‘It’s Trump and what he’s doing’: Merkley warns against Dems targeting Trump in 2020

Analysis suggests midterm election campaigns will largely focus on intra-party squabbles as Democrats look to purge Republicans in the House and Senate

As the midterm elections begin to heat up, one Democratic senator is warning the Trump White House against becoming the lens through which voters see races – and instead warning voters against obsessing on intra-party squabbles and wedge issues.

This is the kind of danger Democrats are running into at this point in the cycle, argues Jeff Merkley, a party senator from Oregon. “On the other side of the aisle, it’s Donald Trump and what he’s doing,” Merkley told the Guardian this week. “This is one of the real dangers in this environment.”

Merkley, a staunch defender of Democratic opposition to Trump and fierce Trump critic, will seek re-election in 2020. But he warned in an interview that the senatorial campaigns leading up to that election would largely focus on intra-party squabbles in a “messianic effort” to purge Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as, potentially, for ideological reasons.

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Merkley’s warning came as Democrats gathered in Baltimore this week for their annual state of the party address, at which he delivered a blistering, nearly 10-minute indictment of Donald Trump and his administration.

“I would not write the results in the last midterm election in this negative, anti-Trump narrative,” Merkley said. “They were the wrong thing to do, from a national perspective.”

He said the difficulty for Democrats in leading midterm campaigns was in making sure not to lose focus on the things that “matter”: whether to insist on universal health care, for example; immigration and border security, including Dreamers; how to continue fighting climate change; and closing the social justice gap in communities of color, among other issues.

These topics, Merkley said, cannot be sublimated in the course of building up a narrative around Trump, which he warned would “get the credit for the negative outcome in the midterm elections”.

The Democrat argued that the Trump administration would continue to be drawn into being a central part of the race in a way that, this early in the cycle, some of the congressional races may not be.

“They have a peculiar way of distracting, amplifying and politicizing every single issue,” he said. “They’re obsessed with all of the things that matter.”

Republican advantages with white voters have been amplified by anti-immigrant sentiment and Trump’s pull toward coalitions based on racial and religious bigotry, Merkley said.

“That is a motivation that is real and present,” he said. “I would expect that the president and his allies would work hard at generating the value-added dynamic of what might happen in the midterms.”

Merkley was quick to note that the White House had largely cooperated with Democratic efforts to hold him accountable for his frequent vocal criticisms of Trump. “He responded very productively,” Merkley said. “He’s been challenging his national team.”

The senator conceded that Trump would benefit from a polarized electorate, an assessment echoed by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

“He loves negative polling,” she said. “He gets energized by putting his name in all the negative headlines and diverting attention away from the economy. He loves to bait his opponents. And then he pushes the buttons.”

James Clark, the deputy political director for the Republican National Committee, said that, under former RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, the party had been “aggressive in reminding voters of the radical ideas advanced by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi” as well as to channel the former vice-president Joe Biden.

But he said that Trump would largely benefit from the economic record of his party, thanks to a robust economy.

“Voters don’t remember the last election too well, so I don’t think that’s going to become a big part of the race,” Clark said. “The economy and the unemployment numbers have been very good for Republicans, not just for the election, but going forward.”

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