GOP’s midterm strategy takes shape

Senate Republican leaders are focused on passing legislation that appeals to independent and swing voters in the final weeks before the midterm elections — instead of throwing red meat to the base of the Republican Party.

It’s a unique strategy from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump faces crucial decisions on economy, guns Are Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' MORE (R-Ky.), who has publicly acknowledged that Democrats could win back control of the upper chamber this fall. McConnell’s game plan contrasts with the election-year rhetoric and tweets of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE, who has highlighted divisive issues such as immigration.

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The Senate will return to work on Wednesday to take up an array of bills with bipartisan support — such as the Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services spending bill, opioids legislation and the Water Resources Development Act. Also on the agenda is the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization and the conference report for the farm bill, as well as conference reports for the seven appropriations bills the Senate passed before taking an abbreviated August recess.

It’s not an agenda designed to stoke political fights and rev up the base, a favorite tactic of past congressional leaders — especially before a midterm election. Instead, it’s meant to show voters, especially swing and independent voters, that Senate Republicans are a steady hand on the levers of government.

“The Democrats are trying to sell a message that, even under one-party control, Washington is somehow in chaos because of Trump. And McConnell is going to present an ultimate reality, which is, we’re governing. We’re funding the government, we’re passing farm policy, we’re tackling the human capital crisis of our time with the opioid legislation,” said Scott Jennings, a McConnell political adviser. 

GOP strategists say that winning over  independent voters will be crucial to knocking off Democratic incumbents in pro-Trump states where voters don’t register by party, such as Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and Tennessee.

Endangered incumbents such as Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyLobbying world Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries MORE (D-Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampPence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa Al Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand MORE (D-N.D.) need to win the majority of independent and swing voters if they are to hang onto their seats.
The same is true of Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE, the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican, who has a tough reelection race in Nevada, which Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey MORE won in 2016.

“McConnell is basically trying to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and avoid crisis and show Republicans, when in charge, can govern,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “The argument Trump is saying is that to get the agenda to go forward, I need replacements. You need to show the group you have can govern.”

He added it’s important to appeal to moderates and independents because “the Democratic base is just as fired up” as pro-Trump conservatives.

One strategist who works on Senate races said Trump revs up the GOP base every day when he tweets and that it makes more sense to use the legislative calendar for the more mundane duties of governing.

“Tweets from President Trump have infinitely more reach and infinitely greater impact than any messaging vote the Senate has taken,” said the strategist.

The strategist also noted that a vote expected this fall on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which could determine the future of the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade, will do a lot to energize the conservative base before Election Day.

Some conservatives, however, think McConnell should be more aggressive in pushing their priorities, such as an extension of individual tax cuts.

“There should be more votes that show the differences between the parties. There should be a manufactured vote on extending the tax cut and building the wall, but it doesn’t appear that’s going to happen,” said Brian Darling, a former Senate Republican aide. “I think McConnell’s strategy is, just don’t make any mistakes.”  

Trump said in June that he wanted Congress to vote on a second round of tax cuts, lowering the corporate rate further to 20 percent, later this year. But since Congress didn’t pass a budget, which would set up a special path to passing tax cuts with a simple majority in the Senate, another tax package has no chance of passing this year.

McConnell and his deputies believe a steady push of bipartisan bills is the right approach for 2018. While Senate Republicans have a slim majority, the Senate Democratic caucus must defend 24 seats while the GOP only has to protect nine in November. 

With many independent handicappers speculating the House will flip in the fall, election night would be a disaster for Republicans if voters choose to return both chambers of Congress to the Democrats.

Messaging votes, as they’re known in Congress, have been a favorite tool of past majority leaders, such as former Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason Reid2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care Reid says he wishes Franken would run for Senate again Panel: How Biden's gaffes could cost him against Trump MORE (D-Nev.), who controlled the Senate agenda from 2007 to 2014, and former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who served as Senate majority leader from 2003 to 2006.

In the summer of 2014, Reid scheduled votes on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was intended to eliminate wage disparities between men and women; a constitutional amendment empowering Congress and the states to limit political fundraising and spending; and the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act, which barred employers from refusing to cover contraception.

In the summer of 2006, Frist set up votes on a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of the flag, a bill to increase the exclusion from the so-called death tax and legislation to build double-layered fencing and vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

All of those measures were expected to fail, and they did by various margins. Their purpose was not to change the law but to define differences between the parties and send messages to voters. They were also designed to rev up each party’s base.

With Trump, who has sky-high approval numbers with the GOP base, in office, McConnell has decided it’s better to win over independent swing voters by showing them that Senate Republicans can work with Democrats to get things done.
A senior Senate GOP aide noted that the strategy of using messaging votes before the 2006 and 2014 elections didn’t work all that well because Republicans and Democrats, respectively, lost their majorities in those years.

“You know what 2006 and 2014 have in common?” the aide said. “Competency and accomplishment are much more attractive than just failed show votes.”

McConnell pushed Trump’s partisan agenda in 2017, coming within one vote of passing a bill to repeal major parts of ObamaCare, enacting a $1.5 trillion tax cut that lowered the corporate rate to 21 percent, confirming conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and repealing 14 Obama-era regulations under the Congressional Review Act.

But after Republicans lost the Alabama Senate seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDOJ should take action against China's Twitter propaganda Lewandowski says he's 'happy' to testify before House panel The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE (R) in a stunning December special election and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? MORE (R-Ariz.) left Washington indefinitely at the end of last year to undergo cancer treatment, McConnell made clear that he wanted to focus in 2018 on bills that could win bipartisan support.

Acknowledging that 2017 had been “pretty partisan,” McConnell vowed at the end of last year that “we’re going to be looking for areas of bipartisan agreement because that’s the way the Senate is.”

About seven weeks later, McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down MORE (N.Y.) announced a budget deal that substantially increased spending for defense and domestic priorities, paving the way for the Senate to pass appropriations bills with bipartisan support this year.