GOP candidates don't want to talk about Stormy Daniels. Neither do Democrats.
Posted May 1, 2018 11:12 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — In any other political environment, headlines about the President of the United States' alleged affair with a porn star and her bulldog attorney who is hellbent on publicizing the details would be radioactive for the President's party.
But this isn't any other political environment.
As Republicans awkwardly answer questions about Stormy Daniels' and the swirl of allegations against Trump, Democrats worry that a constant focus on the President's foibles through November will knock candidates off message, making it almost impossible for more policy focused messaging on health care, taxes and economic instability to break through the Trump messaging vortex.
The latest chapter in the Daniels saga came when Michael Avenatti, the porn star's omnipresent attorney, on Monday filed a lawsuit alleging Trump defamed Daniels.
The bipartisan concern has created a unique paradox: Republicans don't want to talk about the President's sex life and Democrats don't want it to dominate the conversation.
"Any good campaign adviser says there is nothing good about talking about s-e-x in public," quipped Jefrey Pollock, a pollster who is spearheading a project aimed at figuring out the best way Democrats can win over persuadable voters in the era of Trump.
He added: "Let's be clear, though, it is not that Americans give the guy a pass on it at all. They are bothered by the notion that he is reckless. But largely that is focused on his time in office, as opposed to stuff that has happened out of office."
Guy Cecil, the head of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, echoed that sentiment, arguing Democrats "actually risk overusing Donald Trump as a way to encourage anti-Trump voters" in November.
"I think our coverage is saturated with the Mueller investigation and everything that is adjacent to it," Cecil said. "I don't think there is much more to gain for Democratic politician to spend much of their time talking about these things."
Cecil added that if candidates want the conversation to focus on issues "they have to talk about it in their town halls, talk about it in the press and buy it in their advertising."
Daniels' story -- that she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and was paid $130,000 in hush money by Michael Cohen, the President's lawyer, to stay silent weeks before the 2016 election -- has had considerable staying power in a news cycle not known for longevity. Even though Trump has denied the allegations, the story has become pervasive, now helped with the expanding federal investigation into Cohen and Avenatti's public relations campaign.
Seeing that phenomenon, operatives at the National Republican Congressional Committee have made preparing top-tier candidates for questions about Daniels and other Trump controversies a top priority as part of their media training, urging them to have an answer to the salacious questions before they face the press, according to a NRCC official.
The official added that they are encouraging candidates to focus on local issues that move persuadable voters and that a focus on the President's sex life is not one of them.
But there is also the pragmatic reason to stay away from the topic: It could easily catch candidates in a tough position.
"There is a potential Todd Akin, Richard Murdoch problem," said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, referring to two candidates who made off-color comments about rape during the 2012 election. "One candidate could say the wrong thing that not only plays a big role in that race, but then becomes a question that every Republican candidate was asked in their race as well."
So far, the results have been mixed. While many Republicans have dismissed the questions easily, a series of lawmakers and prospective officer holders have struggled to explain how they feel about the scandalous allegations about the President.
The answers usually devolve into an awkward dance, where the Republicans seek to acknowledge the behavior isn't normal, but - at the same time - outline their wholehearted support for the President.
Danny Tarkanian, a Republican running for Congress in Nevada who has sought to tie himself to the President, acknowledged this month that Trump "has a different personality" than most people and there are "some things that you can question."
"It doesn't matter what Stormy Daniels is saying. It doesn't matter, you know, with all these other things that they can attack him on," he said. "President Trump has a different personality than I've got. It wouldn't work for me; it probably wouldn't work for most of you."
Republican Debbie Lesko, likewise, said earlier this month that President Trump "needs to address" the allegations leveled by Daniels and they need to be "investigated."
"I'm not the President, and I don't use his rhetoric and I certainly am not going to sexually harass anyone," she added at a debate with her then-Democratic opponent Hiral Tipirneni.
The anti-Trump barb surprised local Democrats, especially given how Lesko had run with Trump for much of her campaign. But just as quickly as Lesko made the remarks, she walked it back.
Speaking with the New York Times later, she said, "I didn't mean a formal investigation by government or something like that. I just meant it needs to run its course."
And then there is Rep. John Faso, who said he agrees with the sentiment that Trump is "off the reservation in terms of the people he's been with" when asked by a radio host who noted that the Republican was a "religious man." When Faso tried to turn the conversation towards President Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the host pushed back, and Faso demurred.
"I think these things may have happened before he became president they still don't make any of us proud," the New York Republican said.
After he announced his plan to drop his reelection bid, Rep. Ryan Costello said that "no matter how well you think you're doing at the job, that if the President says or does something that is off-color, your constituents want to hold you accountable for that."
He added that the moment he does speak out against Trump, though, "you certainly run into the sawmill of the most strident pro-Trump voters in your district. So, you do get squeezed on both sides for sure."
Not all Democrats think the party should run away from talking about Daniels, with some arguing that the allegations against Trump fit into a broader argument about scandal and corruption that plagues that administration.
"Midterms are referendums on incumbent presidents and their party," said Andrew Bates, deputy communications director at American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC. "On top of an extremely unpopular economic agenda that has sold out the American middle class, Republicans' handling of Trump's corruption and innumerable scandals - including his sexual misconduct - could make the difference at the margins in very difficult races for them."
Bates added that while Democrats should "put taxes and healthcare front and center" in their campaigns, they also should push scandals because "they are adding fuel to voters' anger with Washington under Republican control."