WASHINGTON – Democrats have a blunt message for colleagues worried the party has become dangerously obsessed with Russia: Get over it.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony Tuesday put Democrats in a familiar position, reacting to news about President Donald Trump and the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s alleged Russia connections. To skeptics, the story is a distraction from bread-and-butter issues that voters actually care about, like the unpopular Republican-backed health care bill, and a sign the party is already overreaching well before the midterm congressional elections.
But Democratic operatives are arguing that the party has no choice but to keep focusing on Russia.
“Democrats aren’t driving this. Reality is driving it. And occasionally Trump’s Twitter is supercharging it,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist. “But Democrats are along for the ride, and we better not fall asleep.”
Communication with voters, he added, is “about winning the fights that you are confronted with.”
Some Democrats also see an unexpected upside in talking about Russia: It gives them a new issue to use against Republicans.
The party could benefit from a fresh approach after years of attacks — many of them unsuccessful — against the GOP’s plans for the budget, Medicare and Social Security, they say.
Critics have charged that everyday people don’t care about the Russia story because it doesn’t affect their personal finances. Because of that, they say Democrats would be much better off focusing on the health care bill.
“The average person is like, ‘OK, what about my life out here today in the country?’ ” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United.
She called the focus on Russia a “strategic error” that Democrats have resorted to because it distracts from their own lack of an agenda.
Other strategists echoed those concerns, arguing that although they think Russia is a damaging issue for the GOP, it’s not yet at the forefront of voters’ concerns.
But many Democratic strategists see the two issues working in concert.
“Democrats should absolutely continue to press on Russia in Congress and in the national press,” said Josh Schwerin, spokesman for Priorities USA, which has conducted research on the effectiveness of both attacks. “It’s a critical issue for our country and democracy around the world and has helped drive Trump’s numbers down to their current abysmal levels.”