By John Wagner,
As a cascade of controversies consumes the White House, anxiety is rising among Republicans well beyond the Beltway that President Trump’s troubles could take a severe toll on the party heading into next year’s midterm elections and beyond.
With a near-daily string of new scandals and unfavorable headlines — including this week’s news of a special counsel to examine possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — a growing number of Republicans across the country are watching dispiritedly as Democrats become further energized to turn out their voters in 2018, potentially tipping not only congressional contests but state and local races down the ballot.
“There were a lot of things that were promised to be done, and we’re just getting a lot of noise out of Washington,” said Marc Rotterman, a longtime Republican consultant in North Carolina who was a Trump supporter ahead of last year’s election. “It seems it’s Russia 24-7. When you’re reacting and defending, you’re not moving on your agenda. You’re not fixing day-to-day problems for average Americans.”
Rotterman said that “there still could be a course correction” but that if Trump and Republicans don’t make good on their promises, they risk losing support — particularly from the blue-collar voters who helped propel Trump to victory last fall. “They’re counting on him,” Rotterman said.
Trump arrived in Washington in an uneasy alliance with establishment Republicans, many of whom were willing to overlook his eccentricities if they still were able to make good on shared legislative priorities, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax cuts.
While Trump has issued a flurry of executive orders and delivered on one key conservative agenda item — the confirmation of a successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — there is mounting fear that other marquee campaign promises will not be realized, making it harder for Republicans to win elections.
Since Trump’s controversial firing of FBI Director James B. Comey last week, the White House has been in full crisis mode.
“We cannot sustain this level of chaos from the White House and expect it will be anything less than a tragic outcome on Election Day,” said Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Horn, who was accused of anti-Trump bias during her tenure as chairwoman, said she has noticed “a significant increase in the level of anxiety about the president and his behavior” from party leaders around the country over the past two weeks.
Some Trump boosters offer a more measured take on what has transpired, suggesting the drama in Washington will not be foremost on the minds of voters.
“The next election will have a lot more to do with jobs numbers than Russia,” said Barry Bennett, a Trump political adviser during last year’s election campaign. If the economy “keeps perking along,” he said, Republicans could do just fine.
While many Republicans are frustrated by what is going on in Washington, polls have shown that Trump remains popular with most members of the party and continues to be viewed positively by his base.
Trump also could try to energize his voters next year by blaming Washington’s problems on the hostile establishment he says he is fighting.
However, it remains an open question how many of the blue-collar and other nontraditional GOP voters who backed Trump will turn out for other Republicans when he is not on the ballot. At the same time, Democratic voters tend not to turn out as strongly in nonpresidential years.
The Trump factor already is being tested in several special congressional elections this year to replace members plucked from the House to join Trump’s Cabinet. All have shaped up to be closer than expected, and Trump’s troubles are a particular factor in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — an affluent, Republican-leaning jurisdiction in suburban Atlanta.
“It’s a close race that shouldn’t be close,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for GOP candidate Karen Handel, said of the June 20 election.
Ayres said that Trump’s troubles are clearly a factor in Handel’s race against Democrat Jon Ossoff, as well as in other upcoming contests.
“It certainly doesn’t make it any easier for Republican candidates in highly educated districts,” Ayres said. “The atmosphere in Washington and attitudes toward the president create a far more energized Democratic base than you’d otherwise have.”
Asked if the past two weeks have exacerbated that dynamic, Ayres said, “I believe this falls in the realm of the obvious.”
Trump appeared at a closed fundraiser in Atlanta last month for Handel, but the candidate since then has seemed to distance herself from the president. During a fundraiser this week with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Trump’s name was not mentioned by either Handel or Ryan.
It remains an open question how many candidates will seek to appear with Trump heading into next year’s elections.
When the Republican National Committee met in California last week, Trump appeared via a taped message in which he suggested he would like to be heavily involved ahead of next year’s vote.
“I’ll be going around to different states,” Trump said. “I’ll be working hard for people running for Congress and the people running for the Senate. We can pick up a lot of seats, especially if it keeps going the way it’s going now.”
The last line in particular raised eyebrows. Even before the latest controversies, there were signs of serious Republican challenges in some 2018 races.
In Florida, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), the dean of the state’s delegation and the first Cuban American elected to Congress, recently announced her upcoming retirement after 35 years in office. Her district — which Hillary Clinton won over Trump by 20 points — is now considered a prime opportunity for a Democratic pickup. Several prominent local Republicans already have announced that they will take a pass on the race.
John McKager “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime GOP campaign operative in Florida, said he fears numerous other Republican losses in his state and around the country if the party cannot deliver on promises to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes.
“If after all of the talk, after all of the chest-thumping, we can’t get anything done, we may get clubbed like baby seals in 2018,” said Stipanovich, who was an early Trump critic.
Most analysts consider control of the House to be in play next year. Following House passage of a health-care bill this month that would leave millions without coverage, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded the 2018 prospects for Republicans in 20 races across the country.
The publication noted that of the 23 Republicans sitting in districts that Clinton won last year, 14 voted for the GOP bill, which has been widely panned in public polls.
At this point, relatively few Senate races look competitive next year, but several governor’s seats could be in play. Normally, governor’s races are more insulated from issues playing out in national politics, but that might not be as much the case now, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at Cook Political Report.
That is in part because Republican candidates are likely to get peppered with questions about what they think of Trump controversies, she said.
Thirty-six states have governor’s races next year. Two states — Virginia and New Jersey — are holding contests this year.
While some candidates have sought to mimic Trump on policy and style, the GOP front-runners in both states voting this year — former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie in Virginia and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in New Jersey — are not talking much about Trump on the campaign trail.
In Washington, the White House and Republican leaders in Congress are putting on a brave face about what they can still accomplish in coming months.
Ryan, acknowledging that Trump has had a “bad two weeks,” said during a radio interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show” on Friday that “it’s way too early” to be talking about the midterms. But he conceded, “If we don’t keep our promises, then we’ll have a problem.”
At a conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Vice President Pence suggested the White House remains focused on its agenda, regardless of distractions.
“Whatever Washington, D.C., may be focused on at any given time, rest assured, President Donald Trump will never stop fighting for the issues that matter most to the American people: good jobs, safe streets and a boundless American future,” Pence told about 350 business leaders gathered for a summit on foreign direct investment in the United States.
Scott Reed, a lobbyist for the Chamber, said he continues to believe there is a “historic opportunity” for Congress to pass tax reform and make good on a Trump promise to invest $1 trillion in the nation’s infrastructure — both of which are Chamber priorities.
“If they don’t govern and get some concrete results, it’s going to be a long couple of years,” Reed said, referring to the party’s electoral prospects. “This is the beginning of a lot of dominoes that will fall one way or another.”
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.