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Here’s how Adam Schiff used Trump’s taunts to his advantage

California Rep. Adam Schiff spent more money on his campaign in the first three months of 2019 than all but two other House Democrats — and they’re both running for president.

Even though it’s not yet an election year and he is not expected to face a competitive reelection race in 2020, the Los Angeles Democrat spent roughly $1 million in the first quarter of the year, a majority of which went towards digital ads rebutting attacks from President Donald Trump.

Only Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Eric Swalwell of California spent more among the House Democratic caucus, due largely to transfers they made to their presidential campaigns.

Once a little-known congressman, Schiff has emerged as one of Trump’s chief antagonists as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. And he’s using that new platform to expand his profile and fundraising reach across the country, potentially setting himself up for a future bid for higher office or party leadership post.

“From a strictly political standpoint, Donald Trump is the best thing to ever happen to Adam Schiff,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. “Before 2016 he was held in very high regard by people who paid very close attention to Congress. Now his profile has exploded off the charts. And his team is being smart to capitalize on that.”

Schiff’s name has been circulated as a possible replacement for Sen. Kamala Harris, should she be elected president in 2020, or Sen. Dianne Feinstein, should she retire in 2024. He’s also well-positioned to move into House Democratic leadership, when the current crop of septuagenarian leaders retire.

That’s due in no small part to his perch on the intelligence panel, where he has probed the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia as well as his business interests abroad. He is now a regular in the headlines and on cable news shows.

The media glare grew particularly intense at the end of March, after the Justice Department released a summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which the president claimed was “Complete and Total EXONERATION.”

Three days later, Trump began attacking Schiff, directly, calling him “a disgrace” during a lengthy Fox News interview . The next morning, the president took to Twitter to call for Schiff’s resignation, claiming Schiff “spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking” about Mueller’s investigation. At a rally in Michigan that evening, he added a derisive nickname: “Little pencil neck Adam Schiff.”

It only took Schiff’s campaign a few hours to hit back.

Campaign finance reports reveal that Schiff spent more than $250,000 on digital campaign services in the 48-hour period following the president’s Fox interview.

One of the promoted tweets Schiff’s campaign began circulating on March 28 reads: “President Trump went on Fox News and declared that Adam ‘should be forced out of office’ because he’s holding the President accountable. Add your name now to show Adam you have his back in this fight.”

The link in the tweet directs users back to a page on the campaign website that encourages them to submit their name, e-mail address, cell phone number and zip code — the precious data that political campaigns use to build up their lists and mobilize grassroots support.

Schiff’s team has continued invoking Trump and the Mueller report in a series of promoted tweets throughout April and into May, a search of Twitter ads reveals. ProPublica’s Facebook Ads Project also shows the Schiff campaign ran a similar ad on the social network on April 19.

“We fought hard to protect Robert Mueller’s investigation, and we will fight just as hard to make sure that the results are not buried by his hand-picked attorney general. Add your name if you agree,” it reads, above a picture of Trump and Attorney General William Barr.

“If your reputation is at stake and you’ve got someone as powerful as the president coming at you with the type of platform Trump has, I think you’d be foolish not to use whatever tools are in your toolbox to fight back,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.

There are some early indicators that the effort has paid off: he raised $1.2 million via ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising platform, between January and March. All told, Schiff raised nearly $1.9 million during that period, second most of any House Democrat.

Schiff’s next campaign finance report, due in July, will reveal just how much his team spent on the digital campaign between April and June. Last year, Schiff spent a total of $2.4 million for digital consulting and online ads.

One of Schiff’s political aides, who spoke on background to discuss the behind-the-scenes program, said “Schiff is proud of his network of grassroots supporters in California and across the nation, and he has continued to invest in growing his digital program, now one of the largest in the House.”

Schiff is also playing a lead role the Democratic party’s 2020 fundraising. In late March, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appointed him finance chairman for the party’s most vulnerable House members.

According to his campaign, Schiff raised or donated almost $900,000 for the DCCC and their 44 “Frontline” candidates, including almost $200,000 directly to or for those Democrats, in the first three months of the year.

“Over the next two years, I’m going to do all I can to make sure that our candidates have the resources they need to compete and hold the House, so we can continue fighting for the people, and passing a positive, progressive agenda that helps everyday Americans,” Schiff said in a statement to McClatchy.

Beyond that, it will be up to Schiff to determine how he marshals his burgeoning grassroots army.

“I think he’s right to be doing everything he can to one, protect his reputation, and then also build out a national profile,” said Thornell, a former spokesman for the DCCC and adviser to then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen. “That just helps prepare him for whatever comes next.”

Update: This story was updated to correct the year that Sen. Feinstein’s term expires. It is 2024, not 2022.

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.