Published 9:28 AM EDT Oct 24, 2018
BENTON, Illinois – Brendan Kelly, the Democratic county prosecutor who is looking to unseat Republican Rep. Mike Bost here in Southern Illinois, started his pitch to voters at a recent meet-and-greet by lamenting Congress’ failure to address the region’s crumbling infrastructure.
The 42-year-old Navy veteran commiserated with the local farm bureau chief about soybean farmers’ anxiety over the White House trade war with China.
Kelly told a woman from nearby Cairo – a city devastated by a public housing crisis – that he shared her frustration with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. And he waxed mournfully about the need to repair Washington’s divisive political discourse and fix campaign finance laws.
But one thing was conspicuously absent from his voter outreach: Any mention of President Donald Trump.
“The controversy of the day or the tweet of the day where the left and right are bouncing off each other on cable news channels, that’s really not what people here are talking about,” Kelly told USA TODAY. “There may be a few who do care about it. But when you really talk to somebody here about what’s going on in their lives – the struggles in their lives – it’s not the top priority.”
Democrats aiming to pick up the 23 House seats the party needs to win control of the House have seen their fortunes boosted by piles of campaign cash from out-of-district contributors motivated by anti-Trump outrage.
But on the campaign trail in battleground districts held by Republicans, there’s scant talk of the Mueller investigation, Trump’s legal settlement with adult film actress Stormy Daniels or the president’s provocative tweets against a range of targets.
In the lead-up to next month’s midterm elections, Democrats in competitive races have largely avoided framing their campaign as a referendum on Trump as they seek support from independents and moderate Republicans.
The dialing back of anti-Trump rhetoric can also be seen in some races for Senate, where Democrats face a longer shot of winning control.
"Most voters are not paying attention to the day-to-day Trump scandal," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, an analyst with the Democratic-aligned think thank Third Way. "They got tired of it two years ago, and they don't think it has any particular impact on their life."
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David Winston, a Republican pollster, says Democrats today are where the GOP was in 2010.
At the time, he says, House Republicans were debating whether to campaign on serving as a check on then-President Barack Obama, or on asking: "Where are the jobs?"
Then-House Republican Leader John Boehner chose the latter, and the Republicans won the House majority.
"People want problem-solvers," Winston said. "Being a check and balance doesn't necessarily mean you're going to solve problems. It can be perceived as you're simply going to oppose the person in the White House."
National Democratic figures not on the ballot in November – including former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Eric Holder – have continued to pummel Trump. In recent days, both Clinton and Holder have called on Democrats to get tougher as they battle Republicans.
Biden is pondering a 2020 run for the White House; early polls show he is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination.
In a campaign stop last week in Kentucky, he sharply criticized Trump’s responses to last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families at the Southwest Border.
“The question is not who Donald Trump is. America knows who he is,” he said. “The question is, ‘Who are we?’
But candidates in this year's races question whether there’s much to gain in taking an aggressive tack against Trump.
Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, challenging Republican Rep. Rodney Davis in Central Illinois, says she's focusing on local concerns – such as protecting the Affordable Care Act from Republican efforts to dismantle it.
“What the national party says and does is what the national party says and does,” Londrigan said. “For me, these are my neighbors and this my community. I know what they are asking me to do. It’s where I have to stay focused. All the rest is just noise.”
In Central Kentucky, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath has limited her fire against Trump in her campaign to unseat Republican Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr.
Trump, who flew to Kentucky last week to campaign on behalf of Barr, called the retired Marine officer “an extreme liberal chosen by Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters and the radical Democratic mob.”
He accused McGrath of supporting “a socialist takeover” of the health care system, open borders, tax hikes and the decimation of Kentucky’s coal industry.
McGrath's response was measured: "Mr. President, you clearly don’t know me. Yet.”
While Democrats in competitive races have been reluctant to raise Trump on the campaign trail, Barr and other Republicans have been happy to enlist the president.
In an advertisement for GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is in a close contest with Democratic former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen for the state's open Senate seat, Trump warns that Bredesen “will 100 percent vote against us every single time.”
Bredesen, speaking at a forum in Memphis last month, told voters there is much on which he disagrees with Trump.
At the same time, he said, he feels the need to give Trump space in his negotiations with North Korea, and he generally agrees with the president’s impulses on loosening regulations on industry.
“I’m acutely aware of the fact that we have a president and an administration that people have very emotional reactions to,” Bredesen said. “I’ve always been someone who said, “‘You’ve gotta kind of knock that stuff back just a little bit.’”
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In Illinois, where polls show Democrats are in close races against four GOP House incumbents, candidates and their surrogates say running against Trump isn’t constructive.
At the opening of a new campaign office this week, Democratic candidate Lauren Underwood challenged dozens of volunteers to channel their frustration with the Trump administration – whether it was motivated by the administration’s push to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh the Supreme Court, anger over the president’s signature tax cut legislation, or something else – into get-out-the-vote efforts.
Underwood, a registered nurse and former Health and Human Services Administration official in the Obama administration, has steadily climbed in the polls in her race against Rep. Randy Hultgren in the exurbs west and north of Chicago.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report reclassified the race last week from "lean Republican" to “toss-up.”
While she has no shortage of differences with Trump, Underwood has kept her focus on Hultgren. She’s criticized the congressman for his votes to dismantle Obama’s signature health care law, with a particular focus on a provision in the law that prohibits insurance companies from excluding participants for pre-existing health issues.
She’s also slammed the congressman for going more than a year without conducting a town hall meeting.
Asked about how Trump factors into the race, she says she's running against Hultgren.
“Randy Hultgren voted to take away our health care coverage and lied about it and then didn’t show up for 16 months," Underwood said. "And we deserve better than someone who will do that.”
Hultgren, a critic of the Affordable Care Act, credits Trump with improving the economy and reducing unemployment rate. He says he disapproves of the president's personal attacks and the administration's sharp reductions in the number of refugees allowed in the country.
He has cast Underwood as a liberal who would help Democrats push for a single-payer health care system.
“Who pays for Underwood’s big idea?” a narrator asks in a Hultgren campaign ad airing this month. “We do.”
Underwood says she isn’t backing single-payer.
Londrigan is also campaigning on health care. She has spoken frequently on the stump about navigating the health care system after her son, Jack, was bitten by a tick and nearly died from a bacterial disease.
Republicans are worried enough about the historically solid GOP district – the last time a Democrat held the seat, Grover Cleveland was president – that Vice President Mike Pence last week traveled to the district to campaign for Davis.
Londrigan said it has become clear to her that “there is almost no correlation with what the national media is focusing on and what people are talking about.”
“It’s not that Trump never comes up in conversation with voters,” she said. “But it’s not what they are focused on.”
Jason Parks voted for Trump in 2016. The 38-year-old Carterville man says he finds some of Trump's rhetoric off-putting, but he's certain that the economy is stronger because of the president's leadership.
Parks says he's not excited about Bost or the GOP's congressional leadership. But he says the Democrats' handling of allegations of sexual assault that surfaced against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's during his Senate confirmation pushed him further to the right.
"Those people are, like, foaming at the mouth in their anti-Trump rage," he said. "They just energized people like me to vote for Republican candidates. We don't want to see (stuff) like this happen."
Doug Mayol, 63, a registered Republican who has benefited from Obamacare, said Londrigan’s focus on health care has won his vote.
Mayol, a small-business owner from Springfield, has a congenital heart valve problem that he says made it hard to get health insurance before Obamacare.
“I feel like, politically, we’re in (an) awful mess,” he said. “I’d rather hear what politicians are going to do for me, rather than bash each other and say how evil the other guy is.”
There are exceptions. In suburban Chicago, Democratic challenger Sean Casten has labeled Republican Rep. Peter Roskam Trump's "rubber stamp."
The district, a stretch of suburbs with a median household income near $100,000, went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But voters continued their four-decade stretch of electing a Republican to the House seat.
Casten has spotlighted Roskam's support for Trump's signature tax-cut legislation, which he says will mean a significant tax hike for many in the district. The legislation includes a provision capping the federal deduction for state and local taxes at $10,000.
Illinois property taxes are among the highest in the nation. The average tax deduction in five counties in Roskam's district ranges from $11,700 to $18,300, according to the most recent IRS data.
On the stump and in a barrage of campaign ads, Casten notes that Roskam has voted with Trump 94 percent of the time.
At one point, Casten was recorded comparing Trump to Osama bin Laden.
After a conservative website posted the recording online, Casten's campaign walked the comment back. But at a debate in July, Casten called Trump "the worst president of our generation."
Roskam, for his part, described Trump's performance in office as "middling" – and accused Casten of engaging in "Trump-like" rhetoric on the stump.
In Southern Illinois, polls show the Democrat Kelly in a dead heat with the Republican Bost.
Bost, who is seeking third term, is a 58-year-old Marine veteran who spent years in the Illinois state legislature before being elected to Congress.
The predominantly white, working-class district stretches from the Illinois suburbs east of St. Louis to the coal and farm country of southern Illinois. For decades, it was a Democratic stronghold; it voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
But Trump won the district by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016, and his approval rating there is still above water: 48 percent of the district's voters approve of his performance, according to a recent Sienna College/New York Times poll; 46 percent don't.
Cody Moake is Democratic chairman for Williamson County, which Trump won by 41 percentage points.
“I don’t think that Trump has a negative impact,” he said. “Nothing he could do could have an impact on his favorability in some of the more rural parts of the districts, and the voters (with whom) criticizing Trump resonates ... are already won. So going after the president is unnecessary.”
All Bost has to do to win a third term is hold onto Trump voters. Key for Kelly is persuading enough Obama voters who backed Trump in 2016 to give Democrats another chance.
Some of those voters say the improved economy make the Democrat's pitch a hard sell.
Dan Fox, 56, who owns a comic and sports memorabilia store in Marion, Illinois, said he was a reliable Democratic voter until the 2016 election.
Turned off both by Clinton calling some of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” and by Trump's rhetoric during the campaign, Fox threw his support to Libertarian Gary Johnson.
But Fox said Trump has grown on him. He wishes the president would quit his “petulant Twitter rants,” but he has a hard time finding fault in his performance.
Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in decades. Fox said that means more customers with money in their pockets are able to shop at his store.
And after Trump imposed his steep steel and aluminum tariffs on China, U.S. Steel – the nation’s second largest steel producer – announced it would restart furnaces at its plant in the district. The move brought back hundreds of workers to the Granite City, Illinois, plant that were laid off in 2015.
Fox said he isn’t a fan of Bost, but he is supporting him because of Trump.
“In the past, Brendan Kelly would have had my vote without me even thinking about it,” Fox said.
Contributing: Thomas Novelly of the Louisville Courier Journal, and Daniel Connolly of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.