Trump Allies' Downfall Gives Democrats New Fuel for House Fight
(Bloomberg) -- The Democrats’ edge in the battle for control of the House just got a little sharper.
The convictions of two former top aides to President Donald Trump and the indictments of two of his earliest GOP House allies handed Democrats a campaign message that party members say writes itself.
“The American people deserve better than the GOP’s corruption, cronyism, and incompetence,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said after Tuesday’s conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the guilty plea by the president’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen and the indictment of California Representative Duncan Hunter.
For much of the midterm election campaign, Pelosi and other Democrats have been mired in internal disagreements over how far to go in directly raising the Russia investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller -- as well as potential presidential impeachment -- because they doubt the message would win votes.
But with just two and a half months left before the election on Nov. 6 -- in which independent forecasters already give Democrats good odds of winning control of the House -- Pelosi and other Democrats across the board have since Tuesday tightened their focus on corruption in interviews, statements and tweets.
"If you believe that the Republicans are behind in the race for the House, as many do, then they probably need some sort of positive development between now and the midterm," said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball election forecast at the University of Virginia.
The Cohen plea and the Manafort conviction “was not that," he said. "The numbers are already bad."
Two people close to Trump said keeping the House in Republican control has become a much harder task in the wake of the Cohen and Manafort convictions. One of the people noted that voters tend to punish incumbents in the president’s party for White House problems.
Senate Republicans largely dodged questions about the court cases as they made their way through the Capitol on Wednesday. “No comment” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Trump ally, said before heading to an elevator, in a typical response.
Several highlighted that neither the Manafort nor Cohen cases were directly related to the Russia investigation, which Trump has labeled a “witch hunt.”
“Nothing we heard yesterday has anything to do with Russia or the reason Director Mueller was appointed special counsel,” Texas Senator John Cornyn said on Wednesday.
The House is in recess. Speaker Paul Ryan’s office released a statement Tuesday night saying the Wisconsin Republican needed more information about Cohen’s plea before commenting.
Republicans are already swimming against a tide of history where the party in the White House typically loses dozens of House seats in midterm elections. Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to win the chamber, and have opportunities in many districts heavy on suburban and high-income voters who lean Republican but backed Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election.
"The House battleground is much more focused on affluent, Trump-skeptical suburban voters than the Senate is," Kondik said. "Some Republicans in those places already don’t like the president, and it’s hard to see how the Cohen-Manafort developments would improve their view of the president."
The Senate is a more complicated picture as the Democrats’ path to the majority runs through conservative pro-Trump states like Indiana, North Dakota and Tennessee this fall, thanks to an unusually friendly map for Republicans.
The November election will determine whether Trump’s party or the Democratic opposition controls congressional committees that have subpoena power for documents and testimony and the authority to initiate impeachment.
About a third of Democrats in the House voted in January for articles of impeachment, a move that was rejected by all Republicans and most Democrats. Democratic leaders have steered away from talking about impeachment, because the threat may motivate Trump supporters to vote in November. For the same reason, Republicans are increasingly talking about it.
“I have some confidence that our Democratic friends are going to overreach and this’ll all be about impeachment,” Cornyn said.
Eric Brakey, a Republican making a long-shot bid to unseat independent Senator Angus King in Maine, released a statement Wednesday that “the Mueller investigation’s end game is to impeach President Trump” and a vote for King is “a vote to move that impeachment forward. ”
The news may embolden a faction in the Democratic Party’s liberal wing that wants to pursue impeachment. Billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who has been funding a campaign for impeachment, called the Cohen guilty plea "further proof" the president has engaged is unlawful behavior. "It’s time for the American people to make themselves clear: ‘Remove Donald Trump from office or we will remove you from office,’” he said.
Steyer, who has already been running ads promoting impeachment, has said he’ll spend $50 million on his Need to Impeach campaign to motivate voters to back Democratic candidates.
So far, the Russia probe and the question of impeachment haven’t figured into many Democratic House campaigns.
“Democrats are smart to deploy a message that focuses on a culture of corruption within today’s GOP. It’s a safer message than specifically promoting impeachment, and likely ensures they take the House in November," said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from 2014 to 2017.
Democrats also seized on Tuesday’s indictment of Hunter on charges he and his wife used campaign funds to pay personal expenses. It came less than two weeks after another House Republican, Chris Collins of New York, was himself indicted by federal authorities on insider trading charges. Unlike Hunter, Collins has since resigned from Congress. They were two of the first House Republican backers of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Democrats say giving their party a House majority would deliver meaningful oversight of the Trump administration.
"This is just one of the lowest moments of Congress," Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia, the top Democrat on the House Oversight subcommittee on Government Operations, said. "Essentially, the Republicans under Trump have completely given up even the pretense of government oversight -- including cabinet members’ greed and self aggrandizement, ethics issues and conflicts of interest.”
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