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Republicans Facing Re-Election Adjust to an Unpredictable President

Incumbents focus on local successes while waiting for a major legislative win

New Jersey Republican Rep. Leonard Lance is charting his own course in the 7th District and isn’t supporting his party's health care plan. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Jersey Republican Rep. Leonard Lance is charting his own course in the 7th District and isn’t supporting his party's health care plan. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If there’s been one constant in President Donald Trump’s first 100 days, it’s unpredictability.

He keeps members of his party — even his own staffers — guessing about what he may say or do on any given policy issue. For Republicans running for Congress in 2018, that instability only underscores the importance of running localized races.

But if they’re going to tout their successes at home, congressional Republicans also need a legislative win in Washington, D.C.

“If we produce, we’ll have a record to run on. If we don’t, I think we’ll be a very short-lived majority,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said outside the House chamber last week. 

That means Republicans can’t completely escape Trump’s commentary, especially when it’s often the legislative agenda he’s weighing in on.

Over the past few weeks, some Republicans have said they think the president has entered a reset phase, encouraged that he’s reached out to members on both sides of the aisle. 

But Trump may have since regressed. Even before Tuesday morning’s tweet about a “good ‘shutdown,” he surprised many over the weekend by inviting the president of the Philippines, who’s been accused of ordering extrajudicial killings, to the U.S. In two CBS interviews, he said the GOP health care plan guarantees coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and repeated claims that former President Barack Obama had spied on him.

Nothing new

The first 100 days of the Trump administration haven’t been all that different from the final stretch of the campaign, when GOP incumbents and candidates were peppered with questions about things candidate Trump said on a daily basis. 

“We’re actually getting pretty good at this,” Cole said. “The new normal is uncertainty and unpredictability, and that was true during the campaign as well.”

That only heightens the importance of members running their own races. “Campaign like you’re campaigning for town mayor,” said GOP operative Lauren Zelt.

During the 2016 campaign, Democrats tried to tie down-ballot Republicans to Trump. But many proved resilient to those attacks. Twenty-three Republicans won in districts carried by Hillary Clinton

New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance was one of those lawmakers, and he’s now one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s initial targets for 2018. The 7th District congressman has been among the GOP moderates opposing his party’s health care plan.

“I principally concern myself with the district I serve,” Lance said outside the House chamber last week, citing the frequent town halls he’s held where he’s heard from constituents.

Democrats are also targeting Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, whose district Clinton carried by 5 points last fall. The two-term Republican hasn’t said where she stands on the bill. But asked how volatility from the White House complicates her job, she gave a standard answer. 

“I’m focused on my job here and the things that I can get done,” she said. 

The unknown message

It becomes harder to ignore what Trump says when he’s the president and ostensibly the head of the Republican party. Last week, his administration said the U.S. was withdrawing from NAFTA. Hours later, “renegotiate” became the verb du jour from the White House.

Cole, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, remembers a reporter asking him what the most difficult thing about a Trump presidency would be. Unpredictability, he said.

“You don’t know any given morning what you’re going to be responding to because the president, then the candidate, will have said something or tweeted something,” the eight-term lawmaker said.

Senators from both parties have said they’ve learned to shrug off the president’s social media monologues, although Arizona Sen. John McCain said Tuesday he wishes Trump would “think twice” before tweeting.

Reporters in Washington are always eager to ask members what they think of Trump’s latest salvos. But if there’s an upside to the commander in chief getting so much attention, one Republican operative said, it’s that the media spotlight on the president takes it off members, allowing the newest lawmakers to “get their feet underneath them.”

Getting things done

Republicans agree that the majority needs a legislative win — and soon. And if that happens on health care or taxes, for example, Trump’s antics might be less relevant.

“If he accomplishes things, I don’t think it matters very much,” Cole said of Trump’s variable behavior. “If, on the other hand, he doesn’t, then that really means we don’t.”

Cole, a House GOP deputy whip, blames his conference for the struggle to achieve a health care deal, and if the Republican-controlled Congress doesn’t secure a major legislative accomplishment, it’ll be the conference that pays the price. 

But if history is any guide, the survival of the majority party in Congress is closely intertwined with who’s in the White House. And for that reason alone, Republicans need to worry about how Trump’s doing.

“Let’s extrapolate to March of next year. I’ll tell you that if his polls aren’t any better next March or April than they are right now, you’re going to see people jumping away from him more and more,” GOP consultant Steve Gordon said.  

One area where Trump’s sagging favorability may already be affecting the 2018 campaign is recruitment. Republicans are largely playing offense this cycle, but most vulnerable Democratic senators have yet to draw a major GOP opponent. A few House Republicans who were regarded as top challengers have already ruled out Senate bids. (Democrats haven’t landed top recruits for their two targeted seats either.)

Republicans say there’s no rush for potential candidates to get in races any earlier than they have to. “I don’t think money is going to be an issue. So why put a target on your back for no reason?” said one GOP operative. 

And then there are retirements. Democrats quickly spun this Sunday’s surprise announcement by Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that she would not run for re-election as a sign that moderate Republicans no longer want to answer for a president they don’t fully support. But Ros-Lehtinen has denied that Trump had anything to do with her decision.

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