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U.S. Politics Health care, not Donald Trump, is the dominant issue for Democrats in two key races

In the great national referendum that Democratic leaders in Washington say they are conducting on the Donald Trump administration – the ‘’blue wave’’ they assert will give them back control of the Congress and repudiate the President – all of Mr. Trump’s issues are prominent: the economy, health care, old-age pension supplements and trade.

The surprising omission: any mention of Mr. Trump in a bitterly contested House race here in Maine, where the Democrats are hoping to topple a Republican lawmaker, and in another congressional riding in Nebraska, where the political dynamic is similar.

“This is not about him,” said Jared Golden, the Democratic challenger to GOP Representative Bruce Poliquin in a rural district that sprawls across four-fifths of Maine and that delivered a single electoral vote to Mr. Trump in 2016. “I’m on the road a lot. People don’t ask me about him.”

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“Trump doesn’t come up when I go door-to-door,” said Kara Eastman, the Democratic challenger to GOP Don Bacon in Omaha, the major urban centre in a state that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only twice in the past hundred years – in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt landslide (1936) and the Lyndon Johnson landslide (1964).

Like so many Democratic challengers in toss-up races across the country, these two fresh-face candidates – Mr. Golden is 36, Ms. Eastman 46 – are conducting local campaigns, speaking about issues that pertain to their ridings and shaping national issues to regional concerns, all without invoking the name of Mr. Trump.

This rural area in Maine is 2,500 kilometres from Omaha. Yet both challengers – considered by Democrats among their top prospects for overturning Republican lawmakers this autumn – are emphasizing health care, a topic the President hasn’t mentioned in months and that hasn’t been the subject of a vote on Capitol Hill for more than a year.

That may be because, according to advertising data assembled by Kantor Media/CMAG, health care has been mentioned more than 405,000 times in Democratic ads across the country this year – almost 13 times as often as immigration.

“This race has little to do with Trump,” said Bobby Reynolds, the campaign manager for Mr. Golden, adding that the future of the health exchanges created by Obamacare is a vital campaign issue in this riding, the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River and comprising a remarkable variety of rural workers. “Lobstermen and lumberjacks purchase their health insurance through the exchanges,” Mr. Reynolds said.

Mr. Golden’s avoidance of mentioning the President has a certain logic; Mr. Trump took his riding by a full 10 percentage points two years ago. But Ms. Eastman’s Nebraska riding has an entirely different political landscape; it includes one of the only two counties (out of 93 statewide) that Hillary Clinton won.

A week earlier, at a fundraiser in an Irish bar on the outskirts of Omaha, Ms. Eastman talked about a Canadian-style health-care system, arguing that a version of that system south of the border would alleviate health-care worries for many Americans. “What do you say to people who ask now how they are supposed to pay for their health care?” she asked at the event.

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The reluctance of Democrats to invoke Mr. Trump in their congressional challenges stands in sharp contrast to the Republican campaigns. As the President travels about the country speaking for GOP candidates – he appeared in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania last week – the White House has circulated a memo to Republican candidates telling them that their prospects depend on whether they are willing to “boldly align” themselves with Mr. Trump.

Part of a blue wave or not, the two candidates in Maine and Nebraska are part of the new wave of Democrats. Ms. Eastman founded a non-profit social-service agency. Mr. Golden is a Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who has won two terms in the state legislature. “This election in this country is very much about a new generation of leadership,” he said. “This message is that young veterans of both parties have learned lessons about leadership. This is a leadership moment in the United States.”

This is also a voter-enthusiasm moment, and across the country this is providing Democrats with new worries after a surge in Republican voter commitment following the struggle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. The RealClearPolitics polling average of national ballots – testing whether voters would choose a generic Republican or a generic Democrat – gives Democrats a 6.9-percentage-point advantage, far smaller than they hoped.

In Minnesota, Republicans are experiencing a fresh burst of enthusiasm in their efforts to defeat Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had a visible role as a Kavanaugh antagonist in this fall’s contentious hearings. She retains a lead, however. But the enthusiasm factor works in favour of Jacky Rosen, who is seeking to defeat Republican Dean Heller in Nevada, where the Senate race is considered a dead heat.

“The Kavanaugh fight solidified the base of both the Republicans and the Democrats,” said Scott Boddery, a Gettysburg College political scientist. “So now it is all about turnout. The Supreme Court was a major driver for Mr. Trump in 2016. It may be the main driver again in 2018.”

The important question is: For whom will it be the bigger factor.

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