President Donald Trump, who as a candidate warned that he alone could fix the nation’s ills, is making the midterms a referendum on the one thing he appears most comfortable talking about: himself.
While Trump is not personally facing reelection until 2020, he is asking supporters to suspend their disbelief and imagine that his head is on the chopping block. The president is telling thousands of devotees at his rallies that a vote for Republicans is really “a vote for me and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
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“I’m not on the ballot,” Trump conceded to the crowd in Southhaven, Miss. “But in a certain way, I’m on the ballot. So, please go out and vote.”
Presidents seldom lean in so far ahead of their first midterm election, fearing that an embarrassing rebuke could weaken their public esteem and presage disaster for their reelection bids. But Trump often personalizes events and tends to approach issues through the lens of his own experiences. He’s also shown little concern for shifting responsibility when the situation deteriorates.
Trump is expected to continue the “me-centric” strategy at rallies in Erie, Pa., on Wednesday, Lebanon, Ohio, on Friday and Richmond, Ky., on Saturday — giving voice to what White House officials and Republicans close to the president believe is their best hope to counteract a Democratic wave, based on polling, but one opponents and some in the GOP contend could backfire by alienating middle-of-road and marginal district voters.
More than a half-dozen administration officials and presidential allies said that after months of experimentation, they’ve homed in on the crux of Trump’s midterm message: Contrasting the strong economy, low unemployment and elimination of regulations under his watch with doomsday warnings about life under Democratic rule. “They want to erase the gains and plunge our country into a nightmare of gridlock, poverty, chaos and, frankly, crime,” as the president put it Thursday in Rochester, Minn.
“You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry left-wing mob. And that’s what the Democrats have become,” Trump added Tuesday in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “They would turn our country so fast into Venezuela, and Venezuela is not doing too well, folks.”
Central to the president’s midterm pitch, the aides and allies offered, is his bid to corral voters who came out for him two years ago but who don’t feel that same urgency to back a candidate for Congress, a traditionally unpopular lot that Trump has been critical of during his tenure. In red states he won in 2016, the president is trying to persuade supporters to break with their Democratic senators and line up behind the Republican candidate.
Trump likes to argue Republicans barely hold majorities in the House and Senate — portraying their edge as so threadbare that if someone catches a cold, they lose their advantage. But each rally and fundraiser is also a down payment for Trump’s own campaign in 2020.
“Every visit he makes helps him in the future,” an outside adviser told POLITICO. “There’s the heavyweight champ, and then there’s the undercard. They’re coming to see the heavyweight champ.”
Putting himself at the center of the election comes naturally to Trump, whose outsider persona and history of taking on his party’s establishment don’t easily lend themselves to the role of standard-bearer. Aides still view him as more effective at attacking his own political enemies than he is at challenging the opponents of his allies. To that end, the president’s team is playing up his warnings that a Democratic congressional takeover would open the floodgates for higher taxes, spiraling crime, an unchecked border and the start of congressional investigations and impeachment proceedings against him.
“If it does happen, it’s your fault, because you didn’t go out to vote. OK?” Trump recently told a crowd about the specter of impeachment. “That’s the only way it could happen. I’ll be the only president in history — they’ll say, ‘What a job he’s done. By the way, we’re impeaching him.’”
He is also generically yoking Democrats to their leaders in Congress, while vilifying the likes of “Low-IQ” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), whom he relishes attacking, to drive home his message. In Minnesota, he asked supporters to imagine the power Waters would have if Democrats take charge.
“She’s going to take over Financial Services in Congress,” he cautioned, as the audience booed. “Can you believe it? Maxine Waters. That’s one of the most powerful committees in Congress.”
Not everyone is sold on the approach. Some Republican pollsters, including those who report seeing a bump in GOP enthusiasm over the Supreme Court confirmation fight of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, are unsure it will last — and how much Trump is going to help. Others point to numbers showing the party slipping further with newly motivated key constituencies: college-educated women and younger women who tend to vote Democratic but don’t typically turn out for midterms.
Democrats see the president as a drag on his party, with the rallies underscoring how out of touch and beholden to Trump modern-day Republicans have become.
“The goal of a Trump rally is to incite anger, to distort reality, to spread conspiracies, and — more than anything — to feed Trump’s own ego,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Daniel Wessel said. “But no Trump rally will distract Americans from Trump’s numerous broken promises and his failure to improve the lives of working Americans.”
In private conversations, the president is said to be realistic about the GOP’s narrowing chances of holding the House. Publicly, his past boasting about an improbable “red wave” has gone unmentioned since early September, to the elation of aides who cite polls showing that the happy talk was discouraging Republicans from recognizing the urgency of November.
“We need him to say, ‘We could lose,’” the outside adviser said. “‘You need to get out and vote!’”
Trump’s aides have set him on a course to appear at more midterm rallies than his two immediate predecessors: Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Officials in charge of Trump’s schedule are relying on polling to dispatch him to areas where he moves the needle in a positive direction, and keeping him out of districts where he’s seen as a possible liability (still, they note he has an impact there regardless through his fundraising).
The president has also been doing national and local TV interviews while on the road.
But it’s his rallies that have the effect of energizing Trump, who reads the room early and matches his exuberance to the crowd’s. Republicans, in turn, describe a surge in local media that a Trump event brings them, including front-page newspaper stories and wall-to-wall TV and radio hits. Clips of Trump speaking about the candidates and their opponents are now being featured in dozens of TV ads.
“It’s like a secret weapon,” Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said of the rallies, adding that she fields interview requests before, and well after, the president leaves town. A Trump visit is “a heck of a lot more powerful than any media buy you’ll see or any direct mail you’ll buy,” Carnahan added.
In recent stops, the president has road tested attacks on his potential 2020 Democratic opponents, celebrated the confirmation of Kavanaugh, and touted the administration’s negotiations with Mexico and Canada that sparked a new NAFTA pact. He also is playing up the GOP tax cuts, along with support for the military, law enforcement, the border wall — and the administration’s aggressive confrontation against unauthorized immigrants.
Trump aides, meantime, are pleased with how much he is sticking to the script, building in time upfront for Republican candidates to speak at his rallies. As was the case in 2016, a big part of the appeal is still his spontaneity, they said. He’s been using the addresses to air deep-rooted grievances with the news media and to launch into extended diatribes about how he deserves more credit for America’s successes.
“What some people find to be his greatest negative, many people view as his biggest positive. That’s the key to understanding his appeal,” another ally of the president said, in assessing his midterm draw. “He recognizes that he is his administration’s best messenger — and best salesman.”