GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs

Republicans are growing increasingly worried they will lose the suburbs for a second election in a row — this time with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE at the top of the ticket in 2020. 

The GOP forfeited the House in 2018, largely after losing suburban women voters, a key voting bloc that turns out at the polls but with whom Trump has proved particularly unpopular since becoming president.

The suburbs could also pose a threat to Trump’s reelection chances as well as a number of vulnerable Senate Republicans facing uphill reelection battles in states such as Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and Arizona. The GOP currently holds a narrow 53-47 majority in the upper chamber.

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Republican lawmakers and strategists say they face an even bigger challenge winning back suburban House districts, especially given Trump’s controversial actions in recent days. 

The president has sent conflicting signals on taxes and gun reforms, retaliated against a European ally that refused to discuss a sale of Greenland to the U.S., lashed out at Jewish Democrats as “disloyal,” attacked Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell as an “enemy,” and suggested the next Group of Seven summit should be held at his own private Florida golf resort.   

“Trump's not making any inroads in the suburbs. People either love him or hate him, and that's solidifying into concrete in the suburbs,” one House GOP lawmaker told The Hill. “This style is not helping that."

Former Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceGun debate to shape 2020 races GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Bottom Line MORE (R-N.J.), who represented an affluent, well-educated suburban district outside New York City, was one of roughly two dozen Republicans ousted in the anti-Trump, blue-wave election last fall. Democrats now hold a 235-197 majority in the lower chamber. 

Lance said that the inconsistent messaging coming from Trump and the White House is not instilling confidence among suburban voters like the ones he used to represent.

“I think the president should be consistent in his remarks and that is the best way to govern and move the agenda forward. Too often that has not been the case,” Lance said in a phone interview.

“We have our work cut out for us in the suburbs. The strength of the Republican party has included the suburbs, and that obviously was not the case in 2018. And I have concerns,” he added. “We need to do a better job in 2020.”

Trump’s present support in the suburbs is at dismal levels. An NBC News analysis updated last week shows him “underwater” in five out of six NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls carried out this year.

Additionally, 63 percent of white, college-educated women said they would definitely or probably vote for the Democratic nominee in 2020, while 30 percent said they would vote for Trump, according to a separate NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released last week. 

“I don’t foresee how it gets better for Trump in the suburbs this time around. I just don’t,” a Republican strategist told The Hill. “In places in the suburbs, it’s very much dependent on the top of the ticket.” 

The Trump campaign and Republicans allies are not losing hope, however. Even before Democrats settle on a candidate, Republicans are already painting Democrats as "socialists" with radical ideas on health care and taxes.

Republican officials believe progressive policies such as "Medicare for All" will turn off suburban voters and that a moderate Democratic Party no longer exists. 

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Chris Pack told The Hill that Trump would actually help GOP candidates running in suburban districts, arguing that he won them in 2016 and continues to have influence among voters in those areas.

Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump winning suburban voters by 4 points over Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonImpeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter MORE, though that support has cratered since his election. 

The group’s 2020 target list includes regaining a number of districts that Trump won or came close to winning in 2016 but that Republicans lost in 2018, including Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District, New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, and South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. 

The Trump campaign is also looking to bolster its weak standing among women. It launched an initiative last week to mobilize female voters in suburban districts in at least 13 states, encouraging them to support Trump and other Republican candidates in 2020. 

Republicans stress that they can capitalize on a number of issues ahead of 2020, most notably the economy, which has expanded under Trump even as signs of trouble have emerged recently, partly because of the administration's ongoing trade dispute with China. 

“We've got a real opportunity here. The economy is doing great,” another Republican strategist told The Hill. “People generally feel good about it. The question is, can we convince people that it's Republicans who are solely and singularly responsible for that? I think we can.” 

“It's up to that local individual candidate ... to be able to sell that narrative,” the strategist said. 

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And Trump still enjoys enormous popularity in his own party. Strategists warn that GOP candidates risk losing support from Trump’s conservative base if they distance themselves too much from the president. 

“It’s a very precarious spot, and there’s no silver bullet because you can’t distance yourself too much because then you’d depress the Trump vote,” the same GOP strategist said.  “Someone like Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteGOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE in 2016 can tell you.” 

Ayotte, a former New Hampshire senator, narrowly lost reelection in 2016 with Trump at the top of the ticket. She withdrew her support for then-candidate Trump after an "Access Hollywood" tape of him making vulgar comments about women was leaked. 

Republicans also pointed out that 2020 will boost voter turnout overall, given it’s a presidential election, which could make the suburbs much more competitive than they were in the 2018 midterms.

“It’s going it's going to be ... another presidential-level turnout in all these districts and states,” said Rob Simms, a consultant to former Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelOssoff raises 0k in first three weeks of Senate bid, campaign says McBath passes on running for Senate GOP buys JonOssoff.com after Democrat launches Georgia Senate bid MORE (R-Ga.), who in 2018 lost her seat in Georgia's 6th Congressional District now being targeted by Republicans.

"And one of the questions is, how many more anti-Trump voters can the Democrats identify and turn out? How many Republicans/Trump voters who didn't vote in '18 turn out in '20?" Simms added.

Handel is vying to win back her old House seat in the suburbs north of Atlanta in a rematch against freshman Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump How centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment DACA student at Yale petitions to protect mother recovering with cancer from deportation MORE (D). 

None of this fazes Democrats, who are looking to go on the offensive in a vast number of suburban districts currently held by Republicans, including Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, New York’s 1st Congressional District and 2nd Congressional District, and Georgia’s 7th Congressional District. 

“Republicans are staring down another election cycle defending their incredibly unpopular agenda in Washington that raised health care costs and taxes for millions of Americans,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Cole Leiter said in a statement to The Hill. 

“Add an historically unpopular president at the top of their ticket, and you can understand why more and more Republicans in Washington are considering throwing in the towel rather than run a difficult race for their final 15 months in office,” he continued. 

Updated 8:55 a.m.