BENTON, Illinois â€“ Brendan Kelly,Â the DemocraticÂ county prosecutor who isÂ looking to unseatÂ RepublicanÂ Rep. Mike Bost here in Southern Illinois,Â started hisÂ pitch toÂ voters at a recent meet-and-greet by lamenting Congressâ€™ failure to address the regionâ€™s crumbling infrastructure.
The 42-year-old Navy veteranÂ commiserated with the local farm bureau chief about soybean farmersâ€™ anxiety over the White House trade war with China.
Kelly told aÂ woman from nearbyÂ CairoÂ â€“ a city devastatedÂ by a public housing crisisÂ â€“ that he shared her frustration with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. AndÂ he waxed mournfullyÂ about the need to repair Washingtonâ€™s divisive political discourse and fix campaign finance laws.
But one thing was conspicuously absent from his voter outreach: Any mention of President Donald Trump.
â€œThe controversy of the day or the tweet of the day where the left and right are bouncing off each other on cable news channels, thatâ€™s really not what people here are talking about,â€ KellyÂ toldÂ USA TODAY. â€œThere may be a few who do care about it. But when you really talk to somebody here about whatâ€™s going on in their livesÂ â€“ the struggles in their livesÂ â€“ itâ€™s not the top priority.â€
Democrats aiming to pick upÂ theÂ 23 House seats the party needs toÂ win control of the House have seen their fortunes boosted by piles of campaign cash from out-of-district contributors motivated by anti-Trump outrage.
But on the campaign trail in battleground districtsÂ held by Republicans,Â thereâ€™s scant talk of the Mueller investigation, Trumpâ€™s legal settlement with adult film actress Stormy DanielsÂ or the presidentâ€™s provocative tweets against a range of targets.
In the lead-up to next monthâ€™s midterm elections, Democrats in competitive races have largely avoided framing their campaign as a referendum on TrumpÂ as they seek supportÂ from independents and moderate Republicans.
The dialing back ofÂ anti-TrumpÂ rhetoric can also be seen in someÂ races for Senate, where Democrats face a longer shot of winning control.
“Most voters are not paying attention the day-to-day Trump scandal,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, an analyst with the Democratic-aligned think thank Third Way. “They got tired of it two years ago, and they don’t think it has any particular impact on their life.”
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David Winston, a Republican pollster, says Democrats todayÂ are where the GOP was in 2010.
At the time, he says, House Republicans were debating whether to campaign on serving as a check on then-President Barack Obama, or on asking: “Where are the jobs?”
Then-House Republican Leader John Boehner chose the latter, and the Republicans won the House majority.
“People want problem-solvers,” Winston said. “Being a check and balance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to solve problems. It can be perceived as you’re simply going to oppose the person in the White House.”
National Democratic figures not on the ballot in NovemberÂ â€“Â including former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Eric HolderÂ â€“ have continued to pummel Trump. In recent days, both Clinton and Holder have called on Democrats to get tougher as they battle Republicans.
BidenÂ is pondering a 2020 run for the White House; early polls show he is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination.
In a campaign stop last week in Kentucky,Â he sharply criticized Trumpâ€™s responses to last yearâ€™s whiteÂ supremacistÂ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the separationÂ of thousands of migrant children from their familiesÂ at theÂ SouthwestÂ Border.
â€œThe question is not who Donald Trump is. America knows who he is,â€ heÂ said.Â â€œThe question is, â€˜Who are we?â€™
But candidates in this year’s racesÂ question whether thereâ€™s much to gain in taking an aggressive tackÂ againstÂ Trump.
Democrat BetsyÂ Dirksen Londrigan, challengingÂ Republican Rep. Rodney Davis in Central Illinois, says she’s focusing on local concernsÂ â€“ such as protecting the Affordable Care Act from Republican efforts to dismantle it.
â€œWhat the national party says and does is what the national party says and does,â€ LondriganÂ said. â€œFor me, these are my neighbors and this my community. I know what they are asking me to do. Itâ€™s where I have to stay focused. All the rest is just noise.â€
In Central Kentucky, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath has limited her fire againstÂ Trump in her campaignÂ to unseat RepublicanÂ Rep. Garland â€œAndyâ€ Barr.
Trump, who flew to Kentucky last week to campaign on behalf of Barr, called the retired Marine officer â€œan extreme liberal chosen by Nancy Pelosi, Maxine WatersÂ and the radical Democratic mob.â€
He accused McGrath of supporting â€œa socialist takeoverâ€ of the health care system, open borders, tax hikesÂ andÂ the decimation of Kentuckyâ€™s coal industry.
McGrath’s response wasÂ measured:Â “Mr. President, you clearly donâ€™t know me. Yet.â€
While Democrats in competitive races have been reluctant to raise Trump on the campaign trail, Barr and other Republicans have been happy to enlist the president.
In an advertisement for GOPÂ Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is in a close contest withÂ Democratic former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen for the state’s open Senate seat, TrumpÂ warns thatÂ Bredesen â€œwill 100 percent vote against us every single time.â€
Bredesen, speaking at a forum in Memphis last month, told voters there is much on whichÂ he disagrees with Trump.
At the same time, he said,Â he feels the need to give Trump space in his negotiations with North Korea, and he generally agrees with the presidentâ€™s impulses on loosening regulations on industry.
â€œIâ€™m acutely aware of the fact that we have a president and an administration that people have very emotional reactions to,â€ Bredesensaid.Â â€œIâ€™ve always been someone who said, â€œâ€˜Youâ€™ve gotta kind of knock that stuff back just a little bit.â€™â€
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In Illinois, where polls show Democrats are in close races against four GOP House incumbents, candidates and their surrogates say running against Trump isnâ€™t constructive.
At the opening of a new campaign officeÂ this week, Democratic candidate Lauren Underwood challenged dozens of volunteers to channel their frustration with the Trump administrationÂ â€“ whether it was motivated by the administrationâ€™s push to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh the Supreme Court, anger over the presidentâ€™s signature tax cut legislation, or somethingÂ else â€“ into get-out-the-vote efforts.
Underwood, a registered nurse and former Health and Human Services Administration official in the Obama administration, has steadily climbed in the polls in her raceÂ againstÂ Rep. Randy HultgrenÂ in theÂ exurbs west and north of Chicago.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report reclassified the raceÂ last week from “leanÂ Republican” toÂ â€œtoss-up.â€
While she has no shortage of differences with Trump, Underwood has kept her focus on Hultgren. Sheâ€™s criticized the congressman for his votes to dismantle Obamaâ€™s signature health care law, with aÂ particular focus on a provision in the law that prohibits insurance companies from excluding participants for pre-existing health issues.
Sheâ€™s also slammed the congressman for going more than a year without conducting a town hall meeting.
Asked about how Trump factors into the race, she says she’s running against Hultgren.
â€œRandy Hultgren voted to take away our health care coverage and lied about it and then didnâ€™t show up for 16 months,” Underwood said. “And we deserve better than someone who will do that.â€
Hultgren, a critic of the Affordable Care Act, creditsÂ Trump withÂ improving the economy and reducing unemployment rate. He says he disapprovesÂ of the president’sÂ personal attacksÂ and the administration’s sharp reductions in the number of refugees allowed in the country.
He has cast Underwood as a liberalÂ who would help Democrats push for a single-payer health care system.
â€œWho pays for Underwoodâ€™s big idea?â€ a narrator asks in a Hultgren campaign adÂ airing this month. â€œWe do.â€
Underwood says she isnâ€™t backing single-payer.
Londrigan is also campaigning on health care.Â SheÂ has spoken frequently on the stump aboutÂ navigating the health care system after her son, Jack, was bitten by a tick and nearly died from a bacterial disease.
Republicans are worried enough about the historically solid GOP districtÂ â€“ the last time a Democrat held the seat, Grover Cleveland was presidentÂ â€“ that Vice President Mike Pence last week traveled to the district to campaign for Davis.
Londrigan said itÂ has becomeÂ clear to her that â€œthere is almost no correlation with what the national media is focusing on and what people are talking about.â€
â€œItâ€™s not that Trump never comes up in conversation with voters,â€ sheÂ said. â€œBut itâ€™s not what they are focused on.â€
Jason ParksÂ voted for Trump in 2016. The 38-year-old Carterville manÂ says he finds some of Trump’s rhetoric off-putting, but he’s certain that the economy is stronger because of the president’s leadership.
Parks says he’sÂ not excitedÂ about Bost orÂ the GOP’s congressional leadership. But he says theÂ Democrats’ handling of allegations of sexual assault that surfaced against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s during his Senate confirmation pushed him further to the right.
“Those people are, like, foaming at the mouth in their anti-Trump rage,” he said.Â “They just energized people like me to vote for Republican candidates. We don’t want to see (stuff) like this happen.”
Doug Mayol, 63, a registered RepublicanÂ who has benefited from Obamacare, said Londriganâ€™s focus on health careÂ has won his vote.
Mayol, a small-business owner from Springfield, has a congenital heart valve problem that he says made it hard to get health insurance before Obamacare.
â€œI feel like, politically, weâ€™re in (an) awful mess,â€Â he said. â€œIâ€™d rather hear what politicians are going to do for me, rather than bash each other and say how evil the other guy is.â€
There are exceptions. In suburban Chicago, Democratic challenger Sean Casten has labeledÂ RepublicanÂ Rep. Peter Roskam Trump’s “rubber stamp.”
The district, a stretch of suburbs with a median household income near $100,000,Â went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But voters continued their four-decadeÂ stretch of electing a Republican to the House seat.
Casten has spotlighted Roskam’s support for Trump’s signature tax-cut legislation, which he saysÂ will mean a significantÂ tax hike for many in the district. The legislation includes a provision cappingÂ the federal deductionÂ forÂ state and local taxesÂ at $10,000.
Illinois property taxes areÂ among the highestÂ in the nation. TheÂ average taxÂ deduction in five counties in Roskam’s district ranges from $11,700 to $18,300, according to the most recent IRS data.
On the stump and in a barrage of campaign ads, CastenÂ notesÂ that Roskam has voted with Trump 94 percent of the time.
At one point, Casten wasÂ recordedÂ comparing Trump to Osama bin Laden.
After a conservative website posted the recording online, Casten’s campaign walked the comment back. But at a debate in July, Casten called Trump “the worst president of our generation.”
Roskam, for his part, described Trump’s performance in office as “middling”Â â€“ and accused Casten of engaging inÂ “Trump-like” rhetoric on the stump.
In Southern Illinois, polls showÂ the DemocratÂ KellyÂ in a dead heat with theÂ RepublicanÂ Bost.
Bost, who is seeking third term, is a 58-year-old Marine veteran who spent years in theÂ Illinois state legislature before being elected toÂ Congress.
The predominantly white, working-classÂ district stretches from the Illinois suburbs east of St. Louis to the coal and farm country of southern Illinois. For decades,Â it was a Democratic stronghold;Â it voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
But Trump won the district byÂ nearly 15 percentage points in 2016,Â and hisÂ approval ratingÂ thereÂ is still above water:Â 48 percentÂ of the district’s votersÂ approve of his performance, according to a recent Sienna College/New York Times poll; 46 percent don’t.
Cody Moake is Democratic chairman for Williamson County, which Trump won by 41 percentage points.
â€œI donâ€™t think that Trump has a negative impact,â€ heÂ said. â€œNothing he could do could have an impact on his favorability in some of the more rural parts of the districts, and the voters (with whom)Â criticizing Trump resonatesÂ …Â are already won. SoÂ going after the president is unnecessary.â€
All Bost has to do to win a third term is hold onto Trump voters.Â Key for Kelly is persuading enough Obama voters who backed TrumpÂ in 2016 to give Democrats another chance.
Some of those votersÂ sayÂ the improved economy make the Democrat’s pitch a hard sell.
Dan Fox, 56, who owns a comic and sports memorabilia store in Marion, Illinois, said he was a reliable Democratic voter until the 2016 election.
Turned offÂ both by ClintonÂ callingÂ some of Trumpâ€™s supporters as â€œdeplorablesâ€ andÂ byÂ Trump’sÂ rhetoric during the campaign, Fox threw his support to Libertarian Gary Johnson.
But Fox said Trump has grown on him. He wishesÂ the presidentÂ would quit his â€œpetulant Twitter rants,â€ but he has a hard time finding fault in his performance.
Unemployment is the lowest itâ€™s been in decades. Fox said that means more customers with money in their pockets are able to shop at his store.
And after Trump imposed his steep steel and aluminum tariffs on China, U.S. SteelÂ â€“ the nationâ€™s second largest steel producerÂ â€“ announced it would restart furnaces at its plant in the district. The move brought back hundreds of workers to the Granite City, Illinois,Â plant that were laid off in 2015.
Fox said he isnâ€™t a fan of Bost, but he isÂ supporting himÂ because of Trump.
â€œIn the past, Brendan Kelly would have had my vote without me even thinking about it,â€ Fox said.
Contributing: Thomas NovellyÂ of the Louisville Courier Journal, and Daniel Connolly of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.