As President Trump returned to the White House from California on Wednesday, he flew above a political landscape that looked less secure for Republicans.
Despite the president’s support of the GOP candidate, Democrats made a strong showing in a Republican-friendly House district in Pennsylvania and saw the vote as a sign that an anti-Trump backlash could carry them to a congressional majority in the elections in November.
“Let it be known that the Blue Wave of 2018 began in Pennsylvania,” said Jack Hanna, that state’s Democratic chairman. “And this is only the beginning of the wave.”
While Republicans downplayed the declared victory of Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, political analysts said things look good for Democrats as they try to wrest House and Senate majorities from the Republicans and Trump.
“The president is the lens through which people evaluate how things are going in the country,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said.
Trump backers cast the Pennsylvania race as a “one-off” that won’t be replicated nationwide in November. Republicans also said the voter turnout strategies they used to help elect Trump in 2016 will enable them to keep control of the House and the Senate in 2018.
“I look at the big picture, not a one-off special election,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Rick Gorka. “We’re looking at protecting and expanding our majorities.”
Democrats said the Pennsylvania result underscores how Trump’s unpopularity— his approval rating hovers around 40% — will drag down many a Republican this fall, tipping the balance of power in the House and Senate.
The Pennsylvania results suggest that one in five Trump voters in 2016 are prepared to desert the Republicans, Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said. The GOP, he said, “just did a dress rehearsal of selling their agenda to an audience of their own family but still got bad reviews from them the next morning.”
No comment from Trump
Trump, who spent Tuesday in California as voters in western Pennsylvania went to the polls, didn’t mention the election at all during a morning tweet storm. Instead, he focused on proposed changes in U.S. trade policy, promoting an infrastructure program, praising the economy, and denouncing senators who opposed some of his Cabinet nominees.
A day after inspecting border wall prototypes and campaign fundraising in southern California, Trump flew to Missouri on a policy trip that included promotion of his tax cut plan and more fundraising.
Republicans cited what they called unique factors in the Pennsylvania race. They criticized the Republican candidate, state legislator Rick Saccone, for being an uninspiring candidate (and for trying to act too much like Trump).
They noted that Lamb, the Democrat, took conservative positions, including support of gun rights and criticism of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. They said most Democrats won’t be able to take that approach in the fall and keep their bases happy. They also noted that the district will soon go away when Pennsylvania changes its political map.
Republicans spent about $12 million to help Saccone, which dwarfed Lamb’s spending.
White House aides said they always saw Saccone as an underdog and credited Trump with making the contest close.
“The president’s engagement in the race turned what was a deficit for the Republican candidate to what is essentially a tie,” said spokesman Raj Shah.
Looking to 2016 models
While acknowledging a bad environment, Republicans familiar with election planning said they rely on the voter turnout models they used during the 2016 presidential election to help elect Trump. They involve identifying potential Trump voters and going door-to-door to persuade them to get out in support of GOP candidates.
The Republican National Committee is working with the Republican House and Senate campaign committees, as well as the White House political operation. GOP members offered different assessments of the White House political operation but agreed on one thing: Trump makes all the final decisions anyway.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. White House officials have openly expressed concern that a Democratic takeover of Congress would lead to more investigations and, possibly, a move to impeach Trump.
Though Republicans count on financial and organizational advantages, there is one big difference from 2016. There is evidence of more Democratic enthusiasm, if only in opposition to Trump, as exhibited in Alabama and Pennsylvania.
Scott Jennings, a political affairs adviser to President George W. Bush, said it’s a bad environment for Trump and the Republicans.
Previous presidents have faced the same situation: Bush in 2006 and Democrat Barack Obama in 2010. Both parties lost control of Congress in those election years.
Jennings estimated that “there’s a 60% chance the Democrats will take back the House,” but Republicans have a good chance to keep the Senate because the Democrats have to defend so many Trump-friendly states.
Trump will be a “huge factor,” Jennings said, but he will be a “good factor” for Republicans in some races. This is particularly true in Senate races where Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election in states that Trump won handily.
That group includes West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri, which Trump visited Wednesday.
Trump sets his schedule
Republicans said the White House will determine the president’s travel schedule, and pro-Trump areas are high on their list. Though the White House has its own political team, GOP members said final decisions will be made by Trump, who considers himself his own best strategist.
During his Saturday night campaign appearance for Saccone in western Pennsylvania, Trump made it clear he would make his own record an issue in the fall.
In addition to discussing tax cuts, steel and aluminum tariffs, the push to “denuclearize” North Korea, new trade rules, and tighter immigration rules and a U.S.-Mexican border wall, Trump attacked Democrats who “want to stop us from doing things.”
While acknowledging that new presidents often experience reversals in midterm elections, Trump told his backers, “As long as we are proud of who we are and what we are fighting for, there is nothing beyond our reach, nothing. We need Republicans put in office.”
Republicans said Pennsylvania serves as a warning to the party: Stick to local issues.
The GOP has good candidates for November, consultant Bruce Haynes said, but “Republicans have to do a better job rallying the donor base to support them, and those candidates have to run on the issues the district cares about and get drawn off course by the winds of Washington’s whims.”
Texas-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said Democratic enthusiasm is high for these elections, and “the lesson here is that Republicans have to match their enthusiasm.”
The national elections are still eight months away, Mackowiak pointed out, and a lot of things could happen.