By Kent R. Kroeger (April 24, 2018)
Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), have a tough task in front of them.
Can they save the Republican majorities in both chambers heading into the 2018 midterms?
The odds makers say there is a 68 percent chance the Democrats gain control of the U.S. House and a 41 percent chance they take the U.S. Senate, where the Democrats are defending more seats than the Republicans.
Under the coordination of Vice President Mike Pence, Stivers and Gardner have been working with colleagues, campaign strategists, opinion leaders, pollsters and the Trump White House, which is still getting advice from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, to develop a unified strategy for the midterm elections.
The initial outcome of their work was a nationwide tour by Pence and other surrogates promoting the accomplishments of the Trump administration and the importance of sticking to his agenda going forward.
“As we travel around the country, whether it be a political event or an official event, we’re going to make sure … the American people know that the agenda that we’re advancing is a result of partners on Capitol Hill, and we’re going to thank the people that are helping us, and we’re going to make sure people know … what the other side looks like,” Pence told Politico earlier this year.
But Pence’s efforts didn’t change the Republicans prospects. As special election losses continued, Republicans turned to a tried-and-tested strategy in March’s U.S. House special election in Pennsylvania — make the 2018 election about Hillary Clinton.
“Internal polling and focus groups conducted by Republican campaigns find that Clinton remains one of the most unpopular high-profile Democrats in the nation, second only to Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader,” writes the Associated Press’ Steve Peoples.
In the Pennsylvania special election the Republicans distributed pamphlets that read: “STOP HILLARY. STOP PELOSI. STOP LAMB.”
Is that a sign of what we will see from the Republicans in November?
Corry Bliss, leader of the Republicans’ Congressional Leadership Fund, told Peoples, “I promise you that you’ll continue to see it — Hillary Clinton starring in our paid media. She’s a very powerful motivator. It’s about what she represents. What she represents, just like what Nancy Pelosi represents, is out-of-touch far-left liberal positions.”
Yet, critics from both sides of the aisle are skeptical an ‘anti-Hillary’ focus will be effective.
“Hillary isn’t running for office — It feels like desperation,” says one Democratic pollster.
“It is what you do when you have nothing else,” says a Republican congressional aide. “Trump’s job approval won’t recover enough to keep us from losing the House. I hope we keep the Senate.”
Feeling increased pressure after a series of special election losses, Republican leaders revealed in a recent New York Times story they are still refining their midterm strategy, likely focusing on the possibility that a Democrat-controlled House and Senate in 2019 could remove Donald Trump from office. Assuming Vice President Mike Pence would also be removed (and that is a big assumption), the Republicans would like Americans to know the next President of the United States would be…Nancy Pelosi, assuming she fights off her own intra-party battle for the House leadership.
As far-fetched as that idea might seem, it is something voters would immediately understand and potentially react to in a way conducive to the Republicans keeping control of both congressional chambers.
As Peoples points out, the only Democrat more unpopular than Clinton is Nancy Pelosi.
The proposed Stivers and Garnder strategy, which has not been finalized or approved by the White House strategy team would walk voters through a three-step thought process:
Step 1: Remind voters that, under Trump’s leadership, taxes have been cut and regulations reduced, leading to a strong, fast growing American economy.
Step 2: Emphasize that Democrats and the national media have opposed the Trump administration all along the way. Despite Democratic obstruction, the Trump administration has unleashed the American military and nearly wiped out the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, implemented trade policies that have punished the Chinese and other U.S. trading partners that engage in unfair trade practices, and has ushered in a major diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.
Step 3: Close the argument with this warning to voters: Now is not the time to put the Democrats in control of the U.S. House and Senate, with the potential result being the installation of Nancy Pelosi as the next president.
In the context of a competitive election where the Democrats will be implementing their own strategy, that is a complex communications task facing the Republicans.
Could it work?
Given that the Russians won’t be serving as a force multiplier for the Republicans in this election, the Stivers and Gardner three-step strategy faces a tough road.
Privately, Republicans acknowledge the elephant-in-the-room is the Robert Mueller investigation. Should his team issue findings prior to the election implicating President Trump and/or his close associates in a conspiratorial crime, that may be the end of the ballgame. Any Republican electoral strategy will have to confront a reality that will suck all of the oxygen out of the room.
If, however, Mueller’s case is weaker than expected, the probe findings could justify and invigorate the Stivers and Gardner three-step strategy.
More likely, the Mueller probe will end with findings somewhere in the middle — not as clear-cut as the Democrats would like, but more deeply wounding to the Trump presidency than the Republicans would want.
Furthermore, Hillary Clinton may well remain a big part of the Republican midterm strategy, particularly if she keeps showing up in public venues soaked in her own self-pity and still lashing out anyone she perceives to be a mortal enemy.
But, even if Clinton does appear in the Republican communications, expect the palpable specter of a Nancy Pelosi presidency to be the core of the GOP’s overall midterm strategy.
Will it be enough to keep the GOP in control of Congress? We will find out soon.
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