House GOP looks for right message after rough primaries

House GOP looks for right message after rough primaries
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans surveying the midterm election landscape are sharpening their message and assessing their standing with voters after watching their colleagues’ wipeout in high-profile primary elections this week.

Republican congressmen lost across the board in key races. Two of them bruised each other so badly in Indiana’s Senate primary that they created an opening for Mike Braun, a businessman and former state lawmaker, to win the nomination. Another lost his bid in the Senate primary in West Virginia, and an incumbent GOP congressman in North Carolina lost to a popular pastor.

The outcome raises the question: Is there something voters don’t like about House Republicans?

“It takes some discipline to stay focused on what people care about,” said Rep. Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican focusing on jobs and the economy. He represents the kind of district Democrats are eyeing this fall, a complicated mash-up of liberals in Lexington, suburbanites wary of both parties and the rural outposts of Trump country. “The more we’re talking about the agenda, the better it is for us.”

One problem for Republicans is that they’re going into battle without the full armor of a forward-looking agenda that promises voters a to-do list of priorities if they keep majority control of the House.

There’s no bumper-sticker-ready platform like House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” agenda, the tea party-inspired “Pledge to America” or Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America — although campaign officials say they’re working on one framed as the “Great American Comeback.”

Until then, incumbents and candidates are left to point out to voters what Republicans have already accomplished and what they promise to achieve from their alliances with President Donald Trump. The dynamics leave some rank-and-file members grumbling quietly that they’d prefer to have a clear, concise agenda to present voters.

Ryan argued Wednesday that if the midterms were held today, voters would reward Republicans for tax reform, regulatory relief and a strong economy. But, the speaker, who is retiring rather than seek his own re-election in Wisconsin, also warned that Republicans can’t ignore a political environment where Democrats are fired up to oppose Trump.

“The president clearly has people who don’t like him, and they’re motivated,” he said on a Wisconsin radio show.

Democrats need to flip 24 GOP-held seats to regain control of the House. But the problem for Republicans is they must defend 25 districts where Trump finished behind Hillary Clinton in 2016, and there’s been a wash of Republican retirements. Democrats, meanwhile, enjoy an overflowing field of challengers, many of them first-time candidates motivated by Trump’s election to run for office.

Democratic leaders say at this stage in the election cycle, Republicans have already hitched their campaign wagons to Trump and the work of the GOP-controlled Congress.

“Their leader expresses their platform every day: It is a platform of chaos. And a platform of dysfunction,” Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, told reporters recently. “They’ve shown what their objective is and we’re going (to show) that ours is better for the American people.”

House Democrats have compiled their own campaign pitch, the “Better Deal,” an economic platform promising more jobs, infrastructure and economic mobility. It harkens back to the 1930s “New Deal” of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the late 1940s “Fair Deal” of Harry Truman. But it’s not something all Democratic recruits have embraced.

Democrat Anthony Brindisi, who wants to unseat Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney in upstate New York, said the takeaway from Tuesday’s results is that “Congress is just very unpopular.”

But he doesn’t need a pithy slogan to make his case. “I get my messaging directly from voters in my district,” he said, adding that he’s talking about affordable health care, fair tax policy, economic opportunity and higher-quality infrastructure, rather than the cable-news diet of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I’m not focusing so much on some of the national issues that are making the headlines.”

A Ryan-affiliated political action committee is flooding key Republican districts with a two-track advertising campaign hailing the GOP’s new tax law and reminding voters that a Democratic majority would mean Rep. Nancy Pelosi returning to the speaker’s rostrum.

As votes were being tallied Tuesday, the Congressional Leadership Fund unleashed a new ad suggesting Democrats would raise taxes.

Corry Bliss, executive director at the organization, said the campaign offers the clearest distinction in 2018, “one party that delivered on their promise to cut taxes and … the other party that mocked you and vowed to raise your taxes.”

In Indiana, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer tried a conservative populist pitch in the spirit of Trump’s presidential bid. Rokita blanketed airwaves and social media feeds with his slogan “Defeat the Elite” and Messer asserted that Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly “will have every powerful institution on the East Coast and every Hollywood liberal on the West Coast. But I will have you.”

Rep. Evan Jenkins’ touted his anti-abortion stance in West Virginia, among other topics, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a flurry of late-dollar spending by Democratic-aligned groups that some say propelled the state’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, to the nomination.

Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, head of Republicans’ national House campaign arm, doesn’t buy the theory that this week’s primary losses are a bellwether for House Republicans, dismissing them as individual contests.

He noted that in North Carolina, Rep. Robert Pittenger’s loss to newcomer Mark Harris, a pastor of a Charlotte church, was decided by several hundred votes. Stivers also pointed to strong GOP turnout in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio as more important benchmarks.

“I don’t know where the blue wave is they’re talking about,” said Stivers.

Even before this week’s losses, some Republicans were already happy to go it alone with their own brands.

“I’m not running as a Republican, I’m running as me — and I happen to be a Republican,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Southern California lawmaker representing one of the GOP districts that Clinton won.

“My voters identify with me and they like me and I like them,” he said. “They’re not going to have some stranger come along and say bad things about me.”

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Barrow reported from Charleston, West Virginia. Follow Mascaro on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LisaMascaro and Barrow at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .

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