By Jenna Portnoy and Ed O’Keefe,
BERRYVILLE, Va. — Democrats knew what they were doing when they chose this quaint town of mom-and-pop stores and historic homes for the soft launch of their new strategy to convince voters that they stand for something and not just against President Trump.
It’s here that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), plan to announce proposals on Monday designed to appeal to middle-class workers — ways to lower prescription drug prices, provide more federal funding for jobs training and apprenticeship programs, and more aggressive monitoring of proposed corporate mergers — all poll-tested ideas that they think will draw support back from voters who supported Trump last year.
A relatively convenient 90-minute drive from Capitol Hill for busy lawmakers but a world away from there, Berryville is the seat of Clarke County, a splotch of red in a congressional district that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by double-digits in November. Trump won the county with 57 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 37 percent — 15 points worse than she performed across the rest of the district.
For Democrats to gain control of the House, they would have to unseat members such as the two-term congresswoman here. Rep. Barbara Comstock outperformed Trump by 16 points with a relentless focus on local issues and a refusal to allow national politics a place in her campaign. She voted against the House health-care bill this spring and avoids Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric anathema to the thousands of federal workers she represents.
Whether mentioned or not, top Democratic leaders think their new campaign-style agenda, “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” has the potential to unseat Republicans such as Comstock. It already has drawn the ire of liberal critics believing it is a cute corporate-style attempt to reshape well-worn party ideas, and it’s sure to draw criticism from pro-business Democrats.
But after years of watching GOP lawmakers successfully make similar pitches to voters, Democrats have decided they must do things differently, and they think a relentless focus on pocketbook issues — and less on Trump’s potential legal woes — will resonate.
Among the top proposals is the establishment of a federal “price gouging enforcer” who would lead a new agency to monitor prescription drug costs and negotiate for lower prices. Lowering the cost of prescription drugs remains a major issue with the American public. In a survey in late April by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 64 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans said it was a top priority among a list of things that Trump and Congress might do to improve health care.
The heart of the drug-price proposal — letting the government negotiate the rates at which pharmaceuticals are sold within Medicare — is a policy that Democrats have been championing for more than a decade, without success.
The idea was a major point of contention in 2003, when Congress added prescription drug benefits to the program, known as Part D. During that debate, Republicans, at the urging of drugmakers, kept such direct negotiations out of the law. That makes Medicare, which enrolls about 77 million older and disabled Americans, unlike the nation’s other vast health-care entitlement program, Medicaid, in which drugs must be sold at the deepest discount that any entity can negotiate.
Repeatedly during the Obama administration, the president recommended in his budgets that the government negotiate Medicare prices, but Congress never permitted the idea. During its last years, after the price of drugs increased by 12 percent, on average, in 2014, the Obama White House and the Health and Human Services Department put a spotlight on drug prices as a major problem. But the efforts more drew attention to the issue than yielded broad new policies.
Near the end of 2015, for instance, the administration convened a day-long forum on drug prices, bringing together major stakeholders but not producing concrete plans.
Democrats will also propose stricter monitoring of corporate mergers before and after federal regulators approve them. The new standards would require a broader and longer-term assessment of potential deals, and federal regulators would force merging companies.
Calling for more aggressive monitoring of mergers after they’re approved by the Justice Department, a document outlining the plan and distributed by Schumer and Pelosi’s offices says, “In an increasingly data-driven society, merger standards must explicitly consider the ways in which control of consumer data can be used to stifle competition or jeopardize consumer privacy.”
New standards proposed by Democrats would also presume that the nation’s largest corporate mergers are “anticompetitive and would be blocked unless the merging firms could establish the benefits of the deal,” the document said without disclosing other details.
The idea is sure to be rejected by Wall Street and the broader business community — but that’s partly by design. Increasingly embracing the tone and focus of presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Democratic leaders are likely to cast themselves Monday as champions of workers and opponents of corporate special interests.
One thing notably absent from Monday’s rollout is a plan to raise the federal minimum wage — an issue that has roiled the party between those who want a quick increase to at least $15 per hour and other more moderate Democrats who endorse raising wages, but allowing states to do so on varying scales.
All that the preview document says about wages is that “we will fight to ensure a living wage for all Americans and keep our promise to millions of workers who earned a pension, Social Security and Medicare, so seniors can retire with dignity.”
In this corner of Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, Comstock relies on Republican voters in Clarke and its neighbor Frederick to offset swaths of blue in Loudoun and Fairfax counties to the east.
If Democrats can chip away at Republican strongholds with an economic message that resonates and capitalize on Trump’s low approval ratings, they think they can win. Seven candidates — including a state senator and two Obama administration alums — are running for the Democratic nomination and the chance to take on Comstock.
But fans and foes agree that she is a dogged campaigner who will be tough to beat.
Berryville was the home of former governor and U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., who led a “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that outlawed segregated public education.
A Main Street historical marker notes Berryville is named for Benjamin Berry, who founded the town in 1798 and is buried in the yard of Grace Episcopal Church.
Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.