By Jarrett Renshaw
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – When Republican U.S. Representative Don Bacon was asked if he supports Donald Trump’s bid for the White House next year at Nebraska town hall last month, he batted away the question, saying it was too early to say, given the former president hadn’t yet secured the nomination.
Despite the non-answer, a Democratic activist with a video camera filmed the exchange, and it was quickly blasted it online with the headline Bacon “refuses to tell Nebraskans if he supports Trump.”
The attempt to tie a vulnerable Republican like Bacon is a scenario likely to be repeated in competitive districts around the country in the months to come, Democratic strategists tell Reuters. While U.S. President Joe Biden and his reelection campaign have rarely commented on Trump’s string of criminal indictments, Democrats running for state and local office across the nation are taking the opposite tactic and making the charges a key part of their campaign.
Democrats are hoping to exploit what they see as a structural weakness for Republicans in battleground states in 2024: any Republican candidate who criticizes Trump risks losing the party’s Trump-loving voter base. But they believe any Republican who doesn’t condemn Trump risks losing more moderate Republicans and independent voters they need to beat a Democrat.
“Republicans are contorting themselves to not alienate Trump supporters while appealing to the more moderate parts of their party,” said Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic strategist. “Democrats are going to work hard to make sure that is no longer a tenable strategy.”
While Trump’s legal woes have boosted his popularity with some Republican primary voters, many independent voters, who often decide both national and local elections, see Trump’s potential criminal conviction as a reason to vote against him, Reuters/Ipsos polling and reporting in key states like Arizona shows.
The Bacon campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Republican party officials say Democrats’ time would be better spent worrying about their own presidential candidate Joe Biden’s popularity.
“Biden’s approval ratings have been under water since his botched Afghanistan withdrawal. It’s been two years and Democrats refuse to look in the mirror,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.
‘SAME DAY FOOTAGE’
Democrats are monitoring local radio interviews, scouring news stories and hiring teams of political trackers armed with cameras to blanket Republican events, to capture the moment a candidate is asked a Trump loyalty question.
North Carolina, Arizona and Pennsylvania Democrats are currently hiring “trackers” to follow, record and post footage of Republicans at local events, according to job websites.
For $4,000 a month, a tracker will be responsible for “comprehensively tracking opponents’ schedules” and providing “same day footage” to “drive the campaign narrative,” one such job posting says.
Tracking, essentially following an opponent with the hopes they slip up or do something that can be used to influence voters, has become a ubiquitous practice in U.S. political campaigns in recent years. It will only grow in 2024, some Democrats say.
American Bridge 21st Century, the largest research, tracking, and rapid response operation in the Democratic Party, spent $84 million tracking Republican candidates and using the footage to run ads against them in their home states in 2020.
In 2024, the operation is “going to be bigger than it’s ever been,” President Pat Dennis told Reuters.
IN THE SUBURBS
Republicans in suburban districts are the most squeezed by Trump politics, making them the best areas to film, Dennis said.
“The amount of damage Trump has done to the Republican Party in the suburbs is extraordinary. So that’s sort of the pain point for them,” Dennis said.
Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has a national favorability rating of around 41%, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Sept 8-14, which had a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about 2 percentage points. That’s roughly tied with the equally unpopular Biden.
Pennsylvania Democrats are taking aim at Dave McCormick, the Republican challenger to incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Casey Jr. for remaining silent on Trump’s legal woes and hiring former Trump officials during a failed 2022 Senate run.
McCormick jumped into the senate race on Thursday after spending weeks debating whether Trump would be a drag on his campaign. He did not mention the former president during his campaign speech, but his aides say they know questions about Trump are coming.
“Dave will speak to the Trump question, which I know he will see on the trail and when he’s out in interviews for sure,” a McCormick campaign strategist said.
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)