In push for House control, Democrats in close races are dialing back the anti-Trump rhetoric

BENTON, Illinois – Brendan Kelly, the Democratic county prosecutor who is looking to unseat Republican Rep. Mike Bost here in Southern Illinois, started his pitch to voters at a recent meet-and-greet by lamenting Congress’ failure to address the region’s crumbling infrastructure.

The 42-year-old Navy veteran commiserated with the local farm bureau chief about soybean farmers’ anxiety over the White House trade war with China.

Kelly told a woman from nearby Cairo – a city devastated by a public housing crisis – that he shared her frustration with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. And he waxed mournfully about the need to repair Washington’s divisive political discourse and fix campaign finance laws.

But one thing was conspicuously absent from his voter outreach: Any mention of President Donald Trump.

“The controversy of the day or the tweet of the day where the left and right are bouncing off each other on cable news channels, that’s really not what people here are talking about,” Kelly told USA TODAY. “There may be a few who do care about it. But when you really talk to somebody here about what’s going on in their lives – the struggles in their lives – it’s not the top priority.”

Democrats aiming to pick up the 23 House seats the party needs to win control of the House have seen their fortunes boosted by piles of campaign cash from out-of-district contributors motivated by anti-Trump outrage.

But on the campaign trail in battleground districts held by Republicans, there’s scant talk of the Mueller investigation, Trump’s legal settlement with adult film actress Stormy Daniels or the president’s provocative tweets against a range of targets.

In the lead-up to next month’s midterm elections, Democrats in competitive races have largely avoided framing their campaign as a referendum on Trump as they seek support from independents and moderate Republicans.

The dialing back of anti-Trump rhetoric can also be seen in some races for Senate, where Democrats face a longer shot of winning control.

“Most voters are not paying attention the day-to-day Trump scandal,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, an analyst with the Democratic-aligned think thank Third Way. “They got tired of it two years ago, and they don’t think it has any particular impact on their life.”

David Winston, a Republican pollster, says Democrats today are where the GOP was in 2010.

At the time, he says, House Republicans were debating whether to campaign on serving as a check on then-President Barack Obama, or on asking: “Where are the jobs?”

Then-House Republican Leader John Boehner chose the latter, and the Republicans won the House majority.

“People want problem-solvers,” Winston said. “Being a check and balance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to solve problems. It can be perceived as you’re simply going to oppose the person in the White House.”

National Democratic figures not on the ballot in November – including former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Eric Holder – have continued to pummel Trump. In recent days, both Clinton and Holder have called on Democrats to get tougher as they battle Republicans.

Biden is pondering a 2020 run for the White House; early polls show he is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination.

In a campaign stop last week in Kentucky, he sharply criticized Trump’s responses to last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families at the Southwest Border.

“The question is not who Donald Trump is. America knows who he is,” he said. “The question is, ‘Who are we?’

But candidates in this year’s races question whether there’s much to gain in taking an aggressive tack against Trump.

Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, challenging Republican Rep. Rodney Davis in Central Illinois, says she’s focusing on local concerns – such as protecting the Affordable Care Act from Republican efforts to dismantle it.

“What the national party says and does is what the national party says and does,” Londrigan said. “For me, these are my neighbors and this my community. I know what they are asking me to do. It’s where I have to stay focused. All the rest is just noise.”

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