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This is why 2018 won't be a referendum on Donald Trump

Katie Glueck, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

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

But one year before Election Day 2018, 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.

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 far-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 re-elect 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."

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