In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.
Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.
Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?
One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”
That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.
He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.
Firing up the base
Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.
Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.
Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.
Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?
“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.
Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”
These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.
There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.
Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.
While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.
Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.
“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.
Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”
But things aren’t quite that clear.
Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.
Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.