It’s no surprise that a Republican congressional candidate used Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a campaign video. But including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and two other GOP House members as targets for criticism is a novel approach for a Republican candidate.
GOP strategists knew they needed an atypical candidate to have any chance of recapturing Virginia’s 10th District. As a double amputee Marines Corps veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Rob Jones fits that bill.
“Congress is a partisan war zone — political tribes that demonize each other, refusing to work together, empowering extremists on both sides,” Jones says in a nearly two-minute introductory video over footage of Tlaib, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Republican Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Steve King of Iowa.
“Party bosses ruling like warlords, using favors or fear to divide and conquer,” the video continues, with footage of McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Pelosi.
Taking on some of the most conservative and most recognizable members of the Republican Party is the right strategy for a GOP candidate running in a suburban Washington, D.C., district where Hillary Clinton received 52 percent of the vote in 2016, and Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock lost reelection to Democrat Jennifer Wexton by a dozen points in 2018.
A similar strategy worked for Democrat Joe Donnelly when he was an Indiana congressman nearly a decade ago. National GOP strategists credited Donnelly with one of the best campaigns in the country in 2010, when he ran aggressively against all parts of Washington, including his own party.
In one television ad, Donnelly talked about bucking “the Washington crowd,” as a picture of two fellow Democrats — President Barack Obama and Pelosi — flashed on the screen along with the top House Republican at the time, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio.
The ad, and his willingness to run against his own party, helped Donnelly survive that year’s GOP wave in a competitive district, while 52 of his colleagues lost reelection.
The strategy won’t be easy to replicate for Jones.
Donnelly was an incumbent with preexisting name identification from four years in office and a moderate image before the 2010 cycle. He also had the benefit of running in a district covered by the inexpensive South Bend media market.
Jones is starting out unknown. He’s got a compelling story to tell as a veteran who lost both of his legs after stepping on an IED and recovering to run 31 marathons in 31 days for veterans charities. And he might benefit from the lack of political baggage that comes with name ID from being in elected office. But it will take millions of dollars to simultaneously boost his profile and make his case against Wexton because of the expensive D.C. media market.
While taking on a few Republicans is likely the right strategy for Jones, it’s unclear whether he’s taking on the right Republicans. His initial video makes no mention of President Donald Trump, who received just 42 percent of the district vote in 2016 and deserves some blame for Comstock’s poor performance last fall.
And Donnelly, who at least flashed a photo of Obama in his ads at a time when the president was a polarizing figure, got to run for reelection in a district that backed Obama by 9 points in the preceding presidential election. By contrast, Jones is running in a seat Trump lost by 10 points and could lose by more next year.
Until Trump’s political standing improves or Jones proves that his message can transcend the partisan trend of the district, we’re leaving our race rating for Virginia’s 10th District as Solid Democratic.
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