John Kingston wants to show Republicans how they can win Senate races in deep-blue states like Massachusetts.
The first step, a top adviser says, is to prove he’s nothing like President Donald Trump.
Kingston is beginning a run for Senate in a state that, even in ideal conditions, is hostile to Republican candidates for federal office. But Trump’s deep unpopularity in the Bay State — where he lost by 27 points in November — has arguably made life even harder for the GOP there, especially in a year in which liberal icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, is running for re-election.
So the wealthy 51-year-old Republican donor is planning to actively distance himself from the president, breaking from the GOP leader on issues like diversity and civility, his aides say, and criticizing Trump directly when necessary.
Kingston is going to offer “an alternative vision for the Republican Party outside of Trump’s base,” said Mark Harris, a senior Kingston adviser.
“Everyone's going to see we’re running a very different campaign,” Harris said. “He wants to set a model for what Republican in urban and other areas can talk about to be successful.”
Kingston’s approach is easier in theory than practice. In a midterm election expected to be favorable for Democrats, any Republican candidate faces an uphill fight to defeat Warren. And Trump’s constant presence in media makes it difficult for voters to think about little else, especially as Democrats try to link down-ballot GOP candidates to the president.
Kingston must also win the Republican primary, where his stand against the president could prove harmful. Trump won the Massachusetts GOP primary last year with nearly 50 percent of the vote, and polls show his approval with Republican voters remains sky high.
Kingston faces state Rep. Geoff Diehl, Trump’s campaign co-chair in Massachusetts, and entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai in next year’s primary.
Harris says Kingston won’t shy from his Trump message in the primary, emphasizing instead that he’s the most electable candidate against Warren.
"From day one, we’re planning to win the general election,” Harris said.
If he makes the general election, he’d have at least one considerable ally on the ballot: Gov. Charlie Baker. The popular Republican governor is running for re-election next year, and even many Democrats concede he is in strong position to win because of his strong approval ratings.
His success could give the GOP nominee a bump in support, although Democrats say voters will view the two races separately.
Kingston is not new to Trump criticism: Last year, he funded a group that sought an alternative candidate to Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and declined to attend the Republican National Convention as a delegate, citing Trump’s imminent nomination.
That prior criticism of the Republican president, Harris said, gives him an opening to argue that Warren is the candidate in the race most similar to Trump.
"In many ways, she is the left's Trump,” Harris said. “She's bombastic; she says stuff that is over the line of civil discourse."
The adviser cited remarks from Warren in June, when she said that the Republican health care plan is paid for with “blood money.”
“They both need each other,” Harris said. “Elizabeth Warren benefits from her fight with Trump, and Trump benefits from her."
The strategy is a provocative one, and sure to draw strong pushback from Democrats. An adviser to Warren declined to respond directly to the criticism, saying instead that “it’s up to Massachusetts Republicans to decide on their nominee.”
Warren’s re-election campaign is already drawing interest from national Republican groups, who are eyeing her race as a chance to damage her popularity ahead of a potential presidential campaign in 2020. Other GOP groups are more focused on the rest of the Senate map in next year’s midterm election, which features Democratic senators running for re-election in 10 states Trump won last year.
Massachusetts is decidedly less hospitable ground. But Kingston’s team says there is a path to victory, however narrow.
"Our early indication is that Elizabeth Warren is vulnerable,” Harris said. “But it takes a perfect campaign to win."