As midterm season kicks into gear, Republicans are signaling their intent to hammer cultural touchstones, a strategy that drags red-state Democrats into no-win battles pitting them between the party's base and their constituents.
In her remarks at the Republican National Committee's Winter Meeting on Friday, Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel slammed Democrats for sitting during perceivably bipartisan moments of President Trump's State of the Union address. "On Tuesday, their hatred was on full display when Congressional Democrats sat on their hands during the President’s unifying speech," she emphasized. "They refused to stand when the President of the United States walked into the room, when he talked about the American flag, the national anthem, or lowering African American unemployment. They refused to stand for a 12-year old boy who puts flags on the graves of our veterans."
Note McDaniel's focus on race, the flag, and the anthem.
Candidates running in primaries to take on vulnerable Democrats in Trump Country have already trained their focus on similar topics, from the NFL to the War on Christmas.
My colleague, Philip Wegmann, reported last month that Indiana Senate candidate Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., circulated a petition asking the NFL to run an advertisement encouraging players to stand for the anthem. His primary opponent, Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., waded in the culture wars even earlier, releasing an ad in December that attacked "liberal political correctness" on Christmas.
Wisconsin Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, former head of the College Democrats of America, frequently addresses how the rise of identity politics triggered his exit from the Democratic Party.
When Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sought to capitalize on her presumptive Republican opponent Josh Hawley's remarks on sexual liberation and human trafficking, he clapped back with a tweet that tied her to Hollywood, asserting in part, "I’m against exploitation of women promoted for decades by Hollywood & culture. Have to change that to stop trafficking. Fly commercial home from your next Hollywood fundraiser & ask people what Hollywood is doing to our culture."
Speaking to the Washington Examiner on Friday, a Republican communicator familiar with the 2018 campaigns insisted that "red-state Democrats up in 2018 should be terrified to be associated with the cultural views of their party leaders."
"Whether it is refusing to stand for the national anthem, radical pro-abortion positions, or the disrespect shown at the State of the Union," they noted, "national Democrat leaders are doing everything they can to make 2018 a brutal year for their vulnerable incumbents up states that Trump won."
"It's the last thing Democrats want to talk about," the person added.
Democrats' ill-fated government shutdown over DACA – prompted by the party's progressive base – clearly ended in part to relieve pressure from vulnerable Trump state incumbents, whose constituents have different priorities than some of their coastal counterparts.
Democrats are between a rock and a hard place, needing the energy of the Resistance to win upsets in November, but also recognizing the base is more of a liability than an asset in certain races. By dragging them into the culture wars, Republicans will force Democrats to confront these tensions.