Here’s how Trump escapes a midterms referendum

President Donald Trump attends a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.
President Donald Trump attends a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. AP

Donald Trump’s approval rating sits at a historic low, his ex-campaign chairman has been indicted and Trump has yet to deliver on most of his major legislative promises.

But one year before Election Day 2018, some top Republicans don’t see the midterms as a negative referendum on Trump at all. Indeed, many of their candidates need the president to juice Republican turnout so that voters don’t punish a GOP Congress that is struggling to show results.

“Trump is likely to be a major factor in the Senate races given the terrain where we are fighting, and that’s tremendously good news,” said Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC and a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “President Trump’s numbers are much stronger in most states hosting Senate races than nationally, and voters are going to want to support somebody who wants to help the Trump agenda.”

Certainly, those dynamics could change quickly, especially amid swirling Russia investigations, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia yields indictments. And in some places—particularly heavily suburban congressional districts—Trump looks poised to be a drag for Republicans, as he was in a spate of races from Virginia to Pennsylvania earlier this week.

But right now, strategists and operatives from across the Republican ideological spectrum say the smartest play for many GOP candidates is to tie their campaigns even more tightly to Trump’s agenda to win over the conservative base that remains much more staunchly aligned with the president than with any other party leader.

“This is a referendum on the Republican-led Congress, the House and Senate,” said conservative strategist Ned Ryun, who is close to Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, now the head of the hard-right outlet Breitbart. “I don’t think it’s going to be a referendum on President Trump at all. In fact, I’ve been telling some candidates, you need to distance yourself from the D.C. establishment because Trump’s not going to be a drag — they will be.”

For all of Trump’s challenges, his approval rating among Republicans hovers at around 80 percent. Republican approval of the GOP-controlled Congress is at only 18 percent, according to a Gallup survey from last month.

“No matter how bad his and Republicans’ numbers are, he may be the only person that is able to effectively use the megaphone of the presidency to change the subject and make Republicans electable in October of 2018,” said a major Republican donor and bundler. “If you’re a House or Senate member or candidate … it’s easy to distinguish yourself from him personally while still perhaps embracing some of his policies.”

GOP operatives and strategists — those who like Trump and plenty who don’t — say that his agenda on tax cuts, reduced regulations and a strong military are in line with Republican-inclined voters. They are advising candidates in many races to connect Republican success on the 2018 campaign trail with Trump’s ability to do his job, fearful of a scenario in which Trump lashes out enough at his fellow Republicans that his most deeply committed voters stay home.

“From a Republican perspective, our base needs to understand that it’s critical to reelect Republicans to have any chance of advancing the president’s agenda,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “In order to motivate our own base, [Republicans] need to make it clear that Trump’s agenda, if not his entire presidency, is over if Republicans lose the majorities.”

That doesn’t mean Republicans are sanguine about Trump’s low approval ratings nationally, an energized anti-Trump progressive base and the potential for more damning revelations from the Russia-related investigations — a potentially toxic brew, especially in the more moderate districts that could determine control of the House of Representatives. Some Republican members of Congress are already—publicly—attributing Republican losses in state and local elections earlier this week to dissatisfaction with Trump, a sign of more party fracturing to come.

“Republicans should keep in mind that we essentially ran the successful 2010 election cycle as a referendum on President Obama,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “We were able to defeat congressional Democrats by running against his record. We didn’t know how good a year that was going to be until Election Night. The midterm election of a president’s first term is usually challenging to begin with for the party in power.”

As he watched Mueller-related developments play out on television during an interview last week, Williams said, “Other events could potentially make it even more challenging.”

Like most operatives interviewed for this piece, veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres stressed that it is far too early to make predictions about what messages will be effective in shaping the midterm elections. But he said the president’s standing traditionally does matter.

“What we know is, historically, the president’s party performance in midterms is affected by the president’s approval rating, there’s a well-established historical correlation at this point,” he said. “The approval rating affects the overall political atmosphere of the country. It’s the backdrop on front of which congressional campaigns play out.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have been at odds for much of Trump’s presidency over whether to focus more on pocketbook issues or to try to make the midterms a referendum on the president — though the latter tactic alone did not work in 2016 against Trump, they acknowledge.

Jesse Ferguson, a top Democratic strategist, expects the strongest Democratic messaging to be aimed at Republican-controlled Washington as a whole.

“That means Trump. It also means [House Speaker Paul] Ryan and McConnell,” he said. “It means they own the ‘swamp,’ and they’ve poured more water into it. If you’re a voter who thinks Washington isn’t delivering for you, or that Washington is captured by the culture of corruption and cover-up, then you vote against the Washington creatures that are running it. Certainly the focus of that is the president, but there’s nothing in Washington that isn’t Republicans’ responsibility and Republicans’ fault.”

(And indeed, when asked about the party’s 2018 approach, Ben Ray Luján, chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, wrote an editorial that was not focused on Trump, instead arguing that voters want change in GOP-run Washington.)

On the question of responsibility, many Republicans agree. But they see that argument translating, more immediately, into a referendum on what the GOP has to show for its majorities, rather than on Trump-related controversies, as Congress scrambles to land a tax reform package, desperate to claim a major legislative victory after failing to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“I largely don’t think it will be a referendum on Trump, I still think it will be a referendum, or validation, on the Republican Congress,” California-based Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said. “I’m not a big fan of the president’s, but he’s not on the ballot.”

In congressional primaries, many candidates are already scrambling to paint themselves as the contender best-positioned to promote Trump’s agenda, often criticizing Republicans who have clashed with Trump at times — from McConnell to Sen. John McCain.

“It’s going to be two stages,” said one top party strategist. “You have the Republican primary stage that is absolutely a referendum on what’s getting done in Washington and what Republicans are doing to help the president’s agenda.”

“It’s a little bit different in the general, in the same way a lot of these first midterms during the first term of a president’s time in office is a referendum on them,” that GOP source said. “But more than that, it’s going to be a referendum on what has been accomplished. If Republicans cut taxes, they can hang onto the House. If they can’t they’re going to lose in a really big way.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck

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