CongressElection 2018News

The main election strategy of vulnerable House Republicans: Prove they’re not Trump

Author: Michael Scherer, The Washington Post - June 25, 2018 - Updated: June 25, 2018

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Trump State of Union Things to WatchIn this 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan applaud. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP, File)

Soft-spoken and always dignified, Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.) exists about as far away from a sold-out MAGA rally as you can get in the Republican Party.

At town halls in tony bedroom communities a river-jump from Manhattan, he regularly finds himself trying to soothe voters who shout into microphones about President Trump’s latest antics. Lance voted against his party’s tax cut, opposed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and spent the past week steadily, repeatedly, pleading with the president to end the “zero tolerance” policy on the border that separated thousands of children from their parents.

“I would prefer civility in all aspects of public policy, and that includes President Trump,” he said in an interview this week, as his effort to force a vote that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants crumbled in Congress. “I believe the Republican Party is multifaceted.”

In Trump’s America — a nonstop torrent of shock, spectacle and confrontation — it is sometimes hard to remember that folk like Lance still exist. But it is people like him, moderate Republicans fighting for their survival in suburban House districts, who are set to decide whether Republicans can avoid losing 23 seats and control of Congress this fall.

That is a contradiction with which Trump has not fully grappled, at least in public, where he has begun to declare that his brand of fire-and-brimstone politics is certain to expand Republican legislative ranks this November. With a tweet on Friday, he essentially killed off a months-long effort by a dozen endangered Republican moderates, including Lance, to force a vote on immigration this summer. They had hoped to gainpolitical cover in their own districts.

“Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” Trump wrote. “We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”

The base-first strategy could benefit some Republicans by juicing turnout in the midterms, especially in states Trump won in 2016 and where Democratic senators are running for reelection. But political handicappers say there is no realistic scenario in which Republicans win a filibuster-proof majority this fall in the Senate. In the House, only a handful of Democratic House seats are vulnerable this year.

That means most of the midterm action is taking place in contested Republican-held House districts and a couple of swing states, such as Florida and Nevada, where Trump’s rhetoric has wedged members of his own party into a most uncomfortable position — between his own high popularity among Republicans on one hand and swing voters opposed to his bellicosity on trade and immigration on the other.

“It probably helps Republicans running against Senate incumbents in the deepest red states but makes life more challenging for Republicans incumbents in more diverse suburban districts,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

The result is two different Republican realities. Trump is the star of one, which he showcases at arena rallies where confrontation is empowering. In this world, Trump’s approval is up, his promises have been kept, North Korea is turning over its nuclear stockpile and the spectacle never stops.

The other Republican world is riven with far more discomfort and anxiety, on the part of the congressional Republicans whose voters find Trump’s aggression off-putting, and where the president’s positions on trade and immigration do not match the local mood.

Rather than focus on preferred issues such as the economy and tax cuts, these vulnerable members spent a week distancing themselves from their own president, while he gave ammunition to Democratic challengers who are trying to nationalize the midterms as a referendum on Trump.

Michael Scherer, The Washington Post