The man in charge of the House GOP’s campaign strategy has been doling out advice to Republican candidates and incumbents in key battleground races as they prepare for the general election: Don’t be distracted by Donald Trump on the campaign trail, and instead focus on the issues Republicans believe will be most salient to voters in the midterms.
The guidance from Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, relayed by three GOP sources familiar with the internal conversations, reflects a tacit acknowledgment among Republican leaders that the former president could knock the GOP’s midterm messaging off course as they seek to recapture the House majority this fall. It also represents a shift from the strategy deployed in many Republican primaries, where embracing Trump – or at least not alienating him and his base – was seen as essential to survival.
The dynamic that House Republicans are now grappling with underscores the continued challenge Trump’s influence over the GOP poses for the party – a challenge that will only intensify if the former President decides once again to run for the White House in 2024.
“Tom Emmer, and I think Kevin (McCarthy) and Steve (Scalise), are all saying we should be focusing on the issues – and they’re right,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who represents a Biden-won district and faces a competitive re-election race this fall. “Our focus should be on 2022. If it’s 2024, it hurts us. .. We need to be focused on winning this November, and I think anything that takes your eyes off that, it could cost us a couple of victories.”
A spokesman for Emmer said the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman has indeed counseled candidates to focus on the issues that matter to voters, like inflation, crime and the border, but emphasized that Trump is not on the ballot this fall and therefore has not been a focus during their strategy discussions.
“Candidates know their districts best,” said NRCC communications director Michael McAdams. “Public and private polls show the midterms will be a referendum on Joe Biden and Democrats’ failed agenda that’s left voters paying record prices, dealing with soaring violent crime and facing billions in middle-class tax hikes.”
But Emmer’s recommendation may be increasingly tough to follow, especially if Trump announces a presidential run before the midterms – something Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are desperate to avoid. GOP leaders want the midterms to be a referendum on President Joe Biden and the Democrats, not Trump, even though the former president relishes in being the topic of conversation.
Meanwhile, the recent FBI search on Mar-a-Lago related to the retention of classified documents has been like rocket fuel for the GOP’s base, prompting a surge in fundraising and rallying Republicans to Trump’s side. But it has also posed a dilemma for some GOP lawmakers, who are wrestling with how much to invoke Trump back in battleground districts now that they are looking ahead to the general election, where appealing to moderate and suburban voters is crucial.
McCarthy – who has been barnstorming the country this month in his quest to raise cash and win back the majority – told CNN before the recess break that he sees Trump as integral to their efforts to recapture the House, and has tightly hugged the ex-president in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. But he still believes Trump should wait until after the midterms to launch any presidential bid, wanting to keep a laser-focus on 2022. However, McCarthy dismissed the idea the upcoming election will be anything but an indictment on the party in power.
“The No. 1 thing that (Trump) wants, and America wants, is to put this economy back on track,” McCarthy said. “The real question is, are you better off than you were two years ago? Does a car cost more? Does your gas cost more? Does your food cost more?”
Swing district Republicans attempt to avoid talking about Trump
While embracing Trump proved to be a beneficial strategy in Republican primaries, multiple Republicans in battleground districts told CNN they try to avoid talking about Trump on the campaign trail as they seek to appeal to moderate and suburban swing voters this fall, some of whom were turned off by Trump but are unhappy with Biden’s handling of the economy.
One lawmaker said they only mention the former president when directly asked about him, another member said they try to focus on highlighting Trump’s policies and legislative achievements, and a third said they try not to get dragged into the daily Trump maelstrom.
“I don’t say his name, ever. I just avoid saying his name generally,” said one of the GOP lawmakers in a competitive race. “I talk about the policies of his that I like.”
Republicans are banking on Biden’s low approval ratings, historical trends, and the still high – though decreasing – cost of goods and gas prices to deliver them the majority. In the House, Republicans only need to net five seats to seize the lower chamber.
In the coming weeks, McCarthy is planning to roll out a formal policy agenda for his conference. Last year, he tapped seven task forces to start sketching out a legislative agenda for if Republicans recapture the majority, with the goal of releasing a document before the end of this summer that members can run on in the fall.
But Trump – who has criminal, civil and congressional investigations swirling around him – remains a looming presence in the party who is threatening to overshadow the GOP’s preferred talking points and policy goals. And after the FBI search, even some of Trump’s Republican doubters have felt compelled to publicly defend him, cognizant of how the episode has fired up the base.
Across the Capitol, there’s also been some apprehension about hinging campaigns too tightly on Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – who cut ties with Trump after January 6 – expressed frustration this week over some of the Trump-backed nominees who have struggled in their general election campaigns, and warned that the battle for control of the Senate is going to be “extremely close.”
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said this week at an event in Kentucky. “Senate races are just different. They’re statewide,” he added. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are practically salivating at the prospect of Trump declaring an early bid for president. They have coalesced around a midterm message that attempts to paint all Republicans as “ultra MAGA” extremists who are blindly loyal to Trump.
“We will remind voters that while we fight to lower costs and build an economy that works for everyone, MAGA Republicans are hellbent on attacking women’s freedom,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a recent memo. “The data and voters of every background are overwhelmingly clear that Democrats are with the American people on this issue. Our position puts us closer to holding the House majority in November.”
But there are plenty of Republicans in conservative districts who have happily centered their campaigns around Trump and embraced the role of Trump acolyte, including House GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, who said she was “proud” to be considered an ultra MAGA Republican.
And while Emmer has privately implored certain candidates to avoid Trump talk on the campaign trail, the NRCC has invoked his name to fundraise and invited Trump to be the keynote speaker at fundraising events – a sign that he is still a powerful and energizing force in certain corners of the party. But that’s why lawmakers say Emmer has not taken a “one-size fits all” approach to their midterm campaign strategy.
“He has shown a balanced approach with people. He’s not a one-size-fits-all guy. That’s what I appreciate,” Bacon said. “He measures each district and takes it from there.”