Even amid Russia probe, many Democrats see health care as their real winner

 How James Comey is preparing for this moment
 How James Comey is preparing for this moment


    How James Comey is preparing for this moment


How James Comey is preparing for this moment 01:52

Story highlights

  • Some party operatives see all the Russia talk as a distraction
  • The GOP's push to repeal the Affordable Care Act is easier to explain

Washington (CNN)Democrats are watching President Donald Trump's approval rating drop as bombshell after bombshell drops in the Russia investigation -- and Trump's potential attempts to intervene in it.

But as the party ramps up its efforts to take control of the House and hold onto a spate of red-state Senate seats in the 2018 midterm elections, some operatives see all the Russia talk as a distraction from an even more potent campaign issue: Health care.
Even those following the Russia probe's twists and turns closely say the GOP's push to repeal the Affordable Care Act is easier to explain and matters more to moderates and working-class voters that Democrats need to win back.
    "I would encourage all of our candidates to make sure that health care stays front and center of the election," said Guy Cecil, the chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA.
    "The visceral, gut reaction that people have makes it more powerful than Russia," he said.
    New polls out Wednesday showed that Americans are increasingly attuned to the Russia investigation -- and the fallout from Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey because he wouldn't shut that investigation down.
    An ABC/Washington Post poll found that 56% of Americans think Trump is trying to interfere in the Russia investigation, and 61% believe he fired Comey to protect himself -- rather than for the good of the country.
    A Quinnipiac University poll found Trump's approval rating having dipped to a new low of 34%. When it comes to Trump's relationship with Russia, 31% say they believe he did something illegal, 29% unethical but not illegal and 32% that he did not do anything wrong.
    Still, many Democrats acknowledged that it's much easier to craft a digital advertisement or a 30-second television spot based on the direct pocketbook impact of the House GOP's health care measure -- which the Senate is expected to address in the coming weeks -- than it is to explain the breakneck developments in the Russia investigation. And health care, unlike the Russia investigation, is free from concerns about the trustworthiness of Comey, who many Democrats still blame for Hillary Clinton's loss.
    Voters, Cecil said, have "a gut understanding; it's a day-by-day understanding of the impact of health care. They understand what it means to have coverage. The fact that it affects something that is personal, that happens to them daily, makes it a very powerful issue."
    No matter the outcome of the Russia investigation, "health care will be a cornerstone issue in 2018," said Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of the liberal blog Daily Kos.
    "It motivates the base like few other issues, and more and more, moderates are aligned with liberals," Moulitsas said. "It's a win-win."
    In the backlash over the Republican health care efforts, many progressives see a new opportunity to counter -- if the party returns to power -- with a push for a national single-payer, or "Medicare for all," plan.
    But Russia also gives progressives an opening to call for Trump's impeachment -- something the party's leaders on Capitol Hill have not yet done.
    "Russia shows just how anti-democratic the Republican Party is, happy to let a foreign power intervene in our elections in the pursuit of power. It proves the dishonesty of Trump and his regime and his party. It proves their incompetence," Moulitsas said.
    "But most importantly, it provides a real basis for impeachment. So the issue isn't 'what Trump did was bad, look!' but 'we have no option given what Trump did except impeachment,'" he said. "So 2018 will be about two things: impeach Trump, and let's get single-payer health care. And both those issues will mobilize the liberal base like nothing else, and neither should turn off moderate voters."
    Zac Petkanas, who was immersed in the Russia investigation while leading the rapid response efforts of Clinton's campaign and then the Democratic National Committee before launching his own firm, said there are simple ways for Democratic candidates to make their case against Trump on Russia: A president who cheated the system and a congressional GOP unwilling to defend the country and hold him accountable.
    "And that goes to the corruption that people already believe exists in Washington; that goes to the abuse of power that people see running rampant in this city," Petkanas said.
    Still, he acknowledged, the Russia investigation doesn't pack the clear, personal impact of health care.
    "When I'm talking to candidates," Petkanas said, "I tell them that they should be saying 'health care' five times for every time that they say the word 'Russia.'"