Republicans say President Donald Trump needs to turn things around fast — or the GOP could pay dearly in 2018.
With the party preparing to defend its congressional majorities in next year’s midterms, senior Republicans are expressing early concern about Trump’s lack of legislative accomplishments, his record-low approval ratings, and the overall dysfunction that’s gripped his administration.
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The stumbles have drawn the attention of everyone from GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who funneled tens of millions of dollars into Trump’s election and is relied upon to bankroll the party’s House and Senate campaigns, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Adelson hasn’t contributed to pro-Trump outside groups since the inauguration, a move that’s drawn notice within the party, and McConnell is warning associates that Trump’s unpopularity could weigh down the GOP in the election.
Potential GOP candidates whom party leaders want to recruit are afraid of walking into a buzz saw, uncertain about what kind of political environment they’ll be facing by the time the midterms come around — and what Trump’s record will look like.
As tumultuous as Trump’s first 100 days have been, there’s still plenty of time for him to correct course. The president is projecting confidence that the GOP can resuscitate its stalled repeal of Obamacare, pass tax reform, and work with Democrats on a major public works package. Success on those fronts would no doubt calm the GOP’s current jitters.
But interviews with more than a dozen top Republican operatives, donors and officials reveal a growing trepidation about how the initial days of the new political season are unfolding. And they underscore a deep anxiety about how the party will position itself in 2018 as it grapples with the leadership of an unpredictable president still acclimating to Washington.
“It’s not the way you’d want to start a new cycle,” said Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia. “At some point, they’ve got to find some kind of rhythm, and there is no rhythm yet.”
“They’ve got to put some drives together,” he added.
Appearing Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” White House chief of staff Reince Priebus pushed back on the suggestion Trump has accomplished little. Among other things, Priebus pointed to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and reports that border crossings have plummeted since the start of the new year.
“He is fulfilling his promises and doing it at breakneck speed,” Priebus said.
Behind the scenes, the administration is keeping a watchful eye on the 2018 election. Priebus remains in touch with his political allies from his time as party chairman. There’s talk Priebus may attend an RNC meeting in San Diego next month and a Mitt Romney-hosted donor summit in Park City, Utah, slated for June. The midterms are likely to be front and center at both events.
Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon are carefully tracking the special election for a Republican-leaning Georgia House seat, a contest the administration sees as a key early test of the president’s political standing. White House officials were heartened that Democrat Jon Ossoff — whom Trump attacked on Twitter and robocalls — fell short of an outright victory in the first round of voting, triggering a June runoff against Republican Karen Handel.
Yet as Republican strategists examine that special election, and one for a conservative Kansas seat a week earlier, they’re seeing evidence of a worrisome enthusiasm gap. In the run-up to the Georgia election, low-propensity Democratic voters — people who in years past did not consistently turn out to the polls — cast ballots at a rate nearly 7 percentage points higher than low-propensity Republicans, according to private polling by one Republican group.
In Kansas, the chasm was wider. Infrequent Democratic voters cast ballots at a rate of 9 percentage points higher than low-propensity Republicans did. The GOP nonetheless held the seat.
Former Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican who won a 2014 special election that was a precursor to a broader GOP sweep in that year’s midterms, said the Georgia race was rife with warnings for his party.
“It’s a verdict on Trump’s first 100 days,” Jolly said. “Ossoff simply has to speak to the president’s failure, while Republicans have to wrestle with whether and how to defend Trump’s historically low approval ratings and how closely to align with a president who at any moment could undermine Handel’s entire messaging strategy with an indefensible tweet or an outright lie.”
Jolly, who lost reelection in 2016 and is considering running again, said he and other would-be GOP midterm contenders are struggling to take measure of what they’d be getting themselves into. The election is bound to be a referendum on Trump’s first two years. Two Republicans, Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy and Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, recently announced they will be forgoing Senate runs.
“If you’re a prospective candidate, boy, it’s tough,” Jolly said.
Republicans are far more concerned about the House than the Senate. The GOP has a four-seat edge in the Senate and a map tilted heavily in its favor. House Republicans, by contrast, have a 24-seat margin but must defend dozens of swing districts. It’s a scenario not entirely unlike the first midterm election of Barack Obama’s presidential tenure, when Democrats lost control of the House.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of GOP leadership, said the lack of legislative progress so far has imperiled his party’s hold on the House. But Cole doesn’t point the finger at Trump: Instead, he said, fellow Republicans unwilling to compromise on key agenda items like health care are to blame.
“The majority is not safe,” he said. “We need to be more constructive legislatively, and there are going to be political implications if we don’t.”
“I’m confident President Trump and the Congress will deliver meaningful results for the American people,” said Henry Barbour, an influential RNC member from Mississippi and the nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour. “We don’t have another option, particularly as it relates to the House in 2018.”
Not every Republican is confident about the Senate, either. McConnell has privately expressed concern about Trump’s approval ratings and lack of legislative wins, according to two people familiar with this thinking. A student of political history, the Senate leader has warned that the 2018 map shouldn’t give Republicans solace, reminding people that the party in power during a president’s first term often suffers electorally.
“We do have to do something with our full control of the government,” said Scott Jennings, who served in George W. Bush’s White House and oversaw a pro-McConnell super PAC during his 2014 reelection. “Doing nothing is not an option. There’s time — the midterm elections aren’t until November 2018 — but at some point we have to finish the things we ran on.”
Republican fundraising, bolstered by the party’s full control of the federal government, has been robust. The RNC reported raising $41.5 million during the first quarter of the year, a record.
Yet Trump’s rocky start is causing restlessness in some corners of the donor world. Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul, has privately complained about Trump’s failure to fulfill his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, three people close to the billionaire said. Adelson is also rankled that some people he recommended for administration posts haven’t yet been tapped.
More fundamentally, Adelson is dismayed by what he sees as a state of chaos in the new administration, these people said. In what some Republicans are interpreting as a sign of his frustration, Adelson has yet to give money to any of the pro-Trump outside groups set up to boost the president’s agenda.
An Adelson spokesman, Andy Abboud, said the billionaire is “overall not angry or unhappy” with the president and is pleased with his decisiveness on certain issues. Adelson, he said, is waiting patiently for action on the embassy.
Others are less forgiving. Texas businessman Doug Deason and his billionaire father, Darwin, have become so annoyed with the lack of progress that they have told Republican members of Congress they will not donate to them until the president’s agenda is approved. The younger Deason, a member of the Koch brothers’ political network, said he blamed House and Senate Republicans for the impasse, not Trump.
“I think generally people are happy, but we’re in a rare position where we have the presidency and both houses of Congress, and we want to get things done,” he said.
In recent weeks, party leaders have taken steps to assure nervous donors that the political environment remains stable for Republicans and that the president’s agenda is on track. During a recent donor summit in Palm Beach, Florida, hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, organizers stressed that health care and tax reform could still get done.
Indeed, some Republicans say it’s premature to start fretting about an election 18 months away, regardless of Trump’s early blunders.
“This is part of the growing pains of the new administration. It’s like fumbling a football in the first three minutes of the game,” said Ken Abramowitz, a New York businessman and major GOP donor. “It’s not great. But if you’re going to fumble the football, it’s good to do it in the first three minutes.”
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