With Bernie Sanders leading the Democratic pack and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turning congressional hearings into viral sensations, Republicans can hardly wait to turn 2020 into a referendum on “socialism.”
But the GOP already tried that very strategy in a swing state that was essential to President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — and it flopped.
In Pennsylvania last year, Republicans tagged Democrats up and down the ticket as socialists or sympathetic to socialism: Gov. Tom Wolf, congressional candidates and state representative hopefuls all got the hammer-and-sickle treatment. The strategy was deliberate and coordinated, emanating from the state’s Republican Party chairman, Val DiGiorgio.
But come Election Day, Democrats flipped three House seats and 16 more in the state General Assembly. Wolf easily won reelection, as did Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.
“Their attacks backfired,” said Democratic state Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, a first-time candidate who won a GOP-held seat in the Philadelphia suburbs. “They protested an event I was at and handed out fake $10,000 bills that said ‘In Socialism We Trust’ with my face on it. They went really low, and it didn’t work.”
The election in Pennsylvania serves as a case study of a campaign strategy that could prove critical to Trump’s reelection — or undoing — in 2020. The president and his allies have made it no secret they plan to brand the eventual nominee — no matter who it is — as a socialist on the fringe of the political spectrum. If centrist voters are uncomfortable with Trump, think about the radical experiment the other side is offering, the theory goes.
But Democrats say the tactic failed in Pennsylvania partly because it didn’t ring true: Many of the party’s candidates ran as moderates, they said, and even most progressives who campaigned for office were far from socialists. Plus, they argue, the GOP has cried wolf for years when it comes to socialism, including by labeling the Affordable Care Act as far left.
Of course, the effectiveness of the attack in the presidential race could depend on which Democrat wins the nomination and which policies that person has endorsed, Republicans said. Sanders, the Vermont senator, doesn’t shy away from the “democratic socialist” label; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wants no part of it. Former Vice President Joe Biden cuts a more centrist profile than either of them.
Plus, there’s a big difference between a midterm election and a presidential election with Trump using his bullhorn day in and day out.
“It’s a different messenger, a different moment, a different race,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant. “In the 2016 cycle, [Ocasio-Cortez] was a bartender in New York challenging Joe Crowley for a seat. Now she’s a sitting member of Congress proposing the ‘Green New Deal.’ That is a seismic shift in the political dynamic.”
But if Republicans think they have a surefire winner with the socialism message in 2020, the Pennsylvania experience offers a cautionary tale, at least. Even Republicans who think they’ll have better success in 2020 concede the tactic wasn’t fruitful in the state last year.
“It didn’t work in 2018,” said Ryan Costello, a former GOP congressman from Pennsylvania. He called the concept “a bit premature” in the midterms, but predicted it would work better next year with prominent Democrats giving Trump fodder.
In Pennsylvania, the strategy took the form of mailers, tweets, fundraising emails, news conferences and news releases. DiGiorgio, the state GOP leader, called on all Democratic congressional candidates in July to state whether they supported the agenda of the Democratic Socialists of America. Sometimes, Republican Party leaders hit Democrats for campaigning alongside self-described democratic socialists, such as Kristin Seale, who narrowly lost her bid for the state House.
In the gubernatorial race, a billboard funded by Republican Scott Wagner warned of “A MORE SOCIALIST PA,” featuring images of Wolf, as well as John Fetterman, then the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and a Sanders supporter in 2016.
“I wanted to get a copy of that. It was just so comical,” said Fetterman. “Anyone that examines either of our records would know that that’s just unfounded.”
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, tweeted recently that the Pennsylvania GOP’s messaging during the midterms, including “fake socialism hysteria,” proved to be irrelevant to swing voters. Wolf, with Fetterman as his running mate, won by 17 percentage points.
But there’s no sign that the outcome in Pennsylvania is giving Republicans pause about going all-in on the socialism message, in the Keystone State or elsewhere.
“The situation is actually different,” said Bryan Lanza, an aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “One, Trump’s on the ballot. And the [Democratic] Party now is legislatively more associated with socialism than they’ve ever been before. … In 2018, you had a lot of candidates who weren’t able to be defined. They can’t avoid that this time.”
Republicans also noted that any anti-socialist campaign will be more far more heavily funded in 2020 than it was last year in Pennsylvania. And the message this time will come from Trump directly instead of lesser-known state party officials.
Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, agreed that the “socialist” label didn’t stick to mainstream candidates such as Mary Gay Scanlon, who won a House seat in the Philadelphia suburbs. “The district knew Mary Gay so well from all her work as a pro-bono lawyer that nobody believed that for a minute, and Mary Gay is certainly a left-of-center moderate,” Rendell said.
He added, however, that Republicans successfully painted multimillionaire Scott Wallace, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in a Philadelphia-area swing district, as too far left.
“I think they were very effective in their ads making him seem to be a socialist, and I think that cost him the election,” he said.
Some Democrats pushed back on that assumption that the socialism attack would hurt even Sanders. They said he has an established brand that could inoculate him from such criticisms — and scare tactics might fall flat because many Americans know and like his platform, regardless of how it’s labeled.
“He’s so well-defined and well-known already,” said Fetterman. “I don’t think it would have any meaningful impact.”
For those hoping that the “socialist” epithet won’t work against Democrats in 2020, there was a piece of good news this month: Despite Donald Trump, Jr. recording a robocall that said she supported “socialized medicine,” Pam Iovino won a special election for the state Senate in a western Pennsylvania district that voted for Trump in 2016. It was the first special state legislative seat in the nation that Democrats flipped this year.
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