Democrats are confident they will be able to hammer home their newly unveiled economic agenda, even as health care and Washington drama dominate the news. And they’re planning to use the upcoming August recess to do just that.
“I’m branding our entire August district work period as ‘A better deal for the heartland,’” Rep. Cheri Bustos said.
The Illinois Democrat, who last month was named chairwoman of heartland engagement for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said all of her events — from economic roundtables and meetings with local editorial boards to her “Cheri on Shift” initiatives, in which she shadows people working different jobs — will be framed around the Democratic economic agenda.
Bustos’ push signifies a broader challenge for Democrats: keeping the focus on their platform and connecting their plan to constituents, some of whom voted for President Donald Trump last fall.
The goal is for members to come back after August and reassess what resonated with constituents, Bustos said.
“We’re asking all of our members to come back and let us know, how did it work? Are people nodding their heads when you’re talking about this, or are they looking like they’re confused? Or are there areas of it that resonate and are there parts that don’t?” she said. There will likely be a series of meetings on the topic in September, she added.
After some soul searching following Trump’s victory, Democrats decided they needed to focus on an economic agenda to connect with Americans who are feeling left behind.
Months of meetings and discussions led to the “Better Deal” economic platform, which Democrats unveiled Monday in Berryville, Virginia. The rollout garnered significant media attention, including live cable news coverage.
But one day later, attention shifted to the Senate health care votes, Trump’s berating of his attorney general, and the ongoing Russia investigation.
Democrats say they were well-aware that those other issues would take over the news cycle but their rollout was timed so members would have an economic agenda to take home in August.
“Every day in Washington there’s some kind of distraction, whether it’s Jared Kushner having to testify in front of the Senate or whether it’s having Donald Trump tweeting something at midnight,” Bustos said. “The point is we’ve got 190 plus members of the U.S. House of Representatives … who will be going home and talking about a better deal that we are offering to the people who we serve.”
‘Take it to the people’
House Democrats will be given toolkits on the “Better Deal” platform, which is typical for an August recess. The toolkits include talking points, sample op-eds, and digital media suggestions, a senior House Democratic aide said.
“That is the whole point of the August recess push, for members to go out and talk about this agenda and take it to the people,” the aide said.
“We wanted people to be able to go home and say, ‘This is what we’re fighting for as Democrats,’ that we’re all singing from the same song sheet,” Bustos said.
Bustos said the message could resonate in a range of districts, including liberal-leaning ones and more moderate districts like her own. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Bustos’ northwest Illinois district as Solidly Democratic, but Trump carried it by less than a point in November.
Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, whose downstate New York district also supported Trump, called the platform a “step in the right direction.”
Maloney, who has also conducted a review of the Democrats’ campaign arm following last year’s election, said Democrats would be able to relay their message to voters amid ongoing investigations and policy fights in D.C.
“I don’t think it’s a challenge at all,” he said. “I think it’s getting back to basics. It’s always been part of our message but it’s important that we all get on the same page and talk about things that matter around the kitchen table to working families.”
Democrats are expected to release additional policy proposals under the “Better Deal” framework in the fall, which could also focus some attention on their agenda. The Democratic aide said input from constituents over August could help determine which policy proposals are unveiled first.
“This is not a one day announcement,” said Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen. “We’re going to be sticking with this, week in and week out.”
Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats will have to be “disciplined” in talking about their economic agenda.
Sen. Tim Kaine knows well the challenge of penetrating a news cycle dominated by Trump. The Virginia Democrat ran as Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee last year, and is running for re-election in 2018 in a race that Inside Elections rates Likely Democratic.
“The difference between 2016 and 2018 for me is I just have to run in one state,” Kaine said. “It’s a state that I’m very familiar with. And it’s frankly a state whose own experience on economic issues is very consistent with the [Democratic] message.”
Kaine, noting his experience as the Old Dominion’s governor, dismissed questions about whether Democrats could maintain attention on their economic platform.
“These are the kinds of things that I’ve talked about in virtually every race I’ve run in Virginia,” he said. “So I’m not overly worried about: Will we be able to keep this issue front and center for folks? We will be able to in Virginia.”