Trump-Russia Probe Is Left Unspoken in 2018 Congressional Races

(Bloomberg) -- Candidates barely mention it. TV ads don’t highlight it. Polls show Americans aren’t voting on it.

The Russia probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is barely registering in the campaigns by Democrats seeking to wrest control of Congress from Republicans in November -- even as the year-long investigation has consumed Washington and poses a threat to Donald Trump’s presidency.

Over the last year, the probe into possible coordination between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia has extracted five guilty pleas and 17 indictments, and has involved some of the president’s senior advisers, personal lawyer and family members. It’s become a focal point of partisan fighting in Congress and is a frequent topic of the president’s tweets.

Yet six months before elections for every House seat and a third of the Senate, Democrats have concluded the topic lands on deaf ears.

“I don’t think it’s a big issue for voters,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democrats’ election arm that’s working to take control of the chamber from the GOP.

He said Thursday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that it’s “important for the country” that the investigation continue until it uncovers the truth of the president’s role in any collusion. But he said voters are more attentive to pocketbook issues such as reducing health-care costs, confronting China over its trade practices and ending tax breaks for hedge-fund managers.

Soybeans vs. Russia

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said at a May 16 gathering of progressives in Washington that voters are “not asking me about Russian bots; they’re asking me about soybean exports.”

In recent primaries -- including those in Georgia, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Indiana -- Democrats and Republicans seldom mentioned Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

“It’s a non-issue here in Indiana. I don’t think voters care one bit about it,” said Kyle Hupfer, the chairman of the Indiana GOP. “I never heard it come up one time.”

As November elections draw closer, the Russia issue could take on more prominence, especially if there are significant developments in the investigation. But there’s no sign of that happening yet as many candidates focus on primary races.

Core Democratic voters are unified in disdain for the president and in support of the special counsel’s investigation. But the probe hasn’t dented Trump’s high popularity among Republicans. Polls show four in five GOP-leaning voters nationally approve of his job performance.

Praising Trump

Republican Congressional candidates who won primaries in states like West Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina praised Trump and in some cases pitched themselves to voters as more Trump-like than their rivals.

Trump’s public relations effort to brand the investigation as a “witch hunt” is starting to succeed, Hupfer said, at least among Republicans. “Most Hoosiers think it’s just completely fraudulent in its basis” and “lacks credibility,” he said.

Public opinion on the special counsel probe has polarized along party lines, with surveys showing that most Democrats view it as legitimate and important while most Republicans see it as politically motivated, even though Mueller and Justice Department officials overseeing the probe were appointed by Republicans.

“The back and forth with the investigation is an important issue, and is talked about, and it’s talked about from both perspectives. It seems to be, at this point, an issue that needs to have resolution one way or another,” said Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who faces a competitive re-election. “Am I hearing from voters about it? Yes. Is it on everybody’s mind? No.”

“I don’t get asked about it at home,” said Representative Lamar Smith, a retiring Texas Republican from a conservative district. “I get a lot of comments criticizing it, but I don’t get any questions of concern.”

That’s distressing to some Democrats.

“I’m very surprised that this robust Mueller investigation into possible collusion and obstruction of justice and treason by this president is not being talked about in our state,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic political consultant based in Georgia, which held its primaries last week. “But I think voters right now are more concerned about our safety, job creation, health care and education.”

Economic Policies

In contested Democratic primaries, candidates are mostly debating economic policies, such as whether to embrace “Medicare for all” health insurance and how to address issues like criminal justice and immigration, rather than the Russia investigation.

“It’s hard to describe it as a top-of-the-line issue because there’s been so much ‘he said, he said, they say.’ But I do think there’s broad support for letting the special counsel finish their work,” said Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “Health care is a huge issue, employment remains a significant issue, drug pricing remains a big issue.”

Public opinion polls show varying results on Russia, depending on how the question is asked.

A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released in March surveyed 1,000 voters and found that just five of them identified Russian meddling in U.S. elections as the most important issue that would affect their vote for Congress in November.

A CBS News poll taken in early May found that 53 percent of voters think the investigation into Trump associates and Russia is "politically motivated," while 44 percent say it’s "justified." Even so, an ABC News-Washington Post poll in April found that 69 percent of Americans support Mueller investigating the issue.

The November elections could have significant implications for probes into Trump and Russia. If Democrats take control of the House, they’ll gain subpoena power to compel the testimony of potential subjects and witnesses. They’ll also have tools to combat what they view as improper White House meddling in the special counsel’s investigation. And a Democratic House may be more likely to pursue impeachment as a possible consequence than a chamber that continues to be run by Republicans.

Russia Overshadowed

Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which fractured along party lines in conducting its own probe of the Russia matter, said the issue is on voters’ minds -- it’s just overshadowed by other topics.

"What people are most attuned to are the economic challenges they’re facing,” Schiff of California said in an interview.

The Watergate scandal, which broke in 1972, didn’t become an election issue until 1974, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

But the Russia probe is different, he said, partly because it’s still "unresolved, and there’s there’s not as much clarity as there was by the ’74 midterms.” The media landscape has changed and enabled Trump in "making facts fuzzy, contradicting evidence and putting forth different narratives," he said.

"I think you need smoking-gun evidence -- a tape of him, or an email from him to the Russians” for the issue to become prominent this year, Zelizer said. “I don’t think the fall of people around him is going to make the difference."

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