/2020 Elections: Republicans Attack House Democrats on Impeachment, and Democrats Change the Subject
2020 Elections: Republicans Attack House Democrats on Impeachment, and Democrats Change the Subject

2020 Elections: Republicans Attack House Democrats on Impeachment, and Democrats Change the Subject

2020 Elections:

One party is running ads about what’s happening in Congress. The other is happy to stick to health care.

Credit…Emma Howells for The New York Times

2020 Elections: Nick Corasaniti

For the past two months, television ads across central Virginia have sounded a lot like President Trump’s Twitter feed.

“A rigged process. A sham impeachment. No quid pro quo. But Pelosi’s witch hunt continues,” an ad from the Republican nonprofit group America First Policies cried, as images of Abigail Spanberger, who represents the region in Congress, flickered onscreen.

Like many of her fellow freshmen Democratic colleagues, Ms. Spanberger has faced a barrage of attack ads from the Republican National Committee, nonprofit groups and super PACs aligned with President Trump.

During the roughly two months that the impeachment inquiry has been underway, Mr. Trump and his Republican allies have flooded the airwaves, spending more than $16.7 million on ads critical of the impeachment effort. A vast majority of those ads attack House Democrats rather than defend the president, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.

Democratic groups are not fighting back directly and are choosing instead to focus mainly on other issues like health care. They are spending just $5.4 million on television ads specific to impeachment. Instead, the most prominent Democratically-funded message on television at this moment is this: “Mike Bloomberg for President.”

The former New York mayor is spending more than $109 million, primarily on biographical TV ads across the country and an additional fraction of that on Facebook and Google ads, all without mention of the drama unfolding in Washington this week.

He is investing some resources in impeachment: Mr. Bloomberg pledged a week ago to donate $10 million to the House Majority PAC to help defend House Democrats, which is nearly twice what Democrats have spent already.

Online, the Trump campaign has been dominating the impeachment discussion, with $2.3 million on Facebook alone ranking as the most money invested in digital impeachment advertising, though a coalition of Democratic groups, led largely by Tom Steyer’s campaign, have come close to matching Mr. Trump online, according to data analysis from Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic consulting firm. Some have gotten creative, however. Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign, for instance, began advertising off Google searches of the word “impeachment” this week. The top result on Google was a link to Mr. Bloomberg’s website.

If all Republicans want to talk about is impeachment, the Democratic advertising effort postures an alternate reality where the only thing on people’s minds in Washington is health care, drug costs and fighting for better wages.

The disparity in ad spending reflects the political dilemma facing so many Democrats. Loath to make impeachment appear anything other than a constitutional principle, Democrats are hesitant to use aggressive persuasion tactics to make their case for supporting impeachment. They are instead revisiting popular themes that succeeded in the midterms.

Aside from Mr. Steyer, the deepest pocketed Democrats right now — presidential candidates — have barely run any advertisements around impeachment. The Biden campaign announced a new ad on Tuesday to run ahead of impeachment proceedings, but makes no mention of impeachment.

The bulk of Republican ads avoid 2020 entirely. They have been aimed more at pressuring the members themselves to vote against impeachment, and not at furthering an anti-impeachment narrative in key swing states. Still, in the past few days virtually every Democrat who was targeted has come out for impeachment.

For most House Democrats, not even a year removed from expensive midterm campaigns, dipping into their cash reserves this early is a risky move. Running in 2020, during a presidential election, is likely to drive up advertising costs. So they are left without a robust defense against a well-funded coalition of Republican super PACs and the Trump campaign.

“For Republicans, you want to get on offense against Democrats, you want to press their issues and define them early,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist and former communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee. He noted that for House races, the ability to attack early can be key in a presidential year. “The airwaves get cluttered, put your message in now.”

National polling on impeachment has remained largely unchanged in recent weeks, reflecting the deep polarization in the national political arena. Only two Democrats have publicly announced their opposition to impeachment so far (and one, Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, is planning on switching parties after doing so). A third Democrat came out for impeachment on one of the articles but not the other.

“There is no evidence at this point that the Republican spending is working,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “There really has not been significant movement in support for the impeachment inquiry nationally and within the battlefield, everyone appears to be holding steady in their corners.”

The torrent of negative advertising on Democrats breaks down along two key lines of attack: that the impeachment is driven by a far-left conspiracy against the president, and that the new Democrats in Washington traded in their 2018 midterm promises to fight for health care and better jobs for a singular focus on impeachment.

Progressive icons like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are often front and center in the negative ads, despite not playing central roles in the impeachment process. The favorite foils of Mr. Trump and the modern Republican Party are depicted, often falsely, as describing the impeachment effort as a means of preventing Mr. Trump’s re-election.

For example, 18 different ads from the American Action Network, a Republican nonprofit that has spent $5.4 million on TV ads so far, all begin with an appearance of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez on CNN where she warns of foreign interference in the 2020 election, and hopes for “preventing a potentially disastrous outcome from occurring next year.”

But the ads clip her words, making it sound like the “potentially disastrous outcome” is referring to Mr. Trump’s re-election, as a narrator intones “now it’s crystal clear, their partisan impeachment is a politically motivated charade.”

The Republican National Committee, which has spent $2.3 million on impeachment ads targeting 14 different House Democrats, has decried the impeachment as “broken promises” by Democrats, who “instead of fixing health care and lowering drug prices” have abandoned their platform to focus solely on going after Mr. Trump.

It’s a message that Republicans were using in the midterm elections, long before impeachment became a reality.

Mr. Gorman, the former Republican congressional committee strategist, said that the strongest performing advertisements in 2018 — aside from individual opposition research — were about removing the president.

“The best uniform hit against Democrats was that they were going to go to Washington and just impeach the president,” he said.

The central Democratic response, led by $3.6 million from House Majority Forward has been to rebut those claims, running positive ads about the targeted Democrats and their efforts on health care, drug prices and increasing jobs.

“What if you knew the cost of medication before you left the doctor’s office?” one ad from House Majority Forward asks. “Elissa Slotkin wrote the bill to do just that,” defending the Central Michigan representative who has been a primary target for Republicans.

Ms. Kelly noted that reminding voters of winning topics from 2018 was precisely the message Democrats should use to defend themselves, and that the Republican advertising efforts didn’t appear to be persuading any Democrats to change their mind.

“They are all able to say that while they may be recognizing that no one is above the law and pushing forward this impeachment inquiry and ultimately voting to impeach, it’s not stopping them from working on legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs, or working with President Trump to sign the trade deal,” Ms. Kelly said.

One of the biggest Democratic super PACs, Priorities USA, has also chosen to focus its advertising on issues such as health care and drug pricing and not on impeachment. And last week the House delivered on drug pricing, passing ambitious legislation to lower the rising cost of prescription drugs by empowering the federal government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers.

A few Democratic groups are focusing on the drama in Washington this week. Need to Impeach, the Democratic super PAC founded by Mr. Steyer before he announced his candidacy for president, has spent just under $1 million on television ads targeting Republican Senators Joni Ernst, Susan Collins and Martha McSally. The message, from a Democrat: “Put country over party” and follow through on impeachment.

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