Special counsel Robert Mueller can’t escape the headlines, or President Donald Trump’s obsessive Twitter feed. But there’s one place the lead Russia investigator has been noticeably absent: the 2018 campaign trail.
Mueller and his inquiry are missing from the campaign advertising airwaves during the final sprint to November. Debates have all but ignored the story, focusing instead on kitchen-table topics like the economy, health care and taxes. Vulnerable Democrats in red states are actually emphasizing the times they’ve reached across the aisle.
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That’s on purpose, candidates and operatives from both parties told POLITICO. Most Americans are barely following the Mueller investigation’s intricate legal movements, which have already ensnared a few top former Trump aides, alleged Kremlin-backed hackers and a cast of characters scattered across both sides of the Atlantic.
Most important, voters don’t want to talk about it either.
“In our state, we’re losing 70 to 80 dairy farms a month,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, a Democrat whose reelection bid has largely avoided mentioning Mueller. “I can tell you in rural Wisconsin that’s what people are asking me about rather than something that is, well, just, it’s immediate to them.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another in-cycle 2018 candidate, explained: “Washington reporters live in a different world from the American people. That’s been true for two years where the media is obsessed with the latest and constant slams on the president. People of Texas are interested in jobs.”
It’s a rare phenomenon in modern American politics to have a midterm election coincide with a major investigation that delves into the White House. Even rarer is the phenomenon of voters going to the polls at the same time that an investigation remains active into questions of criminality tied to the winning campaign from the most recent presidential election.
That makes predicting the Mueller inquiry’s influence on voters that much more challenging, and why Democratic and Republican party operatives and candidates say the topic is best handled as mood music rather than as a primary argument to be used to drive turnout.
“It’s not the best thing for Democrats to be talking about right now,” said Robby Mook, the former Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign manager. “We just need to let Mueller do his job. Politicizing it even more isn’t going to help that.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is leading his party’s 2018 campaign efforts, said in an interview that the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents didn’t want to address the Mueller investigation because it would clash with their campaign strategy of showing deference to Trump’s White House.
“In states like Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, Montana, the red-state Democrats are running ads about how closely they work with President Trump,” Gardner said. “So, it’s difficult to talk about an investigation at the same time they’re trying to be his best friend.”
Mueller isn’t totally missing from the midterm discussions. Candidates say they’ve prepared responses to talk about the investigation if it comes up in debates. And while television advertisements have mostly avoided the Russia inquiry, a few campaigns and outside groups like the pro-Democrat House Majority PAC have spent a couple of thousand dollars on Facebook ads designed to increase their own small-dollar donations from blue-state bastions like California, New York and Oregon. Baldwin’s campaign, for example, last month bought a few Mueller-themed Facebook ads seeking campaign contributions.
Some candidates have even clashed over Mueller. In Oklahoma, Republican House candidate Kevin Hern went after one of his primary rivals earlier this summer with one of the rare television ads this cycle to mention the special counsel. In Virginia, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine took issue during one of his recent debates with GOP opponent Corey Stewart, who has mimicked Trump in calling the investigation a “witch hunt.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s the major note in the chord, but it’s definitely an issue,” Kaine said in an interview.
Trump is doing his part to elevate Mueller into the national dialogue in a bid to excite his own base amid fears that Republicans will lose their majority in the House and perhaps the Senate. The president’s team has made one of its central campaign arguments the prospect that a Democratic takeover in Congress would use the special counsel’s findings as a launching pad for impeachment proceedings. On Twitter, Trump has slammed the Mueller “witch hunt” nearly 50 times since the July Fourth holiday, and his “no collusion” riff is a recurring element of campaign rally speeches where Republican candidates are supposed to be the featured attraction.
Still, part of the reluctance of down-ballot candidates to embrace the Mueller investigation stems from the mixed bag of recent history.
The 1974 midterms came just three months after President Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal and amid soaring inflation, an energy crisis and the fallout from President Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of his predecessor. That November, Democrats picked up four Senate seats (getting them to 60 overall) and won 49 House seats from Republicans, which left them just one seat shy of holding a veto-proof supermajority. The new lawmakers who campaigned on the ethical cloud in Washington were branded “Watergate babies.”
But Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016, said the comparison between 1974 and 2018 doesn’t work, because Mueller’s probe is not finished.
“You didn’t get a Watergate election during the middle of the Watergate investigation,” he said. “You got a Watergate election after all was said and done and there was accountability.”
“That’s a once-in-a-century event,” added a veteran Republican campaign operative working with both House and Senate candidates in the 2018 cycle.
The 1998 midterms offer lessons of a different kind. That September, the Republican-led House voted to release independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s salacious report about President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with a White House intern.
Democrats fretted that they’d get killed at the polls as even more materials tied to the Starr investigation were made public in the ensuing weeks. “Death by a thousand cuts,” said then-Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), according to a Chicago Tribune report at the time. Republicans put both Clinton’s scandal and his potential impeachment out as a central plank of their midterm message.
Instead of the GOP meeting its projections for blockbuster gains cementing their House and Senate majorities, the president’s party for the first time since World War II ended up winning seats in the midterms. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had elevated the Clinton scandal into a midterm campaign issue, lost his leadership post and resigned from Congress altogether the next January.
“This was a Seinfeld election,” the analyst Curtis Gans, who was tracking voter turnout, told The New York Times after the election results had rolled in. “He said his show wasn’t about anything, and neither was this election.” The Associated Press cited exit polls showing just 5 percent of voters called the Clinton scandal the most important issue on the ballot.
Considering the history from 1998, Democrats are getting credit for their message discipline and not taking the bait to make this year’s midterm race into a referendum on Trump’s legal woes from the Mueller investigation.
“I think one of the problems Republicans face is that the Democrats quit harming themselves with Russia and actually started talking to voters about things that matter,” said Mike Shields, the former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. “I would rather they went back to Russia.”
Political operatives say neither Democrats nor Republicans want to talk about the Mueller probe in no small part because it isn’t breaking through with everyday Americans already deluged by an onslaught of Trump stories.
“People are anesthetized to it,” said Rory McShane, a GOP strategist working on 2018 races in Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada and Tennessee.
The special counsel’s lack of public commentary also hardly makes for good campaign material, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Mueller is the great sphinx so far,” Sabato said. “No one really knows what he’s thinking or how far his investigation has come. It’s hard to grab onto fog.”
Sabato noted that even he had lost track of the Mueller probe — a good example of why the topic isn’t front and center with candidates or midterm voters.
“I follow politics all day long,” he said. “Imagine how people who actually work for a living feel. Most don’t have a clue about what is really there. It’s a very, very complicated story that Mueller, one hopes, will eventually explain in a way everyone can understand.”
But, Sabato added, “he’s not going to do it in the next month.”