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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has warned fellow Democrats that they shouldn’t just oppose Trump in the midterm elections. She thinks they need a substantive alternative policy message.

Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, who runs the House Republican Campaign Committee, has the same advice for his Democratic rivals: to avoid making the same mistake in November that his party made in 1998 by stressing the negatives of a Democratic president.

That sounds good. It’s wrong. Midterm elections are about grievances, often directed against an incumbent president. There are more than four-dozen competitive House races, and Democrats may settle on similar themes. But they don’t need a single agenda.

In the past two midterm elections, in 2010 and 2014, Republicans scored huge gains. Their message was simple and negative: Let’s beat President Barack Obama and get rid of Obamacare.

The negative approach flopped only once in recent midterm contests, in 1998, when Republicans failed to score gains because of their folly of impeaching President Bill Clinton for lying about sex. The tactic backfired and energized Democratic voters. There’s a message there this fall for Democrats.

The electoral focus is on the House of Representatives because Republicans, with far fewer incumbents up for re-election, are favored to retain their narrow majority in the Senate. In roughly 50 battleground House contests, most Democrats will call for raising wages, reducing the influence of big money in politics, redirecting tax cuts to working-class families instead of the affluent, preserving Social Security and, most of all, focusing on health care — building, not dismantling, the Affordable Care Act, protecting Medicare and cracking down on soaring drug prices. The Democrats’ advantage on health care, an issue Republicans dominated during the last two midterm campaigns, widened last week when the Trump administration went to court to eliminate the ban on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions — a provision of Obamacare that is supported overwhelmingly by voters.

But the Democratic talking points don’t amount to a unified programmatic agenda, any more than the Republican assault on Obamacare was. In different districts, there will be different priorities. The threat of tariffs may play big in Iowa, immigration in Florida.

The anti-Trump message will resonate almost everywhere. In some places, it’ll amount to an all-out assault on his policies and practices. In others, the tone will be more modulated, along the lines of a call to hold the president accountable. Criticism of the corruption in Trump world will strike a responsive chord.

Stivers, the Republican House strategist, insists that all his candidates would welcome Trump’s active support. That might be the case in a few places like Little Rock, Arkansas or northern Maine. Trump won districts in those regions by double-digit margins.

But most of the races that will decide control are in suburban areas where Trump is weak. Last week, a Missouri Democrat won a special state Senate election in a Kansas City suburb by close to 20 percentage points, almost the same margin that Republicans enjoyed there in 2016. The race didn’t turn on national issues, but it illustrated the political energy of suburban Democratic voters, particularly college-educated women.

Republican congressmen like Mike Coffman, who represents the Denver suburbs, or New Jersey’s Leonard Lance, or incumbents in competitive parts of Orange County, California, not only will not want Trump in their districts but may try to avoid mentioning him.

Some places that went strongly for Trump in 2016 may not be such friendly turf for him today. The president won by 16 percentage points in a Lexington, Kentucky House district where Republican Rep. Andy Barr is now in trouble. Would Barr benefit by appearing with Trump, who, following his gut, probably would attack the Democratic challenger’s patriotism? She’s Amy McGrath, who flew 89 combat missions as a Marine pilot.

There are warning flags for Democrats. A rush to impeachment favored by many progressives would energize the other side, as it did in 1998, and close the all-important intensity gap Democrats enjoy. That’s why Democratic strategists, and many candidates, wish that the liberal California billionaire Tom Steyer would transfer the millions he’s spending to push impeachment and devote more for voter registration.

Trump will use any tactic to gin up the Republican base: immigrant-bashing, attacking protests by National Football League players, playing the race card. Some data suggests that Republicans are better finishers than Democrats.

But with few exceptions, Democrats have tapped their most electable candidates and minimized their party’s ideological schisms. Barring a major change, they are on course to win somewhere between 25 seats, enough to eke out a one-vote majority, and 40, a wave.

Hunt writes for Bloomberg News. His column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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