Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base

Former White House political strategist Karl Rove warned Senate Republicans in a meeting this week not to become overly reliant on their conservative base as they head into what could be a tough 2020 presidential election.

Rove, who served as former President George W. Bush’s top political strategist, was brought in by Senate GOP leaders to speak to the 22 Republican incumbents up for reelection at an all-day planning session Thursday hosted at Nationals Park in southeast Washington, D.C.

Senate Republicans have a much tougher map to defend in 2020 compared to 2018, when Democrats had to guard 26 seats and wound up losing four incumbents.

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GOP lawmakers are getting nervous about next year’s election as polls show President TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE’s approval rating dropping during the 28-day government shutdown, with economic experts warning that the standoff could dampen economic growth significantly. 

Rove advised lawmakers at the meeting not to rely too much on the conservative base, which is solidly behind Trump in the stalemate over funding for a border wall, and to remember the importance of expanding the GOP’s appeal, according to Republicans familiar with his remarks.

“He talked about politics being about addition and multiplication. You want to continue to bring people in who support you and the ideas that you’re presenting to help the country move forward in a productive way,” said a GOP senator who attended the meeting. 

Polls show that while Trump has strengthened his standing with Republican voters during the shutdown, he is losing ground with independents and non-college educated white voters, another key demographic.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll published Thursday showed the president has seen his approval rating drop by 9 points and his disapproval rating climb by 9 points among suburban men. 

A GOP source familiar with Thursday’s meeting said Rove talked about his column published in The Wall Street Journal the previous day that warned “a base-only strategy is a perilous bet for 2020” and advised “the party that realizes this first may gain the edge in the coming presidential contest.”

Rove in his op-ed argued that while Democrats have refused to compromise, the White House should consider “publicly announcing an offer to end the shutdown” by asking for border wall funding in return for legal status for Dreamers. 

A Quinnipiac University poll published Monday showed that registered independent voters found the arguments of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDonald Trump proved himself by winning fight for border security Trump should beware the 'clawback' Congress The national emergency will haunt Republicans come election season MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration MORE (N.Y.) more believable than Trump’s by a margin of 48 percent to 33 percent. 

Rove also discussed the problems that GOP candidates had appealing to suburban voters in the 2018 midterm, according to a Republican senator who heard his remarks.

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CNN exit polling from the last election showed Democratic and Republican House candidates splitting the suburban vote evenly, 49 percent to 49 percent. It was a troubling development for GOP candidates as suburban voters have leaned more Republican over the last two decades.

In the 2014 midterm, by comparison, Republicans performed 12 points better than Democrats among suburban voters.

Rove sounded the alarm about the eroding support for Republicans in the suburbs shortly after Election Day.

Speaking at a panel hosted by The Washington Examiner’s Sea Island Summit in November, Rove warned that “we’ve got to be worried about what’s happening in the suburbs.”

“When we start to lose in the suburbs, it says something about us,” he said, arguing that the GOP couldn’t make up for voter losses in suburban areas by picking up more people in farm country because “frankly, there’s more growth in suburban areas.” 

Rove was traveling Saturday and not available for comment for this report.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThunePolls: Hiking estate tax less popular than taxing mega wealth, income Will Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall MORE (S.D.) acknowledged to reporters earlier in the week that the president still needs to convince independent voters that funding the border wall is worth a partial government shutdown.

“The real battlefield is for those independent voters and I don’t think he’s probably won them over yet,” he said.

Democratic pollsters are confident their party is winning the public relations battle over the shutdown, which they say is hurting Republicans especially among suburban and independent voters. 

“Normally people respond [a government shutdown] is a pox on both your houses but people really think the shutdown is due to Trump,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. 

“Shutdowns often get blamed on the Republicans because people think that Democrats like to do things with government so they are unlikely to shut it down,” she added. 

Lake said that voters also view Trump as temperamental, which adds to the “situation where Republicans are going to carry a lot more of the blame.” 

“Right now we are winning the swing [vote] on the shutdown,” she said.

A Pew Research Center poll published Wednesday found that 58 percent of Americans oppose substantially expanding the border wall while 40 percent favor it. Yet the survey also showed that 91 percent of conservative Republicans and GOP “leaners” favor expanding the wall. 

Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, argues that Democrats are also suffering politically because the standoff over the border wall has further thrust Pelosi – who had a 48 percent unfavorable rating in a recent Quinnipiac poll – into the spotlight. 

“She’s more unpopular than the president is right now and now Pelosi is becoming kind of the face of the shutdown and that’s not necessarily good for Democrats,” he said.

“It hurts both parties in the short term,” he added. “Karl’s right when he says it plays to the base of both parties. But it’s one of those things where people respect the president on this.”

He noted that Democrats were blamed for a three-day government shutdown over Dreamers in January 2018 but they still did well in the fall midterm elections.