Senate Republicans head into the homestretch of a promising midterm election campaign arm in arm with President Trump, a mutually beneficial alliance that was hardly predictable at this time last year.
Last Labor Day, tensions flared over the collapse of legislation to repeal Obamacare and emotions were raw in the aftermath of a white supremacist march on Charlottesville, Va., with charges and counter-charges flying from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. Fast-forward 12 months: the infighting has largely ceased, as have the public airing of grievances.
The president and his Senate allies have put lingering differences aside to focus on expanding their party’s slim, 50-seat majority. A string of shared accomplishments, plus a 2018 battleground that runs right through the heart of Trump country, have helped keep afloat this once-unlikely détente.
“Results matter,” Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a Trump confidant, told the Washington Examiner. “His agenda’s working.”
Democrats take issue with Perdue’s assessment — and it’s of little comfort to House Republicans. Their majority is hanging by a thread. In competitive suburban districts, traditionally Republican voters and independents, especially women who long ago soured on Trump, are flirting with putting Democrats in charge on the south side of Capitol Hill.
Trump’s job approval rating nationally is a low 43 percent, about where it’s been since his first day in the White House. But that sentiment is not spread evenly across the country. Trump’s numbers positive in several states, and at least four of them feature Senate races with vulnerable incumbent Democrats.
With Democrats running for re-election in 10 states Trump won in 2016, more races could come online for the GOP. Senate Republicans are fending off aggressive Democratic challenges in four states, three of which usually vote GOP and a fourth, Nevada, which swings. That dynamic is shielding Senate Republicans from the midterm headwinds that are battering their House colleagues.
“As much as the president energizes the Left and the other side, he also has the ability to hold the Trump coalition,” said Matt Schlapp, a Republican lobbyist and former White House political operative under President George W. Bush.
Senate Republicans and Trump spent much of last summer and early fall at each other’s throats.
In July 2017, Senate Republicans collaborated with Democrats to pass veto-proof legislation upping sanctions on Russia and preventing the president from cutting deals with Moscow absent congressional approval. Later that month, the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act cratered when three Senate Republicans, led by the late John McCain of Arizona, joined all Democrats in opposition.
Then came Charlottesville. After counterprotesters confronted the white supremacists as they marched through the liberal Virginia college town, Trump equivocated, claiming there were good people on both sides. The result was a deluge of aggressive rebukes from top Senate Republicans, including Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
For the next couple of months, Trump would regularly attack Senate Republicans on Twitter. Some of them treated him similarly in interviews and speeches on the Senate floor. Some Republicans feared that when the midterm elections came around a year later, his base might not show up to vote. Meanwhile, allies of the president urged him to recruit and support primary challengers to “disloyal” incumbents.
The relationship began to change in late October, after Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lunched together at the White House.
During their meeting, the Kentucky Republican convinced the president that costly primaries could damage the party’s image and leave it saddled with weak general election candidates that would blow opportunities for pickups the following fall. If Trump harbored doubts, they disappeared after Republicans lost an Alabama Senate seat in a December special election because voters in the ruby red state rejected the party’s deeply flawed nominee.
“Roy Moore caused Trump to take McConnell’s counsel much more seriously,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor from Arizona who has been an outspoken booster of the president’s.
For Trump and Senate Republicans, it’s not a perfect match. Lingering differences exist over trade, the federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible collusion by the president or his campaign, and the administration’s North Korea policy, to name a few areas of disagreement.
Yet the two factions have worked remarkably well together going back nearly a year, when negotiations began on legislation that eventually became the $1.3 trillion tax overhaul. Their priorities have coincided on several other issues, from deregulation to energy to banking reform. To answer complaints by Trump that his nominees were being slow-walked, McConnell even canceled the extended August recess, resulting in scores of confirmations.
Trump has kept his word on protecting Republican incumbents, a pledge that was probably easier to stick to after two of his most vocal Republican critics, Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, announced that they would retire rather than run for re-election. Still, the president even buried the hatchet and cleared the primary field for a past critic who did not retire: Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
In states like Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia, where Republicans are positioned to oust the Democratic incumbents, Trump is in high demand and answering the call. The same goes for some Republicans who find themselves in unexpectedly competitive races, like Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the GOP nominee in Tennessee, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The president announced Friday that he was headed to Texas this October to rally support for Cruz, who is neck and neck with Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke in recent public opinion polls. “Terrific! Texas will be glad to see you,” Cruz said on Twitter, after Trump revealed in a tweet that he was headed to the Lone Star State.
A knowledgeable Republican insider attributed the fruitful peace accord and goodwill that has proliferated to the regular flow of communication between McConnell and the president.
“They see each other filling gaps that each other have in their own leadership style,” this operative said. “The president has successfully relied on Mitch McConnell’s political judgment on Senate races, and McConnell relies on Trump for his political weathervane when it comes to where conservatives are across the country.”