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
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.
Republicans from states with export industries have found themselves opposing the Trump administration on the growing threat of trade wars. Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (Ky.) says he has been fighting for his local bourbon industry, which has been hit by tariffs imposed by the European Union and Mexico in retaliation for Trump trade policies. In Washington state, Dino Rossi, a Republican who is running to replace retiring Republican Rep. Dave Reichert in a district that includes major fruit exporters and Boeing employees, has also come out against Trump’s policies.
On the topic of immigration, Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), who is in a tough reelection campaign, made clear this week that he was “truly not satisfied” with the White House policy on child separation, which Trump reversed on Wednesday. Rep. Mia Love (Utah) has denounced Trump’s policy of forced separation as “horrible.” Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.) called for the firing of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, who promoted the policy.
Coffman expressed confusion when a reporter asked whether he thinks Trump understands the impact on his district of the failure to pass a broader immigration bill. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t understand where the administration is right now on this issue.”
Back in Colorado, his likely Democratic opponent, Jason Crow, has been hammering Coffman for not stopping Trump’s actions.
“People in the district now recognize this is classic Mike Coffman,” Crow said. “People in the district are fed up with it. It is all talk and no action.”
Given Trump’s disruptive effect on politics, the divide between these two separate Republican worlds has become a defining feature of the political landscape. Pollsters on both ends of the political spectrum say it is too early to predict clearly how events will play out in November, as Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that they do not fully understand the new dynamics at play.
“He is certainly playing with fire on this stuff, but he has played with fire a lot since he announced for president,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. “And he doesn’t tend to get burned very often.”
Democrats, however, are counting on Trump’s motivating swing voters and liberals — especially college-educated women — to throw out Republican incumbents, as has happened in several special elections over the past year.
Democrats, in these districts, have pounced on even those Republicans who have done the most to champion moderate policies. In the Central Valley district of Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), where 71 percent of the residents are Hispanic, the Democratic nominee has begun to highlight the concerns of almond growers over new tariffs from China, along with a backlash over increased federal immigration raids.
“David Valadao is perceived as absolutely worthless,” said T.J. Cox, Valadao’s Democratic rival in a competitive district dominated by agriculture. “I just got off the phone with a friend and another guy who is a very large almond grower, and they are already seeing the effects.”
Valadao has released numerous statements opposing Trump’s trade measures and has worked for years to craft an immigration compromise.
“While we must work to reduce the occurrence of illegal border crossings, it is unacceptable to separate young children from their parents,” he said in a statement.
Elsewhere, leading the charge against Trump’s policy also has provided scant protection for Republican incumbents. In the Miami area, Rep. Carlos Curbelo started a now-abandoned effort to join with Democrats to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the country as children.
Rather than acknowledge his efforts to break from Trump, Democrats have used the failure of his effort to argue that he is tied to Trump and the president’s policy of child separation. “Congressman Curbelo is now doing everything he can to use dreamers to score cheap political points with no real results,” Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Curbelo’s likely Democratic opponent, said in a statement. She released a new ad this week that highlighted her story as an immigrant in a district that is 70 percent Hispanic.
Some Republicans have argued that Trump’s strategy might have unexpected benefits, by forcing moderate candidates to distinguish themselves.
“One thing Trump does is he blots out the sun,” said one GOP operative involved in the midterms, who did not want to be named talking about the president. “He gives shade to folks to run their own races in the districts.”
That is clearly the strategy for Lance, who likes to boast that unlike Trump, he has been a Republican since the 1970s. His father was a president of the New Jersey Senate, and the younger Lance has held elective office in the state since 1991.
He stood in the audience of House members at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday as Trump mocked Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican critic of the president’s who recently lost his primary.
“I think that was inappropriate,” Lance said of his party’s leader. “I think he should stop doing things like that.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.