Trump effect splits Senate and House GOP candidates

Trump effect splits Senate and House GOP candidates

President TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ 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 RokitaHouse passes year-end tax package Indiana New Members 2019 Braun knocks off Donnelly in Indiana MORE has a new ad bashing his opponent, Rep. Luke MesserAllen (Luke) Lucas MesserYoder, Messer land on K Street House GOP to force members to give up leadership positions if running for higher office Indiana New Members 2019 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 PenceTrump considering recognizing opposition leader as Venezuela's president: report Democrats vow to lift ban on federal funds for abortions Could Nancy Pelosi be the next president of the United States? 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 RubioOvernight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Rubio slams NY Times for 'absurd criticism' of Bolton over Iran MORE (R-Fla.) and then Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony Republicans seek to temper fallout from latest Russia bombshells Cruz says Americans outside Beltway unconcerned with Mueller investigation MORE (R-Texas) during the primary race.

Nicholson has also criticized Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King House passes resolution condemning white nationalism Anti-Defamation League calls on House leaders to censure Steve King over white supremacy comments MORE (R), a fellow Wisconsinite, for not embracing Trump more enthusiastically.

In North Dakota, Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerHopes fade for bipartisan bills in age of confrontation GOP senators propose bill to pay 'excepted' workers during shutdown Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing MORE (R) is hewing closely to Trump and attacking incumbent Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampEPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks 2020 Election: Democrats can’t afford to ignore their Israel problem Hirono will donate salary earned during government shutdown 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 ClintonGillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert Former PepsiCo CEO being considered for World Bank chief post: report Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing 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 CurbeloEx-GOP Rep. Ryan Costello joins group pushing carbon tax Hispanic Caucus boasts record membership in new Congress Chuck Todd says his show is 'not going to give time to climate deniers' 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 GoodlatteHouse GOP probe into FBI, DOJ comes to an end Murkowski to reintroduce bill to help abused Native American women FBI hits GOP chairman over push to clear sensitive transcripts by Christmas Eve 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 PruittOvernight Energy: Watchdog investigating EPA enforcement numbers | EPA's Wheeler faces Senate grilling | Interior's offshore drilling staff returning to work during shutdown EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks Watchdog files ethics complaint against EPA head 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 ComstockDems win Virginia state Senate special election Dem rep asks for asks for pay to be withheld during shutdown New Dem lawmaker hangs trans flag outside office on Capitol Hill 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 CoffmanGardner gets first Dem challenger for 2020 Senate race The 5 most competitive Senate races of 2020 10 things we learned from the midterms 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 Shulkin‘We Can Do It!’: Women and bipartisanship Reforming veterans benefits will be controversial, but necessary Trump’s shifting Cabinet to introduce new faces 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 Kustoff116th Congress breaks records for women, minority lawmakers Governor's race grabs spotlight in Tennessee primaries Election Countdown: Trump jumps into Ohio special election fight | What to watch in Tennessee primaries | Koch network freezes out Republicans who crossed them | Dead heat in Texas, Nevada Senate races | How celebs are getting into the midterms 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.”