Trump effect splits Senate and House GOP candidates

Trump effect splits Senate and House GOP candidates

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE is looming large over the midterm elections, and GOP candidates are scrambling to either maximize or minimize his impact, depending on their races.

Republican candidates, particularly those running in contested Senate primaries, are rushing to embrace Trump, who is highly popular with the party base.

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GOP candidates in targeted House districts, however, are often distancing themselves from Trump, who threatens to rev up angry Democrats and turn off independents. 

In contested Senate primaries in Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin, GOP candidates are portraying themselves as Trump loyalists or likeminded outsiders ready to take on the D.C. political establishment.

In House races, especially where Republicans are looking past the primary to the general election, candidates are busy establishing an independent brand to survive a possible Democratic wave in November.

“It’s a tale of two cities in terms of the Senate and the House,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “In the battle for the Senate, the potential pickups are in states where Trump is very popular.

“In the House, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan. If you’re in a rural area, you’re running to Trump,” O’Connell said.

In suburban areas, GOP candidates “are running more on their own name,” he added.

In West Virginia, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is in a three-way fight for the Senate GOP nomination, has a new ad in which he declares, “Let’s not just change Washington, let’s blow it up and reinvent it.”

Morrisey has the backing of a pro-Trump super PAC, 35th PAC, and is touting his meeting with Trump on Thursday in White Sulphur Springs to “discuss issues important to all West Virginians.”

Don Blankenship, the former chairman of Massey Energy, who is running against Morrisey and Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsWest Virginia New Members 2019 Republican Carol Miller holds off Democrat in West Virginia House race Trump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report MORE for the nomination is trying to style himself as the most Trump-like candidate in the field. 

In an ad last month, Blankenship compares himself to Trump, calling himself a true job creator and attacking Jenkins as a past supporter of cap-and-trade emissions controls and state laws that helped implement ObamaCare.

“Trump looms pretty large over the state’s politics at the moment,” said Patrick Hickey, a professor of political science at West Virginia University.

“They’re all sort of trying to run as the Trump candidate,” he said of the Senate GOP field. “Blankenship has embraced Trump looking at his commercials. He’s trying to tie Jenkins to Democrats and say he isn’t a real anti-establishment Trump Republican like he is.”

In Indiana, the site of another fiercely contested GOP primary, Rep. Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaFemale Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations House passes year-end tax package Indiana New Members 2019 MORE has a new ad bashing his opponent, Rep. Luke MesserAllen (Luke) Lucas MesserK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Yoder, Messer land on K Street House GOP to force members to give up leadership positions if running for higher office MORE as a faux Trump supporter.

Rokita dons a “Make America Great Again” hat and declares, “I’ll proudly stand with our president and Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties Dozens of graduates walk out in protest of Pence address MORE to drain the swamp.”

Meanwhile, he accuses Messer of having “plotted” with  so-called never Trump Republicans in 2016 to steal the nomination and blasts his other opponent, state Rep. Mike Braun, as a “RINO” — a Republican in name only.

Braun has his own ad featuring two cardboard cut-outs of Rokita and Messer and portraying himself as an outsider businessman, drawing a parallel with Trump. 

In Wisconsin, Marine Corps veteran Kevin Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir are both portraying themselves as strong Trump allies.

Nicholson has highlighted his support for Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, seeking advantage from Vukmir’s initial support for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package MORE (R-Fla.) and then Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Senate GOP votes to permanently ban earmarks Jim Carrey fires back at 'Joe McCarthy wanna-be' Cruz MORE (R-Texas) during the primary race.

Nicholson has also criticized Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R), a fellow Wisconsinite, for not embracing Trump more enthusiastically.

In North Dakota, Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump pushing for GOP donor's company to get border wall contract: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Bolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran MORE (R) is hewing closely to Trump and attacking incumbent Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOn The Money: Stocks sink on Trump tariff threat | GOP caught off guard by new trade turmoil | Federal deficit grew 38 percent this fiscal year | Banks avoid taking position in Trump, Dem subpoena fight Fight over Trump's new NAFTA hits key stretch Former senators launching effort to help Dems win rural votes MORE (D) for voting with the president only a majority of the time.

“Here’s the good news about Donald Trump: Most of the time, he’s for North Dakota, and that’s my point where I’ve heard her say, ‘Gee, I voted with him 55 percent of the time,'” Cramer told a local radio host.

“Can you imagine going home and telling your wife, ‘I’ve been faithful to you 55 percent of the time'? Are you kidding me? Being wrong half the time is not a good answer.”

A major difference between Senate and House races is that Republicans are mostly playing offense in states that Trump won by big margins in hopes of expanding their Senate majority, while they are playing defense in more than 20 districts won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE in order to keep control of the lower chamber.

The dynamic is much different in districts that Clinton carried in 2016, where GOP candidates are trying to build up their own brand by standing up to Trump.

“You’ve got to create your own brand in your district, something that’s not necessarily Washington,” said Jim McLaughlin, a GOP consultant and public opinion expert. 

He said it’s important to appeal to Trump voters and give them a reason to vote in an election where party turnout will be important but that vulnerable House candidates also must “talk to swing voters and let them know what you’re doing is better than your opponent.”

One of McLaughlin’s clients, Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloDisinvited GOP lawmaker turns up at Dem hearing Overnight Energy: 2020 rivals rip Biden over expected 'middle ground' climate plan | Dems cancel plans to invite Republican to testify on climate change | House passes .2B disaster aid bill over Trump objections Dems cancel plans to bring in Republican as climate change witness MORE (R-Fla.), hasn’t hesitated to call out Trump when he thought he was wrong.

Curbelo criticized the conservative immigration-reform bill drafted by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteTop Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview It’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling MORE (R-Va.) and backed by Trump as “deeply flawed” and an “insufficient solution” to help young illegal immigrants facing deportation.

Curbelo has also called on Trump to fire Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOn The Money: New financial disclosures provide glimpse of Trump's wealth | Walmart, Macy's say tariffs will mean price hikes | Consumer agency says Education Department blocking student loan oversight Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog finds Pruitt spent 4K on 'excessive' travel | Agency defends Pruitt expenses | Lawmakers push EPA to recover money | Inslee proposes spending T for green jobs Lawmakers take EPA head to task for refusing to demand Pruitt repay travel expenses MORE and last year even suggested that Trump could be impeached if found guilty of obstruction of justice.

Clinton beat Trump by 16 points in Curbelo’s district.

In Virginia’s 10th District, which Clinton won by 10 points, incumbent Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers GOP lawmaker introduces bill to stop revolving door Ex-lawmakers face new scrutiny over lobbying MORE (R) has also distanced herself from Trump when she felt it necessary.

She clashed with Trump at a White House meeting in February after Trump said he would “love to see a shutdown” if Democrats didn’t agree to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She told Trump bluntly, “We don’t need a government shutdown on this.”

Comstock also distanced herself from the president after he characterized Haiti, El Salvador and African countries in disparaging terms during the immigration debate.

“What we need now is not division or discord, but finding a way we can come together and agree, as well as civilly disagree, as we tackle our diverse American challenges,” she said at the time.

“Both Carlos Curbelo and Barbara Comstock have their own brands in their districts and they connect with the average person,” said McLaughlin.

He said voters in Florida’s 26th District don’t view Curbelo “in terms of partisan politics.”

“This guy is Mr. Miami, Mr. South Florida. They view him as someone they can talk to,” he added.

Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard Coffman20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Denver Post editorial board says Gardner endorsement was 'mistake' Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (R-Colo.), who is running in another pro-Clinton district, has criticized Trump’s threats to shut down the government over the border wall and his support for a military parade through Washington, an idea that has drawn comparisons to the practices of former Soviet bloc dictators.

“No shutdowns, no parades. We need to focus on what moves us forward — cleaning up the #VA, fixing #DACA, securing our borders, and growing wages,” he tweeted in February.

More recently, Coffman pressured Trump to fire Veterans Affairs Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinTrump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? It’s time to end the scare tactics and get to work for our veterans MORE because of his controversial travel expenses.

At the same time, GOP strategists warn that even candidates in pro-Clinton districts can’t afford to alienate base voters in more liberal-leaning districts.

“In Republican primaries we’re seeing historically high support for the president in everything he does,” said Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist who spent Wednesday touring with Rep. David KustoffDavid Frank KustoffGOP to launch discharge petition on anti-BDS measure It's time to defund the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen Progressives come to Omar's defense MORE (R-Tenn.) through his conservative district.

Kustoff is running for reelection by running toward Trump, featuring the president on his campaign literature.

“It’s OK to have a disagreement with the president from time to time, but what’s not okay is to run away from him as leader of the party and president,” Saltsman added.

Even Curbelo, who hasn’t been afraid to disagree with Trump, said he would welcome Trump campaigning for him in his Democratic-leaning district.

McLaughlin said, “You got to get your base motivated and you got to give those new Trump voters a reason to vote between now and Election Day.”