Vulnerable Democrats steer away from focusing on Trump convictions

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Vulnerable Democrats are steering away from talking about former President Trump’s bombshell conviction last week on 34 felony charges as they fear political backlash in their purple states and districts.

Those front-line Democrats — representing battleground districts and states where trust in the criminal justice system is low and Trump’s legal woes have only invigorated his base support — are warning that a focus on the guilty verdicts in New York could backfire on them politically.

“I try to stay away from anything that isn’t a uniting topic,” Rep. Mary Peltola (Alaska), a front-line Democrat, said when asked if she is concerned that talking about the conviction could turn off some voters.

The responses on lawmakers’ first day back in the Capitol after jury found Trump guilty highlight both Trump’s extraordinary faculty for surviving scandal and the delicate dance Democrats are attempting in their approach to his felony convictions, particularly on the thorny question of whether a major party presidential nominee should serve time in prison.

On one hand, the Democratic response is a no-brainer. They’ve been unified throughout the trial in saying they trust the justice system, would respect the outcome and that no one is above the law — not even a former president. Now that Trump has been convicted, they’re deferring to the justice system once more. 

“That’s for somebody else to decide,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said when asked if Trump should go to jail.

Sen. Bob Casey (R-Pa.) echoed his battleground state colleague’s sentiment.

“That’s up to the judge,” Casey said. “I don’t have any view on that.” 

On the other hand, the guilty verdicts present a dilemma for Democrats, who now must decide whether to highlight the felonies as a focus of their campaign message, or pivot away from the case to focus on other issues, like the economy, that affect voters more directly. 

“If anyone running in a competitive state right now wants to talk about Trump, they don’t want to talk about a New York courtroom,” one Democratic operative working in a battleground state said. “They want to talk about how another Trump presidency would impact their lives.”

In some of the states, campaigns are battling over the slimmest segments of voters, many of whom are not necessarily tuned into politics.

“If I’m running in a battleground state, I want to say Trump will repeal the Affordable Care Act and kick you off your health insurance, and the Democrat won’t do that,” the party operative continued. “Anybody locked into the democracy fight already knows who they’re voting for. … For a battleground state [candidate] to talk about it, it’s a waste of time.”

“It’s the friend who talks the least and cares the least about politics,” the operative continued. “That’s the voter we’re all going after … and they don’t care about this. They care about rent, food and access to healthcare.”

A second Democratic operative working in a battleground contest added that while the party widely considers the conviction to be a positive for the party given past polling data, those in competitive races don’t necessarily think they need to be direct messengers on that topic. 

“Obviously, we want the presidential [ticket] to do well in our state, but it’s not necessarily our fight to litigate,” the strategist said. 

There are plenty of signs, however, that Democratic strategists see an opportunity in Trump’s legal troubles. On the House side, the Democrats’ campaign arm wasted no time post-conviction blasting out an email highlighting 23 vulnerable GOP incumbents who “have endorsed the now-convicted criminal.”

A third Democratic operative specifically namechecked Reps. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) and Tom Kean Jr. (R-N.J.), who hold two of the most targeted seats on the map for Democrats, as prime examples and noted that the New Jersey Republican announced hours before the verdict that he will vote for Trump. 

“All of these guys should have to face the music on whether they’re willing to endorse a convicted felon for president,” they said.

Some Democrats said the convictions provide the party a chance to make a moral contrast between Trump and President Biden — and highlight the Republicans’ attacks on the U.S. justice system. 

“I would bring it up in the context of: It’s pretty shameful that the Republicans are so distrustful of the judiciary,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.). 

But Bera also emphasized that, nearly a decade after Trump arrived on the political scene, voters are vividly familiar with who he is and what he’s done, which suggests Democrats would have better luck focusing on specific issues.

“The convictions don’t really reveal anything that we didn’t already know about Trump’s character. So I think a lot of that is already baked in,” Bera said. “We’ve got plenty of positive issues to run on.”

Mychael Schnell contributed.

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