The White House is switching into campaign mode as it seeks to protect the GOP’s congressional majorities in 2018.
Republicans face stiff political headwinds ahead of the midterms, with election prognosticators increasingly forecasting a blue wave that could produce the first Democratic-controlled House since 2010.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE is gearing up for a fall blitz, with aides saying he plans to hit the campaign trail for Republican candidates four, five or even six days a week starting around Labor Day.
The president will touch down in Pennsylvania on Saturday for GOP House candidate Rick Saccone, who is running neck-and neck with Democrat Conor Lamb ahead of next week’s special election. Republicans will fly into a panic if they lose the district, which Trump won by 20 points only 13 months ago.
The White House says it’s been inundated with candidates seeking the president’s endorsement and aides are eager to get Trump on the stump. The White House is open to the possibility of backing candidates in some GOP primaries, as well.
“There’s a desire by these candidates to have the president out on the trail,” said White House political director Bill Stepien. “He takes that responsibility very seriously as the leader of the party and, most importantly, to help elect the people who will advance his agenda.”
Stepien’s political shop — which does not leak and rarely gives interviews — has attracted criticism from Republicans who say they need to keep a higher profile or be more aggressive.
Speaking with The Hill, Stepien described a White House that has seen a parade of candidates seeking the president’s blessing, with aides vetting candidates for potential endorsements, scheduling fundraisers and mapping out the president’s campaign trips.
Stepien is the rare White House official who has the support of both senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTim Scott to introduce GOP police reform bill next week GOP votes to give Graham broad subpoena power in Obama-era probe House GOP delays police reform bill MORE and former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who frequently clashed.
Stepien briefs Trump and chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE weekly about the political landscape. In those meetings, the president fires questions at aides about poll numbers, primary developments and how his policy proposals are being received around the country.
That process started in 2017, when the White House political shop took meetings with 117 candidates from around the country.
The focus has narrowed to the battleground states in 2018, with aides saying they’ve met with every statewide swing-state Republican candidate running for office in just the first two months of the year.
Now, the White House is conducting final round interviews with candidates seeking endorsements to ensure their worldviews align with the president’s. The process prioritizes loyalty to the president’s agenda above all else.
After their interviews, candidates are sent an eight-question survey asking them to detail their positions on a range of policy issues, from repealing and replacing ObamaCare to immigration and the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The White House stays in contact with the candidates through regular conference calls to ensure that they stay consistent in their views.
Soon, the White House will make several direct asks of the candidates to ensure their support for Trump’s policies and legislative agenda, all of which will play a role in whether aides recommend that Trump endorse a candidate.
“We want to make sure that when we make a political recommendation to the president, to engage or not engage in a race, we want to make sure it’s because a person will be a strong advocate here in Washington once they’re elected,” a White House official said.
The White House has not ruled out intervening in GOP primaries, although it will likely be a rare occurrence.
“The president emerged from a 17-person primary field in 2016, so he understands the need to let the process play out,” an official said. “If he feels passionately about a candidate’s ability to voice a message and support his policy proposals, we’ll certainly weigh in. But by and large you should expect us to allow these processes to play out.”
The pressure will be on for Trump to deliver on the trail, as Republicans face a daunting political landscape in 2018.
History suggests the party in power will lose seats in the midterms. Making matters worse for the GOP, retirements have cut into the ranks of Republican incumbents, particularly in the House.
And Democrats, who need to net 24 seats to win a majority in the House, currently have a double-digit lead in the generic ballot.
There is a concern that Trump’s job approval rating could be a drag on candidates, and Republicans are increasingly alarmed by the enthusiasm on the Democratic side.
Republicans are banking on their tax overhaul boosting their midterm prospects, and have been encouraged by polls that suggest the public is warming to Trump’s signature legislative achievement.
“I’m confident,” Stepien said. “History is not kind to a sitting president’s party, but this president’s policies are popular. The package of tax cuts and resulting swing of momentum to the president’s party shows that the more Republicans can join together to pass the president’s policies, the greater the chance they have of keeping control of the House.”
White House officials are adamant in their belief that the polls do not reflect the true level of enthusiasm for Trump, who was elected with a popularity rating in the mid-30s.
They also feel confident about the Senate map. Democrats are defending 25 seats, compared to only eight for Republicans. Several Democrats are running in states that Trump won in 2016, and the White House plans to hammer home how those red-state Democrats — including Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump administration seeks to use global aid for nuclear projects Shelley Moore Capito wins Senate primary West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice wins GOP gubernatorial primary MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE (N.D.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate confirms Trump’s watchdog for coronavirus funds Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip MORE (Mont.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (Ind.) — have passed on every opportunity to work with Trump, even on tax cuts.
And White House officials note that national Republicans and conservative outside groups have been raising money hand over fist. They see an advantage in a relatively weaker Democratic National Committee.
“People talk about Democratic enthusiasm, but Republicans know how to win,” a White House official said.
Of course, the big bet that the White House hopes will pay off on Nov. 7 is that voters will head to the polls to reward Trump for the economy.
“Midterm elections are always challenging, that’s not unique to this president,” Stepien said. “That said, November is a while away and we’re encouraged to see improved approval numbers based on passage of the tax cuts … it’s rocket fuel for the economy and we know people, especially in midterms, vote with their pocketbooks.”
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