For every Republican operative who thinks Trump’s midterm strategy is nuts—one senior GOP strategist running competitive statewide races said the president’s image took a 15-point hit in internal campaign polling over the past 10 days—there is a Democratic operative who worries that Trump’s polarizing approach just might allow him to beat the odds as he did in 2016.
But that same approach raises the cost of GOP setbacks for Trump, who has often made clear his own view that power is partly a matter of perception, and preserving an aura of strength and success. A narrow House loss, for instance, would surely be explained as the result of normal historical patterns. In the case of a national blowout, no matter if Trump blamed others, the result would be like a baby with a paunch and comb-over: No way to deny paternity.
“I do think it’s a little unfair to put it all on him because you start behind the eight-ball,” said a senior GOP Senate strategist, pointing to the usual historical pattern with a president’s first midterm election. “What I think is different [in 2018] is that while the president always has the ability to define the agenda, he takes all of the oxygen out of the air. The reality is, these races are completely national. And while there’s always a national bent to congressional races, there’s really no escaping it this time.”