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World: The economy is humming, but Trump is tweeting. Republicans are worried




Yet Republican leaders do agree on one surprising element in the battle for Congress: They cannot rely on the booming economy to win over undecided voters.

To the dismay of party leaders, the healthy economy and Trump have become countervailing forces. The decline in unemployment and soaring gross domestic product, along with the tax overhaul Republicans argue is fueling the growth, have been obscured by the president’s inflammatory moves on immigration, Vladimir Putin and other fronts, party leaders say.

These self-inflicted wounds since early summer have helped push Trump’s approval ratings below 40 percent and the fortunes of his party down with them.

“This is very much a referendum on the president,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said of the November election. “If we had to fight this campaign on what we accomplished in Congress and on the state of the economy, I think we’d almost certainly keep our majority.”

Glen Bolger, a leading Republican pollster working on several top races this year, was even blunter: “People think the economy is doing well, but that’s not what they’re voting on — they’re voting on the chaos of the guy in the White House.”

Democrats still face challenges of their own, namely the unpopularity of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, and the party’s tilt left on issues like immigration, both of which could chill support from some otherwise persuadable voters. And the threat of a Democratic majority impeaching the president, which Trump is eager to raise, could rouse some of his supporters who otherwise may not show up in a year when he’s not on the ballot.

Even so, Bolger and many other prominent Republicans now believe they are likely to lose the House, where they have a 23-seat majority and as many as 60 seats are being fiercely contested by Democrats. The party is preparing to shift advertising money away from some of their most beleaguered incumbents toward a set of races in somewhat more favorable territory. In the narrowly divided Senate, both parties see eight or nine seats, most of them held by Democrats, on a knife’s edge.

And instead of attempting to highlight positive economic news like the 3.9 percent unemployment rate, Republicans have turned to a scorched-earth campaign against the Democrats in a bid to save their House majority and salvage their one-seat edge in the Senate.

Republican electioneering groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee, have spent millions in recent weeks attacking Democratic candidates in intensely personal terms. The committees, along with some Republican candidates, have blasted one Democratic hopeful in New York for rap lyrics he once wrote; branded another, in Pennsylvania, as a “trust fund baby” and “tax dodger”; and aired commercials featuring veterans in wheelchairs to sow doubts about the patriotism of some Democratic nominees.

The Republican lurch away from economic issues amounts to a bet on the politics of Trump-style cultural division as a means of driving up conservative turnout and disqualifying some Democratic candidates among more moderate voters.

Party leaders say the individual attacks are only the first step in a broader campaign to shift the midterms away from the Trump focus and toward the implications of Democratic majorities in Congress.

Laying out the strategy in an interview this week in his Capitol office, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the would-be successor to House Speaker Paul Ryan, warned that if Democrats took power they would swiftly impeach the president, stymie immigration enforcement and seek to enact universal health care.

“It’s just going to be chaos,” said McCarthy, trying to repurpose the sense of tumult that voters do not like about Trump’s administration.

McCarthy acknowledged House Republicans would suffer losses but predicted they would keep a narrow majority so long as Trump’s approval rating rebounded. He even settled on a specific threshold, saying Trump’s approval rating had to be above 43 percent to hold on to the House — even though, historically, the party out of power usually dominates midterm elections when a president’s approval rating is markedly under 50 percent.

“It’s week by week of where the weather is at — and it’s ever changing,” McCarthy said of the political environment. “Let’s just hope it’s a sunny day on Election Day.”

Yet there are already clouds forming over the Republican-controlled capital, visible in the growing anger between the Trump White House and those in the party aligned with congressional Republicans.

After a summer in which the administration implemented a policy of separating migrant children from their parents, the president sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence services, and then he showed little sympathy following the death of Sen. John McCain, Republican strategists say Trump is alienating a sizable bloc of moderate and Republican-leaning voters who favor right-of-center economic policies but recoil from the president.

“There’s 15 percent of the electorate that’s happy with the direction of the country but angry with the president,” said Corry Bliss, who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund.

But this sort of talk infuriates Trump’s aides, and one senior White House official swiped back at Bliss, accusing him of attempting to lay the groundwork for deflecting blame for the loss of the House majority. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about the party’s predicament, said the Republicans were facing deep losses because of the 40 House Republicans who chose not to run again — a list, the official pointedly noted, that includes Ryan himself.

Yet the intraparty finger-pointing goes beyond the skirmishing between the White House and Congress.

Republican strategists affiliated with the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House super PAC, are privately voicing exasperation with the National Republican Congressional Committee for not raising more money, and for being unwilling so far to begin a triage that would transfer resources toward their most viable incumbents. For example, the committee still has $8 million committed to two lawmakers, Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Rep. Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania, who many in the party do not think can win.

And still other party officials have grown frustrated with the Congressional Leadership Fund for what they describe as a tepid effort to defend open seats where incumbent Republicans are retiring. The group is currently spending advertising money in less than a third of the 15 most heavily contested open seats, these Republicans said, putting pressure on other GOP committees to make up the difference in about 10 others.

Republican officials say privately that the performance of the economy under Trump has not been a major motivating factor for pro-Trump voters. For some Americans on the right, it may even be contributing to the mood of political apathy that has so alarmed GOP leaders, since voters who are optimistic rarely vote with the intensity of those who are angry or afraid.

America First Action, a political committee aligned with Trump, conducted a series of focus groups over the summer and concluded the party had a severe voter-turnout problem, brought on in part by contentment about the economy and a refusal by Republicans to believe that Democrats could actually win the midterm elections.

Conservative-leaning voters in the study routinely dismissed the possibility of a Democratic wave election, with some describing the prospect as “fake news,” said an official familiar with the research, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the data was not intended to be disclosed. Breaking that attitude of complacency is now the Republicans’ top priority, far more than wooing moderates with gentler messaging about economic growth.

So Republicans are turning toward more hard-edge tactics. Incumbents who were widely seen as holding safe seats have ordered up opposition research to try to hurt their Democratic rivals. America Rising, a Republican firm that specializes in finding damaging information on Democrats, is working on three times as many House races as it did in 2016, according to an official with the group.

At a meeting of House Republicans on Thursday, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the NRCC chair, sought to scare incumbents by running a slideshow featuring the excuses losing candidates typically offer up before they lose. (Included in the litany: “I don’t need to run negative ads; my constituents know me; my district is different.”)

A party official said lawmakers had chipped in $1.2 million for the House campaign committee after the appeal.

Among top Democrats, optimism has soared since Labor Day. Trump has handed them fodder via his Twitter provocations, and reports of deep internal divisions in his administration have added to a sense of a chaotic presidency — hijacking the news cycle.

Party leaders have closely tracked their leads in several public polls: During a meeting of congressional Democratic leaders Wednesday evening, a top aide to Pelosi walked the group through a list of five recent polls that found voters nationally favoring Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by double-digit margins.

Officials with the main House Democratic super PAC, the House Majority PAC, said their polling in August showed 17 incumbent Republicans trailing and six tied — nearly enough to recapture the majority without even factoring in the open seats the GOP is defending. Strikingly, when the group this month surveyed some of the same districts where Republicans had unleashed a barrage of negative ads, it found that Democratic candidates had slipped only a little and that the races remained within the polling margin of error.

In the Senate, a mood of highly guarded hopefulness has spread among Democrats, who see a path to a majority that runs through a mix of right-leaning and solidly conservative states. By this point in the cycle, some in the party had feared that several incumbents would be headed to certain defeat, and once-inviting takeover opportunities would have slipped off the map, including in Tennessee and Texas. But both of those states remain competitive and a group of rust belt Senate Democrats, like Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, seem secure.

“Despite the difficulty of the map’s geography, if there’s a big wave I think our odds are very, very good,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, said in an interview, adding that when “you’re feeling the wave in September it rarely changes much by November.”

And the main reason Democrats are sensing a wave is obvious to party veterans.

“He won’t allow himself to get credit for the economy,” said James Carville, the Democratic strategist, referring to Trump. Carville, who fashioned Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid” mantra in 1992, continued: “He’s made himself bigger than the economy. Every conversation starts and ends with Trump.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns © 2018 The New York Times

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