A pair of top Republicans acknowledged in a private meeting on Saturday that the party was battling serious vulnerabilities in the midterm elections, including what one described as widespread “hate” for President Trump, and raised the prospect that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas could lose his bid for re-election because he is not seen as “likable” enough.
The two Republican leaders, Mick Mulvaney, the federal budget director, and Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, assured party officials and donors at a closed-door event in New York City that the right would ultimately turn back a purported “blue wave” in November. Mr. Mulvaney also questioned whether Democrats could marshal support from outside the left, criticizing them as a party defined solely by opposition to Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Mulvaney and Ms. McDaniel also offered an unusually raw assessment of their own party’s strengths and weaknesses in the midterm elections. They pointed to the burning energy among Democratic voters and the dozens of open House seats, where Republican incumbents decided not to seek re-election, as fearsome obstacles to retaining control of Congress. And Mr. Mulvaney suggested Republicans would fare better if they could “subtract” the president’s divisive persona from voters’ minds, and stress instead that the country is in a “pretty good” condition.
“You may hate the president, and there’s a lot of people who do, but they certainly like the way the country is going,” Mr. Mulvaney said, adding of voters: “If you figure out a way to subtract from that equation how they feel about the president, the numbers go up dramatically.”
Their comments were captured in an audio recording that was obtained by The New York Times from a person who attended the party meeting.
Even as Mr. Mulvaney conceded that Mr. Trump’s personal unpopularity was a problem for the party, he predicted it would not ultimately be a decisive factor for most voters. He also alluded to Mr. Cruz, without mentioning his name, as a lawmaker who might lack the charm to win a contested race this year.
[Beto O’Rourke vs. Ted Cruz: Read about the surprisingly fierce battle for a Senate seat in Texas]
Mr. Mulvaney, a former member of Congress from South Carolina, who was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, said Democrats had not marshaled a broad movement of opposition to Washington the way Republicans did that year. He argued that they lacked an issue to unify their cause, unlike Republicans eight years ago, who rallied in opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, Mr. Mulvaney said, Democrats were putting forward a “movement of hate,” and asked rhetorically: “What is the signature piece of legislation they’re against? The tax bill?”
Ms. McDaniel, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, alluded more delicately in her remarks to the explosive Democratic turnout in the midterm primary elections that Mr. Trump had helped stir, telling the meeting, which included many major donors, that Republicans were spending money aggressively to build a voter-turnout machine to block a Democratic takeover.
She framed the election as an asymmetrical contest — Republican organizing prowess and financial supremacy versus raw Democratic energy — and mocked the Democratic National Committee for its precarious finances.
The Democratic National Committee raised $116 million through the end of July, compared with $227 million raised by the Republicans.
“It does cost, right now, more money to engage our voters, to get them knowledge of the election,” Ms. McDaniel said. “They have their energy. We have our infrastructure.”
“That is why this ground game and this money is making such a huge difference,” she said, adding that the Republican National Committee would exceed the $250 million mark this week, “and it will be the most ever raised by a political party headed into a midterm.”
Republicans have used their financial advantage in a way that can offset any enthusiasm gap, asserted Ronald N. Weiser, a former finance chairman for the party’s national committee who now leads the Michigan Republican Party.
“The party that is out of power always has an enthusiasm level that is higher because they don’t like who’s in and they want to replace them,” said Mr. Weiser, who did not attend the meeting in New York. “We have better field operations, data and digital, which I think can make up for it.”
He argued that Republican candidates should not try to run away from Mr. Trump “because he has a base that is important,” but should instead emphasize recent economic growth.
“The Dems seem to be just resisting everything, and the Republicans are running on results,” he said.
The suggestion, by Mr. Mulvaney, that Republicans might fare better without Mr. Trump as the dominant factor in voters’ minds is a far cry from the president’s personal approach to the campaign. He has held rallies across the country in recent days, focusing on red states where Democratic senators are seeking re-election, and warning conservative voters in intensely personal terms that a victorious Democratic Party would try to hound him from office.
In Montana on Thursday, Mr. Trump said Democrats would seek to demolish his presidency and turn the United States into a “third-world country.”
And Mr. Mulvaney’s comments came at the end of a week that dramatized just how difficult it might be to nudge any particular issue, aside from Mr. Trump, to the center of the campaign. The president began the week raging against a coming book by the journalist Bob Woodward that depicts Mr. Trump as a hapless leader atop an administration in chaos, and concluded with Mr. Trump urging the Justice Department to root out the identity of an administration official who wrote an anonymous Op-Ed in The New York Times reinforcing that picture.
Yet if he broke in places with the president’s political posture, Mr. Mulvaney, in his weekend comments, came closer to matching the private strategic thinking of Republican congressional leaders.
The budget chief, who has been seen at points as a potential White House chief of staff, acknowledged that Republicans had nominated poor candidates in some important races and might struggle to defend a huge number of open seats in the House, where dozens of Republican lawmakers decided not to run for re-election.
Democrats must gain 23 seats in the House to take control of the chamber. Senior Republican strategists have grown most concerned about a collection of open seats where they have put forward flawed nominees, including in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, and several other races where Republican lawmakers are running plodding campaigns. Mirroring in some respects the Republican campaigns of 2010, Democratic candidates have been running on a message of blocking Republican health care and economic policies, and reining in an unpopular White House.
The Senate appears more secure for Republicans at this point. Even though they hold only a slim, 51-seat majority, Democrats are defending far more seats than Republicans, and many of the Democratic incumbents up for re-election are running in conservative states.
Still, there is a path for Democrats to capture the Senate, and Mr. Mulvaney pointed to crucial Senate races in Texas and Florida as places where candidate quality could be decisive.
“There’s a very real possibility we will win a race for Senate in Florida and lose a race in Texas for Senate, O.K.?” Mr. Mulvaney said. “I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s a possibility. How likable is a candidate? That still counts.”
Mr. Mulvaney reminded his audience of the party’s shocking defeat in a special election for the Senate in Alabama last year, and seemed to imply that Mr. Trump remained bewildered by the victory of Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat.
Mr. Jones won in an upset over Roy S. Moore, the former chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court, who confronted multiple allegations of sexual predation and child sex abuse in the final weeks of the race.
“The president asks me all the time, ‘Why did Roy Moore lose?’” Mr. Mulvaney said. “That’s easy. He was a terrible candidate.”
Mr. Mulvaney’s comments about Mr. Cruz represent perhaps the most candid admission by a senior Republican that Mr. Cruz, a first-term lawmaker who battled Mr. Trump for the presidential nomination in 2016, is actually facing a fight for his political life. He is being challenged by Representative Beto O’Rourke, a maverick Democrat who has raised enormous sums of money online.
Public polling has shown the two men locked in a close race, but with Mr. Cruz holding a consistent advantage.
Other Republicans have been just as hopeful about the election in Florida, where the party has nominated Gov. Rick Scott, a former hospital executive with a vast personal fortune, to challenge Senator Bill Nelson.
The two men have been effectively tied in the most recent polls.
Still, Mr. Mulvaney’s freewheeling comments appeared intended more to reassure allies than to alarm them, and he insistently played down the possibility of a Democratic takeover. “Wave elections are extraordinarily rare,” he said, though there have been several in the last dozen years.
At the same conclave of Republicans on Saturday, one of the party’s key Senate candidates, Mike Braun, a wealthy former Indiana state legislator who is running against Senator Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, framed the stakes of the election in grimmer terms.
At a forum for Senate candidates, Mr. Braun pleaded with party donors to put up the money needed for Republicans to defend their control of the Senate, warning that if the party did not govern successfully under Mr. Trump it could face a long political winter.
“We’ve got four to six years to get this right, and if we don’t, it’ll go the other direction, demographically and all those other things that point negatively for us,” Mr. Braun said, in comments captured on a second recording. “We’ll be miserable for 15 to 20 years.”
Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.