Brutal summer for Republicans

It’s been a brutal summer for the GOP.

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE’s secret meeting, and stunning press conference, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Felony convictions for Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortProsecutors drop effort to seize three Manafort properties after Trump pardon FBI offers 0K reward for Russian figure Kilimnik New York court rules Manafort can't be prosecuted by Manhattan DA 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 McCainFormer Trump Defense chief Esper to join McCain Institute We need an independent 1/6 commission that the whole country can have confidence in GOP targets Manchin, Sinema, Kelly on Becerra 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.

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 PaulsenMinnesota Rep. Dean Phillips wins primary Pass USMCA Coalition drops stance on passing USMCA Two swing-district Democrats raise impeachment calls after whistleblower reports 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 (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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 FlakeFormer GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' Grassley to vote against Tanden nomination Klain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' 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 CollinsBipartisan bill would ban lawmakers from buying, selling stocks Presidential pardons need to go Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon MORE (R-N.Y.) and some family members, forcing him to abandon his bid for reelection. And Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan HunterTrust, transparency, and tithing is not enough to sustain democracy Presidential pardons need to go Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon 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 DeSantisRon DeSantisDeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Top Florida Democrat calls on FBI to investigate DeSantis over vaccine distribution Rick Scott caught in middle of opposing GOP factions 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyWhite House open to reforming war powers amid bipartisan push Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks National Sheriffs' Association backs Biden pick for key DOJ role 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 McSallyGOP targets Manchin, Sinema, Kelly on Becerra House Freedom Caucus chair weighs Arizona Senate bid New rule shakes up Senate Armed Services subcommittees 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.”