Brutal summer for Republicans

It’s been a brutal summer for the GOP.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job MORE’s secret meeting, and stunning press conference, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Felony convictions for Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortMake the special counsel report public for the sake of Americans Paul Manafort should not be sentenced to 20 years in prison Mueller recommends Manafort serve at least 19 years in prison MORE, and a guilty plea from his longtime personal fixer, Michael Cohen. Returning flags atop the White House to full-staff less than 48 hours after Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech Mark Kelly's campaign raises over M in days after launching Senate bid The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers wait for Trump's next move on border deal MORE’s (R-Ariz.) death.

Some Republicans say the president's actions these past few months amount to a series of costly errors that distract from the party’s strong economic message and raise more doubts about whether the GOP can keep control of the House — or even the Senate — in the upcoming midterm elections.

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This summer has been defined by “a series of unforced errors that only add to the insecurity about November,” lamented one senior House GOP aide.

Things were bad for Trump last summer as well, when he suggested that “both sides” were to blame for violent clashes at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left one counterprotester dead and many injured.

But unlike last year, this summer has seen Trump wade into controversy after controversy, distraction after distraction.

Trump lashed out at key allies at June’s Group of Seven summit in Canada, and the following month he disparaged NATO partners in Belgium. Both flashpoints put GOP lawmakers in a difficult spot, though the two paled in comparison to the subsequent Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Finland.

Republicans saw Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin in July as especially damaging to the party this cycle and a major setback, one that came at a time when the GOP’s poll numbers were turning around. Standing next to Putin at a joint press conference, Trump sided with the Russian president in saying he didn’t think Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential election, directly contradicting U.S. intelligence agencies.

Trump’s head-scratching performance in Helsinki harmed Republicans in suburban swing districts, where House races in November will be won or lost by a few percentage points, said one GOP strategist who saw polling after the summit.

“We saw Helsinki hurt in suburbia, not among the base but among college-educated professionals. It matters a lot because if Trump is minus-7 in [Rep. Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenLawmakers beat lobbyists at charity hockey game The 8 House Republicans who voted against Trump’s border wall Minnesota New Members 2019 MORE’s (R-Minn.) district], that’s a big deal. That could be difference between him winning or losing. In a lot of these suburban districts, this is a margins game.

“In terms of data, that was not a good moment, and July was really bad,” the strategist added. “You’ve got to turn the base out, but you can’t lose independents by 30.”

The situation worsened last week with the most pivotal development to date in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s Russia investigation: Manafort’s conviction on eight counts of financial crimes, including tax evasion and bank fraud.

The jury handed down its verdict on the the same day that Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, pleaded guilty to campaign finance crimes and implicated the president by saying he was told to pay hush money during the 2016 campaign to prevent two women from speaking about affairs they had with Trump more than a decade ago.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Ariz.) said at the time that while Trump’s base is probably unfazed by those legal developments, independent voters are undoubtedly affected to some extent.

This summer also saw the indictments of two of Trump’s earliest supporters on Capitol Hill.

The Justice Department brought insider trading charges against Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsFighting AIDS domestically and globally means pushing more evidence-based services House Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 The Memo: Pelosi ups ante in Trump showdown MORE (R-N.Y.) and some family members, forcing him to abandon his bid for reelection. And Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterHouse Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 What a year it’s been: A month-by-month look back at 2018's biggest stories Bipartisan lawmakers unveil bill to tighten some campaign rules MORE (R-Calif.) and his wife are now facing charges of wire fraud, falsifying records, conspiracy and campaign finance violations related to misusing campaign money.

Democrats are trying to seize on the indictments and capture those traditionally red seats by painting the GOP as the party of corruption.

After winning the GOP gubernatorial primary in Florida this week, Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida secretary of state who resigned apologizes for blackface photos The Hill's Morning Report — Trump complicates border wall negotiations Parkland parents ask Pulitzer panel to honor local paper for school shooting coverage MORE told voters not to “monkey this up” and elect his progressive Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who has the opportunity to become the state’s first black governor.

Trump also sought out controversy this past week by refusing to issue a statement following the death of McCain, one of his most vocal critics and political foes. The flags at the White House were also raised from half-staff less than 48 hours after the senator’s death.

Trump later issued a statement and re-lowered the flags, but only after an enormous outcry from the American Legion and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where the two-time presidential candidate and former Vietnam War POW was revered and will lie in state on Friday.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyHigh stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks Senate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Grassley raises voice after McConnell interrupts Senate speech MORE (R-Iowa) urged Trump to take a lesson from Wall Street Journal editor and columnist Gerald Seib, who wrote on Aug. 20 how Trump often steps on his own good news. Grassley advised that Trump “would strengthen his presidency” by avoiding such missteps.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman expressed alarm this week over news that White House counsel Don McGahn, who was seen as a moderating influence on the president, would be leaving the administration this fall.

“U can’t let that happen,” Grassley tweeted at Trump.

McGahn reportedly threatened to resign in June 2017 when Trump asked him to fire Mueller. He persuaded the president to back off the demand, and Senate Republicans say it would have been a big mistake to follow through with Mueller’s dismissal.

But not all Republicans believe it’s doom and gloom for their party.

Despite a few rocky weeks for Trump, his approval rating is relatively stable, with 46 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving, according to an NBC–Wall Street Journal poll released this week.

And the economy is performing well with Republicans in control of Washington. Unemployment is at a historic low, the stock market continues to climb, and gross domestic product growth for the second quarter was revised up this week to 4.2 percent, just as consumer confidence hit an 18-year high.

“Elections are usually decided by peace and prosperity, and we got that,” said GOP pollster Jim McLaughlin, who argued that the strength of the economy would outweigh Trump’s performance at the Helsinki summit and his legal battle with Mueller.

McLaughlin said the recent primary in Florida shows the GOP base is very motivated this year.

“In the primaries down there, Republicans turned out in record numbers and Democrats turned out in record numbers. And I think that’s what you’re going to see for these midterm elections,” he said. “Republicans had a pretty darn good summer. They can point to a lot of positives and a lot of good things happening with the economy.”

A senior Senate Republican aide said that overall, “the summer for the Senate played out pretty well.”

“We got the candidates we wanted. We got a lot of the legislation we wanted. We didn’t make any big mistakes,” the source said.

Senate Republicans have steadily added to the number of appellate and district court judges they’ve confirmed, and they passed several spending bills, including legislation funding the departments of Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services, which usually languishes until the year’s end.

Senate Republicans scored a victory Tuesday when Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArmy calls base housing hazards 'unconscionable,' details steps to protect families Poll shows McSally, Kelly tied in Arizona Senate race Mark Kelly's campaign raises over M in days after launching Senate bid MORE (R-Ariz.), the establishment favorite to replace Flake, who is retiring, beat out a pair of hard-right rivals in the Arizona Senate Republican primary.

But the Senate GOP aide conceded it was a bad summer for House Republicans.

“The House is a different story,” the aide said. “They’ve had all their ethics issues. They don’t have all the candidates they want. They’re running in the suburban areas and that’s not great.”

House GOP lawmakers agree that the booming economy is the best midterm message for Republicans. They just aren’t sure it’ll be enough to hold the House.

“It’s the college-educated suburban moms who are turned off by Trump’s style,” said one House GOP lawmaker from the Northeast. “Any time it is reinforced by a disruptive event — whether it’s Helsinki or Twitter wars — they are just pushed away.”

There’s a “50-50” chance of the House flipping, “with a tiny tilt toward the Dems taking it,” the Republican lawmaker said. “They just have a lot of energy on their side; their path to 23 seats is there. I just don’t know if they can thread that needle.”