With his approval rating among Republicans hovering between 80 and 90 percent, Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP is nearly complete. But the proliferation of early campaign ads this year suggests the president is reshaping the Democratic Party just as rapidly as his own.
The long, historic line of Democratic happy warriors—Al Smith, Hubert Humphrey, Joe Biden—have given way to an earnest and indignant class of candidates who, no matter what office they’re running for, promise to take the fight to the White House. In a sign of their disdain for the president, their TV ads frequently refer to him as “Trump”—no first name or deferential title necessary.
Recent ads describe Trump in terms that capture the contempt with which he is viewed on the left. One Illinois candidate for governor disparaged the president as a grifter, a rich guy “who scammed the system.” Another candidate running for Congress in the same state characterized him as an “unstable president.”
In Texas, which held its primaries last week, congressional candidate Lizzie Pannill Fletcher used broader strokes, reminding Democratic voters that the president is “threatening everything we stand for.”
Fletcher finished first in the primary for her Houston-area district and will face off in a May 22 runoff against Laura Moser, who ran her own spot advancing her anti-Trump credentials. “After Trump got elected, I started an organization that helped hundreds of thousands of regular Americans stand up to him and the Republican Congress,” Moser says in a straight-to-camera ad.
Still, after a review of more than 30 different Trump-oriented campaign ads in a half-dozen states, one Florida spot stands out. It consists of footage from Trump’s State of the Union speech, when Rep. Al Lawson was shown as one of the few Democrats to applaud the president’s touting of lower unemployment rates for African-Americans.
Trump later singled out Lawson for praise, leading the congressman’s primary opponent, former Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown, to frame him as a quisling undeserving of the party nomination.
Even by modern midterm campaign standards, much of the language and criticism in these ads is unusually personal. While Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama generated a degree of anger in the opposing party—and appeared in their share of negative fall campaign ads—they didn’t feature so prominently in the primary season of their first midterm elections. The intensity of their opposition was not nearly as fierce barely more than one year into their first terms.
The issues that dominate the early ads reflect the Democratic Party’s Trump-adjusted priorities. There’s little to no discussion of Medicare, Social Security, Wall Street or terrorism. Instead, candidates are largely talking about the president’s immigration policy and his failed effort to blow up the Affordable Care Act.
There’s no better place to see this than Illinois, where Trump has been a staple of Democratic campaign ads up and down the ballot in the run-up to the March 20 primary.
“As governor, I’ll take on Donald Trump,” says J.B. Pritzker in one spot, as the billionaire speaks to the camera with Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago as the backdrop.
“It seems like he’s impossible to get away from,” Pritzker says without a hint of irony, as he cuts an ad about Trump. “Whether it’s trying to repeal Obamacare, or his tweets, or trying to deport hundreds of thousands of kids, we’ve all heard enough from Donald Trump.”
In the state’s marquee primary, veteran Congressman Dan Lipinski reminds his party that he “votes against Donald Trump again and again and again.” His challenger, Marie Newman, however, labels Lipinski as a “Trump Democrat” whose unreliability is evidenced by an Oval Office photo where the congressman can be spotted over Trump’s shoulder.
Trump’s influence reaches as far as the state attorney general’s race, where a handful of Democrats are reinterpreting the office as the tip of the spear against the Trump White House.
“Sharon [Fairley]’s been taking on bullies and bigots her whole life,” a narrator intones in one spot, as a smug-looking photo of the president appears in the background, “so she’ll stand up to Trump’s attacks on women, immigrants and people of color.”
What’s missing from many of these ads—just as in Texas, where Democrats in crowded House primaries raged against the president’s “bullying” and promised “to stop Donald Trump from destroying the American dream”—is a broader, more affirmative message beyond a willingness to fight the president.
That’s fine for a primary where the roiling base wants smashmouth confrontation, but a more coherent agenda is going to be necessary in the fall as Republicans run on tax cuts and a humming economy.