Democrats shift toward economic attacks, with abortion leaving some unmoved

Photo for The Washington Post by Jovelle Tamayo
Matt Larkin, a Republican running against Rep. Kim Schrier to represent Washington’s 8th Congressional District, addresses supporters at a campaign event with Republican Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley, at Red Dog Saloon in Maple Valley, Wash.

MAPLE VALLEY, Wash. – Independent voter Camron Barth agrees with the barrage of Democratic attack ads labeling GOP candidate Matt Larkin “too extreme” on abortion. But he’s leaning toward Larkin, largely because of high inflation and the Republican’s support for law enforcement.

Recently, the 36-year-old 911 dispatcher saw a new Democratic attack – this one portraying Larkin as “extreme” and a threat to Medicare and Social Security. It caught his attention, but he didn’t believe it. “I think it’s just white noise at this point,” he said of campaign ads.

What Barth saw is part of a broader shift by Democrats toward a closing message aimed at voters like him, who they have been unable to win over with a barrage of negative ads on abortion in recent months. Democrats are shifting some ad resources away from abortion while party leaders, candidates and allied groups increasingly hit Republicans as “extremists” on economic issues.

The moves come amid growing Republican confidence about winning back control of the House and Senate on Nov. 8, and rising concerns among Democrats about blue states such as Washington, and battleground congressional districts within them, being at greater risk of turning red compared with earlier in the year. Republicans also have recalibrated their closing pitches, focusing more aggressively on crime, according to a review of ad data, an issue they have run on but see as especially potent down the stretch.

While Democrats still put abortion at the forefront of their campaign and Republicans continue to hammer them over rising prices, the strategies reflect a belief in both parties near the end of the campaign that other issues could factor heavily into tight races with dwindling pools of undecided voters. Their revamped pitches were on sharp display recently here in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, a purple area that extends from the area just east of Seattle over the Cascade Mountains.

Larkin is running against Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier, who bills herself as “the only pro-choice woman doctor in Congress.” Her pitch for reelection has involved far more than advocating for abortion access, with ads throughout the fall promoting her work to get funding for law enforcement, reduce gas prices and lower prescription drug costs.

“I don’t think there’s a top issue,” she said in a recent interview at a coffee shop, going on to list cost-of-living, crime and abortion, in that order. Yet ads from Schrier and allied groups attacking Larkin were long laser-focused on abortion.

Earlier this month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee updated a strategy website that signals to allies what voters “need to see” about Larkin, replacing guidance on abortion with advice to highlight Larkin’s comments on far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and what it called his “extreme views on the economy.”

Soon after that, House Majority PAC, the main outside group aligned with House Democrats, aired its first commercial in the race that doesn’t mention abortion, instead portraying Larkin as a threat to Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ health care because he has said “I align with Marjorie Taylor Greene on a lot of issues.”

Larkin has said he would consider shrinking but in a debate last week, Larkin denied any desire to cut Medicare or Social Security. “This is a time when people are depending on those things,” he said. “They paid into it. They earned it. They deserve it.”

Democrats also have zeroed in on Larkin’s answer to a candidate questionnaire where he said that taxpayer-funded health-care programs beyond Medicare and Medicaid are not necessary, saying that means he wants to eliminate veteran’s health benefits. Larkin said at the debate that he “will not cut veterans’ benefits, period.”

Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, argued Democrats have “succeeded in defining Republicans as antiabortion extremists.” She added, “We know that the right to abortion is not the only issue at stake in this election, which is why it’s also important to communicate to voters about Republicans’ extreme views and their plans to gut Social Security and Medicare.” Recent updates to its guidance in several other races also have removed or de-emphasized abortion in favor of other messages – though many of those messages were already in rotation.

The shift in the Democratic attacks comes as the economy remains Americans’ top concern and as Democrats look for ways to counter GOP arguments on the issue. Republicans have regularly blamed Democrats for the sharp rise in prices on their watch.

Nationally, the share of Democratic ads in races up and down the ballot mentioning abortion has ticked down 10 percentage points from a high mark of close to 50 percent in early October, according to AdImpact, which tracks commercials. A growing number of party strategists and candidates have warned that a narrow focus on the issue will not be enough to survive stiff head winds the party is confronting.

Democratic candidates in closely contested races have been talking more about Social Security and Medicare in the past few weeks, according to a Washington Post analysis of their social media posts, newsletters and TV ads. President Biden sharply warned last week that a Republican-controlled Congress would be a threat to Social Security and Medicare.

Former president Barack Obama also lingered on Social Security at a rally Saturday for Democratic candidates in Wisconsin, drawing extended applause. “They worked hard jobs for it,” he said of people on Social Security. “They have chapped hands for it.”

For their part, Republicans have increasingly poured money into ads on crime, the AdImpact data show. Even as many GOP campaigns have been running on the issue for months, the party has more fully saturated the airwaves in the final stretch: Nationwide, the weekly share of GOP ads mentioning crime hit 34 percent the week of Oct. 25 – the highest tally of the entire election cycle, except for a period in March.

Photo for The Washington Post by Jovelle Tamayo
Matt Larkin addresses supporters at a campaign event with Republican Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley, at Red Dog Saloon in Maple Valley, Wash.

Larkin says inflation is by far the dominant issue in the district. Browsing the frozen food aisle at a grocery store in the 8th District, one woman started laughing when asked about the election – then turned to a freezer, pulled out a package and brandished it, blaming Democrats for the price.

But Larkin’s campaign ads currently target Schrier on crime – the one topic that Republicans say has been gaining in their latest polling here.

“The economy stuff and the abortion stuff is baked in at this point,” said a House Republican operative, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy more freely. ” … And now we’re on to these secondary issues of the cycle.”

Outside Republican groups are still hammering Schrier on economic issues, but Larkin’s newest campaign ad marks their first foray into crime, according to AdImpact. The spot shows fiery streets and tent encampments while denouncing “criminals free in our communities.” Violent and property crime rose in nearby Seattle last year, while violent crime statewide increased by 12 percent, according to official statistics.

Barth, an independent voter, said this weekend he has tipped toward Larkin because of his top issue after inflation, public safety. In many ways, he said, he felt Schrier was strong on that issue: Schrier has made a point to denounce the “defund the police” movement and touts her efforts get more money for local officers. But then Barth read a newspaper article that said she supported a police reform bill that would have ended “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that shields police officers from many lawsuits.

He’s sold on another GOP candidate: Tiffany Smiley, who is presenting a stronger challenge to long-serving Sen. Patty Murray (D) than many anticipated. While Murray remains favored to win, the House race is seen as very close. Recently, Barth packed into a tent outside a saloon last week to hear from Smiley, and wound up hearing from Larkin, too.

“We’re nervous! We’re nervous,” said Tani Lindquist, an elementary school teacher who supports Schrier and joined several dozen educators canvassing for Schrier on a rainy Saturday.

Larkin, who works for his family manufacturing business and did a brief stint as a prosecutor, launched his campaign last year with the slogan “Make Crime Illegal Again.” But in an interview, he said one issue overtook concerns about crime this year: “Inflation, inflation, inflation.” He has criticized Schrier for voting with Biden without exception and for helping to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a pandemic recovery package that contributed to rising prices.

During the primary, he said he could envision a “strong conservative Congress putting forward that vote to ban [abortion] nationally” and opposed abortion rights as well as exceptions for rape and incest. Now he sidesteps questions about what restrictions he would support at the federal level, telling reporters he cannot weigh in on “hypothetical legislation.” Asked about the 15-week federal ban introduced this fall by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Larkin told The Washington Post he wants to “read every single word of every bill” and did not say how he would vote.

Voters in the 8th District interviewed by The Post were often aware of Larkin’s comments on abortion, and the issue was a dealbreaker for some otherwise critical of Democrats and eager for change. Patti Brekke, who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, lamented high gas prices and said she aligns with the GOP on many issues. As for the congressional race, however: “Definitely not Matt Larkin,” which leaves Schrier.

Brekke, 61, said she had an abortion after she was sexually assaulted many years ago. “I had a choice,” she said. “I want my grandchildren to have the same thing.”

In recent weeks, Schrier’s campaign has started airing its first negative ads that do not mention abortion. One of them, launched last Friday, says that “the last thing we need is another Marjorie Taylor Greene in Congress.”

Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist working on races across the country, said his party seems to have increasingly broadened its charges of extremism beyond abortion, though he worries it has not done enough to present disparate issues under one unified theme.

“The more that we put all of that stuff under the same umbrella … personal freedom, protecting individuals’ liberties, and also providing stability when the other side has embraced chaos, I think that would help us,” he said.