GOP strategists plot anti-media strategy for 2018 elections

Republican Greg Gianforte prepares to go onstage at a hotel ballroom.
Republican Greg Gianforte prepares to go onstage at a hotel ballroom. AP

Conservative radio hosts mock a physical assault on a reporter. A GOP governor blasts a reporter on Twitter as "a sick man." The president accuses the media of being an “enemy of the people.”

This is not run-of-the-mill Republican criticism of the press anymore. It is now a deliberate strategy to help GOP candidates win elections fueled by public hatred of reporters.

“Does anyone want to see a reporter badly injured? No,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University advertising expert who advises congressional and gubernatorial election campaigns. "But there are some people who think this is their comeuppance: ‘You’ve been strutting around with no accountability and maybe you should be held accountable.’”

A party that traditionally has had a fraught relationship with the media has become outright hostile, led by a president who picks more fights with journalists than any GOP leader since Richard Nixon.

But interviews with Republican strategists and party leaders across the country reveal that what started as genuine anger at allegedly unfair coverage — or an effort to deflect criticism — is now an integral part of next year’s congressional campaigns.

The hope, say these officials, is to convince Trump die-hards that these mid-term races are as much a referendum on the media as they are on President Trump. That means embracing conflict with local and national journalists, taking them on to show Republicans voters that they, just like the president, are battling a biased press corps out to destroy them.

David Woodard, a political consultant for South Carolina Republicans whose clients have included Sen. Lindsey Graham and Reps. Trey Gowdy and Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, recalled the old adage often quoted by politicians: “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

That’s dead now.

“If you pick a fight with them, I think it kind of helps you, and I don’t think many people care,” Woodard said.

The strategy certainly doesn’t mean literally fighting the media. The strategists interviewed say they don’t want their candidates imitating Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, who last month was charged with assaulting a reporter in Montana.

Greg Gianforte (R), a candidate for U.S. House, was charged with misdemeanor assault after an incident with a reporter for The Guardian on May 24, 2017.

But the aftermath of that incident was instructive for party strategists. Conservatives media figures, such as Laura Ingraham and Brent Bozell, didn’t rush to condemn Gianforte; they criticized the reporter. And the ensuing coverage, according to one Republican watching the race, energized the GOP voters. (Gainforte went on to defeat Democrat Rob Quist.)

The conservative base needed more of an enemy than the Democratic candidate to become engaged.

“Hillary Clinton is not on the ballot so you have to have something else to run against,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host from Wisconsin who has been openly critical of Trump. “And the media is perfect.”

It’s “going to be a major part of the strategy,” he predicted.

Attacks against the media are nothing new, of course. But what was once mere dislike “has now morphed into genuine loathing,” Sykes said, fueled by the president’s daily anti-media barrage and a perception among his supporters that coverage of his campaign and now his administration has been unfair.

And that anti-media approach is working among the Republican party’s most fervent supporters — the very voter bloc GOP candidates are eager to re-energize ahead of the 2018 elections. One May survey from Quinnipiac University found that 58 percent of voters disapprove of way the media covers Trump.

Opinions about the state of journalism are even worse. Last year, Gallup found confidence in mass media had dropped to 32 percent, the lowest in Gallup’s history of polling. And local media in many cities, once more popular than their national counterparts, have shrunk in size and influence, making them an easier target.

“You look at how the press is perceived in any kind of opinion survey at the moment, and the press is right down there with Donald Trump,” Berkovitz said.

“The press is held with disgust and contempt. Battling the press isn’t a bad strategy.”

It’s a strategy that also helps congressional candidates demonstrate solidarity with a president whose electoral coalition included non-traditional GOP voters, a group the party will need again in 2018.

Indeed, if Trump voters show up for the midterms in many of next year’s battleground states, that could be enough for the GOP to hold the Congress, said Barney Keller, a GOP strategist. That includes the 10 Senate races in states Trump won.

So a topic serious strategists once dismissed as talk-radio fodder to be ignored in favor of discussion about jobs and the economy is now not only part of the campaign, but potentially a necessary element of it.

“I don’t think that issues like media bias are going to be the prime motivator for Republicans,” said Keller. “But, combined with other things, that can be part of a theme of standing with the president – reminding those people who voted for him the first time that they should continue to vote for Republicans.”

The strategy still has limits. Motivating core Republican support is an important part of the campaign, but many of them also need to persuade middle-of-the-road voters to pull the lever.

Karen Handel, the Republican running against Jon Ossoff in Georgia, for example, has avoided antagonizing the media in a very close race in a suburban district that narrowly voted for Trump in November.

“That can only be part of a message to base voters,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “If you’re trying to appeal to a broader set of voters, you still have to talk about accomplishments in Congress, bringing jobs, increasing wages, and what you’re doing for your district.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise