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GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game

The White House and congressional Republicans are blaming one another for a difficult political environment that has bolstered Democrats' chances of winning control of the House, and possibly the Senate.

Republicans on Capitol Hill say President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE's lack of discipline and penchant for controversy has put them at a disadvantage, while Trump's political team has grown frustrated with the high number of GOP retirements and poor fundraising totals.

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"This election is all about Trump. The White House knows it, and to shift blame is a ridiculous notion," said one House Republican chief of staff.

Republicans say strong economic gains should help propel GOP incumbents to victory, but the chaos surrounding Trump has helped negate that advantage.

"We should be talking about the economy, but we're easily distracted," said Rep. Dennis RossDennis Alan RossIncoming GOP lawmaker says he may have violated campaign finance law Florida New Members 2019 Ross Spano wins race to replace Dennis Ross in Florida House seat MORE (Fla.), one of several dozen congressional Republicans retiring in early January. "That's essentially the advice that was given two years ago when the Billy Bush incident came out: Everybody better take care of their own district because we're not sure where this is gonna go."

The growing tensions between Capitol Hill and the White House highlight the odd set of circumstances surrounding the November midterms.

Unemployment remains below 4 percent and trillions of dollars in new wealth has flooded into U.S. households this year, signs of a robust economy for which Republicans have taken credit, arguing their 2017 tax overhaul has played a significant role.

But Trump’s job approval rating recently plunged below 40 percent in several well-respected polls following a summer in which he generated negative headlines on a wide range of issues. That dip in popularity has compounded the headwinds the president’s party typically faces in midterm contests.

Most congressional Republicans have remained closely aligned with Trump, fully aware that any sign of disloyalty would anger the conservative base with which he still remains enormously popular.

But a handful of endangered GOP lawmakers have deliberately sought to distance themselves from the president, who remains unliked in a number of key swing districts.

Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloBipartisan group of lawmakers propose landmark carbon tax GOP lawmaker: 'Disrespectful' for Trump to keep troops at border Florida New Members 2019 MORE (R-Fla.), who is seeking reelection in a district that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSantorum: Dems have a chance in 2020 if they pick someone ‘unexpected’ Trump should heed a 1974 warning penned by Bush NRCC breach exposes gaps 2 years after Russia hacks MORE carried easily in 2016, recently called out Trump for his claim that roughly 3,000 people did not die in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria.

Veteran Rep. Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonMidterm results shake up national map Overnight Health Care: Medicaid's popularity on the ballot in four red states | GOP in a bind on pre-existing conditions | Pelosi urges Dems to push health message day before midterms Election Countdown: Four days out | Early voting exceeds 2014 numbers in many states | Vulnerable Dems throw their party under the bus | Toss-ups to determine Senate control | 10 House GOP seats most likely to flip | Obama campaigns to preserve his legacy MORE (R-Mich.), another Democratic target, has also been critical of the president, calling Trump’s remark about “shithole countries" a “setback” for immigration reform. Upton, who’s served in the House since 1987, later blasted the administration’s family-separation policy as “ugly and inhumane” and was one of the GOP ringleaders pushing to force a House vote on legislation shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

“I’ve not been afraid to differ from him on a number of issues, whether it’s immigration, Charlottesville or Great Lakes funding,” Upton recently told The Hill. “I’ve not been afraid to publicly differ from him on a host of issues.”

In addition to the controversies surrounding family separations and hurricane recovery efforts, Trump has received negative marks from fellow Republicans for his response to the death of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Senate Armed Services chair eyes Russia, China threats | Pushes Trump not to cut defense budget | Mattis says US looking for more Khashoggi evidence Dem strategist says Trump should not have attended George H.W. Bush's funeral Inhofe eyes Russian, Chinese threats in first major speech as Armed Services chairman MORE (R-Ariz.), how the White House is portrayed in a book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward and his actions at the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The blame lies with the president,” said one GOP strategist advising an outside group that’s helping congressional campaigns. “He is the one taking the party off-message every day. Focus groups show that most voters don't care about Russia, but what they don't like is the president tweeting falsehoods and the general chaos that he creates every day.”

That line of thinking has frustrated Trump’s political team, which has argued that many GOP candidates have not done enough to defend their seats.

Sources familiar with the team’s thinking, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the electoral landscape, say Trump’s camp is upset with the fact that 56 GOP incumbents were outraised by their Democratic challengers last quarter.

Trump’s political advisers also say the decision by 44 House Republicans to resign, seek another office or retire has helped put the party’s House majority at risk.

For members who are seeking reelection, Trump’s supporters say the key to their success is fully embracing the president — not distancing themselves from him.

“The incumbents haven't done a good enough job supporting the president and championing his successes. They’re sort of avoiding it all, and I think that’s a mistake,” said Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign and transition adviser.

Lanza said GOP candidates will win by turning out Trump’s base voters, whom he said are not “looking for a contrast with the president.”

“They want people who are going to implement the president’s agenda,” he added.

People inside the White House dispute the notion that incumbents are running away from the president, but they have also indicated the political team has no problem with members who seek distance from Trump in districts where he is unpopular.

"When the president is not on the ballot, it’s up to each member to win their race," said a person familiar with the White House's thinking.

Still, the White House believes the onus is on House candidates to hold on to the majority, saying that Trump has campaigned for 10 House candidates in August and September and has headlined numerous fundraising events.

"The president has put us in a position to overcome midterm historical challenges — each member will need to match his energy in order to win," the person said.

Some Republicans have privately expressed annoyance with the pro-Trump group America First Policies, saying it should have done more to promote the GOP tax overhaul in order make the midterm ground more fertile for the party.

The outside group spent less than $1.9 million in ads touting the tax law, compared to $30 million spent by the House GOP–aligned American Action Network, which ran spots in key districts thanking members for voting for the law that was implemented in December.

Unlike other tax cuts, fewer Americans support the tax law than oppose it, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, and it has provided less of a boost for GOP candidates than initially hoped.

Brian Walsh, president of America First Policies, pushed back on that criticism, pointing out his group staged two dozen events this year to promote the tax measure, several of which were headlined by Vice President Pence. He said they resulted in “volumes of news coverage worth millions of dollars.”

“I’ve had Republican operatives tell me our effort was the smartest and best use of donor dollars to support tax reform in the nation,” Walsh wrote in an email. “If any anonymous critics would like to call me, they know my number, we welcome their input. Otherwise, help or zip it.”

The blame game hasn’t just played out between the White House and Capitol Hill.

Some in Trump World have targeted the White House political office, led by political director Bill Stepien, saying it has been caught flat-footed by the headwinds facing Republicans heading into November and has not done enough to help candidates.

“The White House, to be honest, on the political side I think is a little slow off the mark,” Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, said in a recent interview with The Hill. “I don’t see the sense of urgency at the campaign, I don’t see the sense of urgency at the White House, and I think there is a huge sense of urgency.”

Others say the White House has been well-aware of the dynamics and has done more than enough to help GOP office-seekers.

“From what I’ve seen, they have anticipated as much as they can and at the end of the day, you need campaigns that can execute. You can only do so much,” said Lanza.

Capitol Hill Republicans point to Trump’s public optimism about the midterms, despite evidence to the contrary, as one of the main factors hurting GOP efforts to help boost turnout.

The latest projection from the website FiveThirtyEight showed Republicans have just a one-in-five chance of keeping control of the House and a two-in-three chance of maintaining its majority in the Senate, despite a very favorable map.

Trump, who has frequently talked about the possibility of a “red wave” this fall, told Hill.TV in an interview Tuesday that the GOP will defy gloomy predictions about the midterms.

“I think we’re gonna do much better than anyone thinks because the economy is so good, and people do like the job I’m doing,” the president said.

Those type of comments have exasperated Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“If we lose the House, Trump will blame us. If we keep it, he will take credit,” said one GOP lawmaker. “That’s how things work now in this unified Republican government.”

Niall Stanage contributed.