Team Trump deflects blame after election losses

The White House was in damage control mode on Wednesday as it sought to deflect blame for Tuesday's sweeping electoral losses and reassure Republicans who fear President Trump’s unpopularity will cost them at the polls in 2018.

Democrats view Tuesday as the start of a nationwide voter uprising against Trump. The party coasted to victory in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, while cutting into GOP majorities in statehouses across the country.

A person familiar with the president’s political operation dismissed the notion that an anti-Trump wave is building, arguing that Democrats had merely held on in states they were expected to win. New Jersey is a deep-blue state, and Virginia has gone for the Democrat in the last three presidential elections.

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The person chalked up GOP losses to history, noting that the party that controls the White House typically struggles in off-year gubernatorial races. 

Local dynamics also played a part, the person said. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) unpopularity dragged down his lieutenant governor’s bid to succeed him, the person argued, adding that Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie had lost a Senate race only three years earlier.

Trump’s historically low approval rating and liberal anger at the president played no part in driving the Democrats’ blockbuster turnout on Tuesday night, according to the president’s team.

“This is not about the president,” the person said.

Aides downplayed the importance of New Jersey and Virginia for the GOP in the 2018 and 2020 elections. 

“These are blue states that the president didn’t win last year, and candidly the results weren’t even close last year in either of the states.”

Team Trump’s reading of the political landscape is unlikely to calm nervous Republicans, who quickly blamed the president and mused about whether their control of Congress would be short-lived.

Republican Rep. Scott Taylor (Va.) told The Hill that the GOP’s losses were a “referendum” on the Trump administration.

“There has to be some self-reflection at the top and how that’s spilling over in the down ballot,” Taylor said. “I know they would tout the four congressional special elections we won, that’s a little bit different. That’s a localized thing. We under-performed in places that we should have crushed as Republicans. ... When you look at tonight in Virginia and the results that continue to come in ... [our] leaders need to have some self-reflection.”

It was clear on Wednesday that Trump and his advisers were still searching for answers after the blowout on Election Day. 

Trump immediately sought to separate himself from Gillespie, who lost to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) by 9 points, saying he failed to fully “embrace” what his administration stands for. Trump sought to reassure Republicans that better days lay ahead, pointing to their four special-election victories this year in the House and declaring that the economy is “doing record numbers.”

That assessment appeared to contradict the argument of his own political team that the president was not a factor in the losses.

The source familiar with the operation said if any national political dynamic affected the race, it was that swing voters backed Democrats because they were frustrated by the "lack of action by Congress" on Trump's agenda.

But the sentiments from the White House are unlikely to reassure GOP officials and donors, who fear electoral disaster awaits them in 2018.

Democrats need to flip 24 seats to reclaim the House, and it appears like that could be within reach.

So far, 29 GOP House members have announced they will not seek reelection, giving Democrats new opportunities to pick up seats.

Republicans are nervously eyeing Trump’s approval rating, which sits at historic lows at this point for a first-term president. They are also well aware that midterm elections are notoriously unkind to the party in power.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel cautioned candidates against running away from the president.

She argued that the RNC had raised more than $100 million in 2017 — doubling-up their counterparts at the Democratic National Committee — and said Trump’s supporters make up the most engaged and energetic part of the conservative electorate.

“I will always say to any candidate in our party, the greatest enthusiasm in our party right now is for President Trump,” she said on Fox News. “We’re seeing it through the fundraising numbers, we’re seeing it across the country. I see it as party chair, I absolutely think any candidate should be embracing the president.”

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wis.) said the election results increase the sense of urgency for the Republican-held Congress to pass its agenda. Republican candidates will be tied to Trump whether they want it or not, Ryan said on "Fox & Friends."

“We already made that choice,” he said. “We’re with Trump. We already made that choice. That’s a choice we made at the beginning of the year. That’s a choice we made during the campaign, which is we merged our agendas. … We all agreed on that agenda. We’re processing that agenda.”

Trump’s allies are rallying behind him. They quickly pinned the blame on Gillespie, whose resume is stocked with establishment credentials. The former lobbyist was once an adviser to President George W. Bush and served as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“Tonight proves you can't put lipstick on an establishment pig,” said Andy Surabian, an adviser to former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

Bannon’s news outlet Breitbart brimmed with anti-establishment anger at Gillespie.

“Republican Swamp Thing Gillespie Rejected,” said one headline, which described the “milquetoast” former RNC chairman as an “establishment Republican tactician.”

The Breitbart wing believes that Gillespie’s loss bolsters their argument that nominating Trump Republicans — not establishment figures — is the way forward for the GOP. 

Bannon is recruiting challengers to run against nearly every Republican facing reelection in the Senate, which has many in the party worried that they’ll nominate unelectable far-right candidates or that incumbents will limp into the general election.

Those close to Trump’s political team, which is led by White House political director Bill Stepien, legislative affairs director Marc Short and Vice President Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers, claim they’re not sweating any of it yet. 

They flatly dismissed the exit poll data that found Gillespie getting crushed in the Virginia suburbs and losing the college-educated white voters that Trump had won there only a year ago.

The onus for the 2018 elections hangs squarely on Congress passing the president’s agenda, the official said, because there are only a “limited number of things a president can do to move a race.”