A few weeks before Alabama’s special Senate election, President Donald Trump’s handpicked Republican National Committee leader, Ronna Romney McDaniel, delivered a two-page memo to White House chief of staff John Kelly outlining the party’s collapse with female voters.
The warning, several people close to the chairwoman said, reflected deepening anxiety that a full-throated Trump endorsement of accused child molester Roy Moore in the special election — which the president was edging closer to at the time — would further damage the party’s standing with women. McDaniel’s memo, which detailed the president’s poor approval numbers among women nationally and in several states, would go unheeded, as Trump eventually went all-in for the ultimately unsuccessful Republican candidate.
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The backstage talks provide a window into how those closest to Trump are bracing for a possible bloodbath in the 2018 midterms, which could obliterate the Republican congressional majorities and paralyze the president’s legislative agenda. The potential for a Democratic wave has grown after Republican losses this fall in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama, and as the president’s approval ratings have plummeted to the 30s.
In recent weeks, some of the president’s advisers have taken it upon themselves to warn him directly about the fast-deteriorating political environment. White House officials have convened to discuss ways to improve his standing with suburban voters. And on Wednesday, the president met with Kelly, political director Bill Stepien, communications director Hope Hicks, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director in the 2016 campaign, to discuss the political landscape. Lewandowski forcefully raised concerns about the party’s efforts, according to one attendee and another person briefed on the meeting.
In an interview this week, Stepien acknowledged the pattern of presidents losing seats in Congress in their first midterm election. But he argued that it’s far too early to write off the GOP in 2018.
Stepien pointed to positive economic numbers that could buoy the party, along with a favorable Senate map and an RNC field deployment program that has been ramping up for months. Trump is also set to sign major tax cut legislation that Republicans are betting voters will reward them for, despite its unpopularity in polls before passage.
The White House political chief also noted that polling during the presidential election failed to pick up on Trump’s support. It was a pattern, he argued, that could be repeating itself.
“History tells us it will be challenging. How challenging, time will tell,” Stepien said. “But we have a strong sense of optimism.”
Among GOP leaders, however, there is widespread concern heading into 2018. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said privately that both chambers could be lost in November. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has told donors that he fears a wave of swing district Republican lawmakers could retire rather than seek reelection.
During a conference meeting last week, House Republicans listened as the past five chairmen of the party’s campaign arm addressed the political environment. One endangered lawmaker said his main takeaway was that incumbents should spend little time worrying about Trump or the White House and focus only on controlling what they can. Another person who was present came away with the impression that if lawmakers didn’t shore up their political standing now, they shouldn’t expect the national party to be able to save them down the road.
“In a year like this, you better not take anything for granted,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who is retiring. “I think most members know this is going to be a really tough challenge this cycle.”
Trump is well aware of the dangers his party faces in 2018, those who’ve discussed it with him say. During political briefing sessions, top aides highlight positive developments — but also more concerning ones, such as his declining numbers among well-educated voters and higher earners. He has peppered advisers with questions about his approval ratings, and about whether he is getting enough credit for his accomplishments.
Trump has also questioned friends and advisers about how particular races are developing, sometimes in granular detail. He has recently asked, for example, about who will be running for the seat former Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) recently resigned from.
The president, however, has shrugged off some early setbacks. After the Alabama loss, he gathered with Vice President Mike Pence, Kelly, Stepien and deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn. The group dived into the results, talking through why the race played out as it did.
As they raft a 2018 campaign plan, White House officials are cognizant that the president isn’t popular in some parts of the country. Trump is most likely to hit the trail in conservative states like Missouri or Montana with an eye toward mobilizing his core supporters. Discussions are underway, for example, about sending Trump and Pence to campaign in a southwestern Pennsylvania congressional district that the president won by nearly 20 percentage points that’s holding a special election in March.
Trump aides expect his campaign schedule to more fully take shape in late spring or early summer, as legislative business takes a back seat to an intensifying midterm season.
“If the president is going to be campaigning, he needs to be very discreet and selective about where he goes,” said Dent.
While the president’s numbers are cratering in some swing states, he’s expected to take on an expanded role on the fundraising circuit in 2018, which Republicans hope will allow them to swamp Democrats in campaign spending. The president has proven to be a major draw for donors, raising around $30 million for the RNC this year. There are talks about possibly holding an event next month in South Florida, where Trump is expected to spend part of winter.
The president often seems most at ease hobnobbing with friends at fundraisers. During a recent event in New York City, Trump cracked that the tax bill was so good he might go back into business, recalled one person who attended. He also joked that while many of his contributors had expected ambassadorships in return for their largess, another one, North Carolina businessman Louis DeJoy, just wanted to be his friend.
Behind the scenes, though, the White House has been racing to find solutions to the electoral challenge. Following the Virginia gubernatorial race, the administration commissioned an after-action report to examine why the party under-performed among suburban voters.
And at a staff meeting following the Virginia loss, aides discussed a range of issues important to those voters. Among the ideas suggested: underscoring the administration’s efforts to curb the opioid crisis and to assist veterans, perhaps by increasing the visibility of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
For much of the year, Capitol Hill Republicans worried about whether Trump’s team fully recognized the political realities they faced in 2018 and vented that the administration wasn’t always responsive to their concerns.
In some corners of the Republican world, there is anxiety about the White House political operation and its readiness for next year’s races. During Wednesday’s meeting, Lewandowski laced into the RNC, saying that it had raised a fraction of the money it should have, according to an attendee and another person briefed.
With the election year approaching, the White House is considering beefing up its political team. Among the possibilities under discussion, one Trump aide said, is elevating staffers with political backgrounds into the administration’s political shop.
Yet as a challenging 2018 grows ever closer, many senior Republicans say they’ve seen greater coordination with the White House political department. The administration and Senate Republicans have embarked on a joint effort to recruit North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer into the state’s U.S. Senate race. Trump has personally spoken to Cramer, and last week the congressman met with McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
Earlier this month, Cramer and his wife, Kris, met with the NRSC’s executive director, Chris Hansen, who made the case to the couple that Cramer had performed well in polling the committee had conducted.
The White House and McConnell’s team have also been in talks about wooing former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty into next year’s special election for the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Al Franken.
On Wednesday, Stepien met with top aides from the RNC and House and Senate GOP campaign arms.
Some senior Republicans believe the departure of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, an avowed McConnell critic who is closely aligned with the conservative insurgency, has eased tensions with the administration.
“I think there have been incredible signs of progress in recent weeks,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff and top political lieutenant, adding that “almost everything seems to be headed in a much more productive direction.”
But some Republicans are still sounding the alarm. Scott Jennings, a former top political adviser in the George W. Bush White House who is close to McConnell, said the president has major political challenges in the coming year: improving his approval numbers, ensuring the party nominates strong general election candidates, and selling his economic accomplishments.
“There are 10 months to improve the fundamentals here, and the Senate map is, on paper, good. But maps don’t make majorities and I think there’s a realization that there’s at least a 50 percent chance one or both chambers could fall,” Jennings said. “In less than one year, this first term could be, for all intents and purposes, over if the Democrats take control of either chamber.”