More from the series
OZY and McClatchy are teaming up to deliver in-depth coverage of this year’s most pivotal political campaigns in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections.
President Donald Trump is caught in an unrelenting swirl of scandal, and President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is still intact. Democratic energy is unbridled, and Republican enthusiasm is uncertain.
Republicans enter the homestretch of the 2018 campaign season gripped by a long list of anxieties as they attempt to maintain their majorities in both chambers of Congress, a mission that, to some top strategists, looks increasingly daunting.
But their biggest fear, according to conversations with a dozen GOP strategists and pollsters, is that Republicans won’t be able match the motivation of an expanding Democratic base that is enraged and emboldened by Trump’s presidency.
“Midterms are about anger management and failed expectations,” said veteran North Carolina-based GOP strategist Paul Shumaker. “That’s applicable to either side, depending on who is in the White House. This time, it’s applicable to Republicans.”
Certainly, the vast majority of Republicans approve of Trump, and many are pleased with his Supreme Court nominees and the passage, by the GOP-held Congress, of a major tax reform law. Even in congressional districts where Trump is unpopular, many Republican strategists are hoping that voters will draw distinctions between their individual members of Congress and the president, as they did in 2016, and will reward the incumbent GOP for a strong economy. Republicans still largely feel bullish about the Senate, where the red state-heavy map favors them, and where Democrats are having their own challenges.
Yet with eight weeks until Election Day, there is no doubt that Republican operatives are nervous about their November fortunes, especially when it comes to defending the House. Here’s a look at the midterms dynamics that worry top GOP strategists most:
The Trump factor
Republicans concede that it has been a rough summer for their party—and the president has often been at the center of the GOP’s most challenging moments over the past few months.
There was the Trump administration’s short-lived but deeply controversial policy of separating children from their parents at the border; a widely panned appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Trump refused to hold him accountable for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election; the guilty plea of his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen to, among other things, campaign finance violations, and the guilty verdict for his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in a financial fraud trial. And then there are the tweets that constantly knock Republican lawmakers off their carefully planned policy messages.
Taken together, it has created an environment that Republican strategists say makes it even harder for independents to swing their way, adding to the traditional challenges facing the president’s party in the first midterm of a new White House.
“All it’s doing is adding more straws on the camel’s back,” said longtime GOP pollster Glen Bolger. “Nothing’s broken, but it’s not good, it’s not helping…it’s not that they’ve necessarily thought, ‘OK, everything is wrong and the president ought to be impeached.’ It’s more like, ‘God, things are just out of control, there’s so much dysfunction that it’s exhausting.’”
Even as Trump’s approval rating remains sky-high among Republican voters, with the general public that number has largely been mired in the low 40s or worse. Strategists fear that it could drop more.
In special elections across the country and at virtually every level of government since Trump’s election, Democrats have turned out in massive numbers, notching wins in Republican strongholds from a conservative western Pennsylvania House district to a Senate seat in Alabama.
This has troubled Republicans for months, and now two months before Election Day—when it really counts—Democratic enthusiasm shows no signs of abating.
“There’s a lot of intensity on the other side,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a socially conservative organization that is mounting conservative mobilization efforts. “Intensity counts for something in politics, and if it’s reflected in dramatically higher turnout for base Democratic voters, it could be a major problem come November. If you’re asking me what keeps me awake at night, that’s probably it.”
What’s especially concerning to some Republicans is the strength of Democratic enthusiasm in more conservative districts—which Democrats don’t necessarily need to take back the House, given the number of swing- and center-right districts also in play this year.
“Any objective measure of overperformance of Democrats in some special elections leads you to believe they’re going to run aggressively in districts Hillary Clinton won,” said Kentucky-based GOP strategist Scott Jennings.
Is the economy enough?
Republicans are banking on the strong economy and, in many districts, their tax reform legislation, to insulate against the rough national environment. But staying on that more fiscally focused message—and keeping voters tuned in—can be a challenge, especially in suburban districts where the president is underwater.
“Even if a suburban candidate is on message, there’s no oxygen, nobody’s paying attention because President Trump is such a dominant player, he’s the one getting all the attention, particularly for people who watch cable,” said Henry Barbour, the Republican national committeeman from Mississippi, calling Trump a “key driver,” adding, “whether you love him or hate him.”
“This is a tough environment, and despite the economic success, it’s not necessarily what is in the forefront of people’s minds,” Barbour said. “But as a party we have to help bring voters back to that.”
Bolger, the pollster, said his first two biggest fears about the midterms are the prospect of major Democratic turnout and challenges with independent voters.
“If I were to add a third one, this is going to sound strange, but the economy,” he said. “The economy is doing so well that voters’ attention, in many cases, turns to other issues. The economy is a strong point for the president and for Republicans, but a lot of voters might say, ‘OK, that’s going well, so I’m going to focus on other things I’m worried about, like health care or the chaos in Washington. And in those cases, we don’t look as good.”
And even though the GOP has delivered on its tax reform pledge, other big-ticket policy priorities, from repealing Obamacare to achieving some sort of immigration reform, are still out of grasp, risking Republican apathy.
“If Trump voters don’t see the Republicans trying to pass their issues, they’ll take a pass because Trump’s not on the ballot,” warned John McLaughlin, a GOP pollster who was involved in Trump’s campaign.
Shumaker, the North Carolina GOP strategist, noted that it is often the party out of power that is more angry—and more motivated to vote—in midterm cycles, pointing to the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement in the Obama era.
“Anger is a great motivator in American politics,” he said. “The Democrats, the far left, is angry.”