of the president’s latest provocation.

These same voters, however, had much less information about GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act or the passage of the Republican-backed tax bill in 2017, Democrats say, and so ads that highlighted those issues were likely to have more influence.

“We found that talking specifically talking about health care, just as Trump was trying to explode the media narrative about immigrant caravans and that type of communication, measurably shifted the attention of members,” Morrison said.

But that gap in awareness persists into the current election cycle. Patrick McHugh, executive director for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, said they conducted focus groups with swing voters in the aftermath of last year’s election.

They came away with a surprising revelation: Many of the participants didn’t know much about the new tax law, even after the last election’s ad blitz.

“There’s still an information gap that exists,” McHugh said. “Voters don’t know the facts about his policies.”

Priorities has already begun running ads opposing Trump’s re-election in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida, focusing on the president’s attempts at health care reform and calling him out of touch with the middle class.

The group has continued to run those ads even as the impeachment inquiry escalates in the House. When Trump’s campaign and the RNC announced it was spending millions of dollars to fund anti-impeachment ads, Priorities issued a statement saying it would ignore the Republicans’ “gambit” and continue to fixate on kitchen-table issues.

Avoiding an emphasis on impeachment when talking to voters has been the focus of other Democratic leaders, too. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, has hit the road to tout her plan to lower prescription drug costs even while presiding over the impeachment probe.

While the governor’s race between Bevin and Beshear is expected to be relatively tight, a red state like Kentucky won’t play a significant role in the next presidential election. Still, it is home to a high number of the white, working-class voters Democrats are aiming to make inroads with in battleground states around the country in 2020.

Back in Louisville, Norris did his best to talk about health care, asking people he met to sign a petition to preserve pre-existing conditions protections for patients while collecting their email addresses. Many of those he talked to mentioned rising health care costs as one of their biggest concerns.

“It’s been a big shift from jobs to health care,” Norris said. “Absolutely.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.