Trump is heavily involved in the 2018 midterm planning process, the White House says
Trump's team has interviewed over 100 prospective Trump-backed candidates
A president's party often takes a beating at the ballot box in the first midterm election after they win the White House
Donald Trump, keen to fill the halls of Congress with his acolytes while defending his record as President, is already fully involved in his administration’s political efforts ahead of the 2018 midterms, senior White House officials tell CNN.
Trump is eager to be front and center in next year’s races and has told White House advisers that he wants to keep a robust schedule. The midterms will undoubtedly be viewed as a referendum on Trump, meaning that as the President campaigns for others, he will also be looking to boost his own standing.
“He takes his role as the leader of the party very seriously,” White House political director Bill Stepien said in an interview. “He loved the campaign trail last year. He loves governing. I am sure he is going to love to get back to the campaign trail next year.”
Trump’s decision to dive headfirst into the midterms comes with considerable risk, though.
His unpopularity, especially in key states with bellwether Senate races, will make it difficult for him to fully endorse some Republican candidates. Additionally, the more Trump is involved, the more blame he will take if Republicans suffer sizable losses in these contests, a trend that would fall in line with historic norms.
Republicans fired the opening salvo of the 2018 campaign at the White House on Wednesday, when leader after leader touted their newly passed tax plan and, most notably, Trump’s leadership.
“Something this big, something this generational, something this profound, could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at the White House event. “Mr. President, thank you for getting us over the finish line.”
Republicans, however, have to convince the already skeptical American electorate that their victory will benefit them. Polls, including a CNN survey released earlier this week, find the plan is unpopular with a majority of American voters, given it is seen by most as benefiting the wealthy over middle class Americans. Republicans are confident the plan will get more popular over time as Americans see more money in their paychecks.
The highest profile test of Trump’s clout came in Alabama earlier this month, where Republican Roy Moore surprisingly lost a US Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones, the first time the ruby-red state has elected a Democrat in two decades. Republicans have argued that Moore, who was accused of sexual impropriety by multiple women near the end of the campaign, was a unique candidate, but the loss has some Republicans girding for a difficult 2018.
Republican campaign committees in Washington, while welcoming of Trump’s support, are also somewhat skeptical of his ability to help in a cadre of swing districts and states where the President’s policies will loom over any Republican running.
That dynamic could set up an awkward dance for Republicans, where the eager President could be pushing his aides for more involvement in races where he isn’t necessarily wanted.
Where will Trump help?
Stepien told CNN that Trump is willing to deal with the political realities of 2018, even if that means staying out of the way in some races.
“The President is a very results-oriented president. He wants seats won,” Stepien said. “There are obvious ways to help candidates. … There are less obvious ways to engage.”
The primary Senate and House Republican campaign committees have so far cautiously approached Trump’s 2018 involvement.
“There is a role for the President. He is the President and brings a lot of tangibles to the table, but it is really dependent on what every district needs,” said a senior National Republican Congressional Committee official, who added that the committee could see Trump active in states like Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
A Republican strategist with knowledge of National Republican Senatorial Committee plans echoed that sentiment, arguing that while Trump can “play a pivotal role” in key Senate races, the White House and Republican committees will have to work to determine “where he is an asset and where he won’t be.”
The strategist highlighted Trump’s ability to help in Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri and Indiana – all states Trump won in 2016 by double digits that have key Senate races in 2018.
Left unsaid, however, is that Trump could hurt Senate candidates in Nevada and Arizona, two states that could tip the balance of the Senate in 2018.
Longtime Republican operatives were more direct in how the balancing act will affect Republicans.
“In any administration there’s a delicate balance between trying to distance yourself from the president and knowing that your opponent will never let you do so,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “Republicans certainly saw that in 2006, and are now preparing themselves for a similar reaction, albeit with increased Democratic enthusiasm, next year.”
Surveys for prospective candidates
Trump has signaled his eagerness by getting personally involved in the vetting and candidate recruitment phase of his administration’s 2018 plans.
He has already begun to personally speak with prospective candidates, officials say.
He is “very eager,” said one senior White House official. “He wants to deliver on what he talked about in 2016. Electing more Republicans in November is the way to do that.”
Trump’s team has interviewed over 100 prospective Trump-backed candidates and plans to send each a survey to gauge how well they match up ideologically with the President.
The surveys, according to the senior official, are broad and open-ended questionnaires where each Republican hopeful is expected to detail their views on a host of issues, from Trump’s plan for a border wall to their views on efforts to repeal Obamacare.
“We leave it fairly open ended,” one official said of the questionnaire, which was first reported by The Washington Post. “We want to know how seriously these candidates are going to take these endeavors and these exercises. Are they responsive? Do they put time into it? Those are all important things, almost as important as how closely they align with the President.”
The surveys will go out throughout 2018, the official added, and could change as issue areas important to the White House change.
History is working against Trump
All this work is an effort to buck a historic trend: A president’s party often takes a beating at the ballot box in the first midterm election after they take control of the White House.
Polling is working against Trump, too. A CNN poll released Tuesday found that Trump has the lowest approval rating of any modern president at the end of their first year in office, with 35% of American approving of his handling of the job.
President Barack Obama lost 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate in 2010, President Bill Clinton lost 54 seats in the House and eight seats in Senate in 1994 and President George Bush lost 31 seats in the House and six in the Senate in 2006 (his first, in 2002, was an anomaly given how close the election was to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks).
Afterward, all presidents were forced to confront the reckoning.
In a news conference after the 1994 election, Clinton admitted that Democrats were “held accountable” for their governing. Obama, likewise, had to be careful about where he campaigned during his time in office and was given a “shellacking” – as he put it – in the 2010 midterms.
So far, White House officials have argued the midterms will not be a referendum on Trump.
“I think it is the referendum on the people whose names are on the ballot, and that’s Congress,” Stepien said. “I think voters voiced a lot of frustration this year about the lack of progress in Congress in passing the President’s agenda that they voted for overwhelmingly just a year ago.”
The outside (adviser) factor
Another factor for Republicans when figuring out Trump’s involvement: former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Bannon, a self-fashioned kingmaker in conservative politics, has made it clear that he intends to be active during the midterms. While he has kept most of his focus on the Senate – he campaigned twice for Moore in Alabama - a source close to Bannon says he intends to be active in House races next year.
After Speaker Ryan pulled out of a fund-raiser for Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York due to Zeldin’s opposition to the tax bill, Bannon joined with other Trump-aligned Republicans to raise, according to organizers, around $100,000. The source close to Bannon says the former White House aide expects to do more of that for people “Steve thinks will prosecute the President’s agenda.”
But Bannon’s political compass has some Republicans worried. Many say his backing of Moore – even after multiple women accused the judge of sexual impropriety when they were in their teens and Moore was in his 30s – shows a hubris that needs to be checked. And they worry that Trump, who listens to Bannon, could be backed into bad decisions because of the former White House aide’s confidence.