Dems head to midterms with energized base

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats are heading into the November elections with an energized party base, an unpopular president to rail against and a growing wave of GOP retirements. Now they just need a clear message.

In recent weeks, lawmakers have zigzagged from digging in against President Donald Trump — even forcing a government shutdown — to trying to cut deals. They’ve played to their core supporters on immigration, only to shift quickly to the middle on spending. They’ve amplified news about the Russia investigation and dueling classified memos, at the risk of drowning out their objections to Trump’s economic policies.

Democrats had planned to retreat to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to discuss 2018 strategy Wednesday, but instead were stuck in Washington locked in an immigration and spending debate that put their divisions on full display.

As Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called a two-year, bipartisan budget deal the “best thing” lawmakers have done for the middle class, his counterpart in the House was nearly three hours in to a marathon speech protesting the deal. Backed by progressives and immigration activists, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi held the floor for eight hours as she sought to force a House vote on legislation to protect young immigrants known as “Dreamers,” who face deportation after Trump threatened to remove protections established by President Barack Obama.

Senate Democrats tried a similar hard-line strategy, only to back off as Republicans accused them of shutting down the government over immigrants. Pelosi yielded Wednesday night without an agreement from GOP leaders for a vote on immigration, but her talkathon was met with cheers and high-fives from fellow Democrats.

Former Vice President Joe Biden also drew cheers as he told Democrats they have “a real opportunity to take back” the majority in the House and even the Senate. Biden said Democrats must focus on middle-class families while standing up for the nation’s core values, which he said are under “direct assault” from Trump and congressional Republicans.

“The president is looking out for himself only, and the Republican Party seems to be only looking out for the president, so it’s our job as Democrats to remind the American people somebody’s looking out for them,” Biden said, drawing applause from Democrats gathered under the theme “United for A Better Tomorrow.”

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is part of the House Democratic messaging operation, said the goal of the meetings was to “further develop an affirmative vision for how Democrats will improve the lives of the American people.”

That vision is now captured in the “A Better Deal” policy statement, which includes traditional causes as a higher minimum wage, paid leave for employees and lower costs for prescription drugs and college.

Still, Democrats end up spending much of their time lambasting Trump — whether it’s his policies, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or Trump’s tweets.

“It’s tough to ignore the elephant in the room. The Bob Mueller investigation goes to the heart of the Trump candidacy and presidency,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.

In many ways, Trump’s presidency has been good for Democrats. They’ve felt growing momentum at the end of last year after winning the Virginia governor’s race and a special election for a Senate seat in Alabama, as well some down-ballot contests. They feeling increasingly optimistic about the fall elections.