Archiving video. Compiling tweets, appearances at rallies, and statements of support. Building files of everything that Republican candidates for governors’ mansions down to statehouse sets have done or said in support.
Newly confident in Hillary Clinton’s November prospects, Democrats are now plotting a post-Election Day campaign against individual Republicans for nominating—and sticking by—Donald Trump.
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“We have trackers on the ground, we’re pushing out press releases, keeping a file on footage on folks who are talking about Trump,” said Jared Leopold, the communications director for the Democratic Governors Association.
Party operatives in key states, with help from a few Washington players, are starting to fluff the feathers on the Trump albatross they want to hang around the GOP’s neck in 2017, 2018, even 2020. Anyone who stood with Trump, these Democrats intend to say, enabled racism, irresponsibility and a departure from conservative principles.
The Democratic Governors Association is starting with next year’s Virginia governor’s race, where they say they think they’ve got fertile ground in a swingy state to hit all three likely GOP candidates for backing the Republican nominee.
“It’s sort of a litmus test for what kind of a Republican you are: are you a Republican that can get along with the Chamber of Commerce, or that identifies with the darker elements of the party?” Leopold said.
Mitch Stewart, a top aide in both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, has been actively searching for donors to start a super PAC that he envisions as a searchable, open source database to track what every Republican politician, from statewide office to Congress to state senate and assembly, has said in support of Trump—and to have a small staff to constantly be reminding voters of what they said.
Stewart has already bought two URLs: TrumpAccountabilityProject.com and .org.
“This isn’t going to be a one-time thing where voters forget about it,” Stewart said. “As a partisan and also as an American, we’d be missing an opportunity to say, listen, we have to take a step back and realize what we almost did here. This should be a seminal event in a lot of public officials’ lives.”
And the Florida Democratic Party, which will come out of this already difficult cycle into immediately defending Bill Nelson’s Senate seat and try to win its first governor’s race since 1994, is collecting posts from up-and-coming Republicans from across social media, and planning after Election Day to make a compilation of all the videos they have of local politicians proudly proclaiming themselves “deplorable” at Trump rallies throughout the state.
“That’s not something in five years that’s going to age well,” said Max Steele, the party’s communications director.
Leading Republicans agree.
“Some people have just crossed the line where he will be a stain on their reputation for a long period of time – where it was not a reluctant endorsement, but an abandonment of principles they were supposed to stand for,” said Rory Cooper, a former top aide to then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and now a proud Never Trump GOP hold-out at Purple Strategies.
Republicans preparing for what they believe will be a needed post-election internal reckoning say their election officials need to be prepared for the backlash. While Cooper argued that some reluctant GOP endorsers will be able to mount a strong defense by saying Trump was the nominee of the party, far from their first or second choice, and they will be running then to stop the Clinton agenda, others are convinced their candidates will have repair work to do with African-American, Latino, female and younger voters.
But many Democrats aren’t convinced, or at least they don’t feel ready gloat about it. First, talk of a Clinton win on Nov. 8 is premature. September left both candidates bruised — the Democrat with sloppy rhetoric, more email problems, and a health scare that fed a Trump narrative that she was sick, and the Republican degenerating into an insult-wielding, tax-avoiding billionaire ready to blame a husband’s infidelity on his wife.
Plus, Trump so far hasn’t been the down-ballot anchor that Democratic congressional operatives had been hoping for this year, to the extent that only relentless booster Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is talking about winning the House, and the once sure bet of the party flipping the Senate has started looking more than a little wobbly.
Neither the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee not the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee plan to do any tracking for future cycles until this one is done.
In off-year and midterm elections, that dynamic might actually be accentuated: the people in the GOP base whom Trump appeals to most are likelier to vote, so candidates with stronger ties have reason to be confident of stronger support. Pushing Trump might hurt as much help if it boosts base backlash votes, they worry.
“They’re treating Trump as toxic. I don’t think that’s true,” said Corey Stewart, Trump’s Virginia state chair and one of the Republican candidates for governor next year.
Stewart predicted that what Trump represents as a challenge to the system, as well as concerns about immigration and jobs going overseas, is going to help him in his own primary and general races next year, mocking fellow candidate Ed Gillespie for not wanting to touch the GOP nominee “with a 10-foot pole.”
“Trump has tapped into a deep discontent that blue collar voters have with the establishment in both parties, not just the Republican Party,” Stewart said.
If Clinton wins, Democrats expect that a nastier Trump who refuses to fade – remaining an hourly presence on social media and calling into the news networks for interviews – would mean an ongoing stream of new opportunities to stick it to the Republicans who supported him.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Washington-based clearinghouse for statehouse races, is starting to think about how to use Trump as a counterattack to Republican-led initiatives in state capitals. “We know it’ll be there—opportunities to say that Trump policies are right wing policies,” said the DLCC’s Carolyn Fiddler.
In this year’s race, Ohio appears to be trending toward Trump, and incumbent GOP Sen. Rob Portman has to date stayed comfortably ahead in the polls while supporting the Republican nominee but keeping completely away from his campaign or any of his campaign events.
Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper believes that will be hard for other local politicians to pull off, given that the crossover voters usually needed to win statewide are the ones turned off by Trump.
“When we get out of the current bubble of the 2016 election, I think people will say, ‘Who had the courage to say that this wild polarizing campaign didn’t make sense and who failed to show that courage?’” Pepper said. “In the long run, as people assess just how disturbing the Trump campaign is and will be through the end, I think those who embraced it will pay a price for it.”
Pepper said he’ll make sure to help.
“You watch all of them,” he said. “We know exactly who’s said what.”