Taxes or Culture War? GOP, Trump Divided on Midterm Message

With less than 100 days to go until the midterm elections, there’s an increasingly sharp division of opinion between the White House (aligned with hard-core House Freedom Caucus types) and more conventional congressional Republicans about strategy and messaging. It has been dramatized by Trump’s renewed threats to shut down the government at the end of the fiscal year if he doesn’t get what he wants in the way of immigration policy, which is about as welcome to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan as syphilis, as the Hill reports:

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) want Republicans seeking reelection to focus on the booming economy and the GOP’s tax-cut package passed last December. House GOP leaders are also touting a new campaign slogan for the midterms, asking Americans if they are “Better Off Now.”

They believe that’s a message that will propel them to victory in competitive swing districts and states around the country, helping them stave off a Democratic wave this fall.

Even among Republicans who don’t mind a little immigration demagoguery, there’s no big desire for presidential antics, as Byron York notes after discussions with GOP election wizards:

What Republicans would like now is the absence of noise and distraction coming from the White House.

“We just need a decent level of calmness so we can message,” said [one] strategist. “If we could just have calmness, we could talk about the economy and ICE. And if we could talk about the economy and ICE, we’d be fine.”

But Trump and the HFC think otherwise, and it’s not just a matter of temperament or sheer hatefulness (though those do play a part). Some key voters love noise and distraction:

Trump’s shutdown threat … [is] appealing to loyalists whose support he needs right now as he battles special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and approval ratings in the low to mid 40s.

“His base is reacting positively to it,” one conservative House lawmaker told The Hill …

Trump’s message is consistent with the one being made by Jordan, the former Freedom Caucus chairman running for Speaker who said Monday that “heck yes” conservatives would fight tooth and nail to stop GOP leaders from punting a fight over funding the border wall and other Trump priorities until after Election Day.

This represents a pretty classic division of opinion between pols focused on swing-v0ter persuasion and those devoted to base mobilization. And in turn it reflects the two quite different types of Republican House seats in peril in November.

The New York Times’ Nate Cohn took a long look at the 60 most vulnerable GOP-controlled House seats and while some conform to the stereotype of highly educated suburban districts (many of which were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016) expected to stray from the GOP banner, others are white working-class-dominated districts where Trump did well in 2016.

There has been a lot of talk throughout the cycle of the quandary Democrats face in deciding whether to appeal to suburbanites or white working-class voters in 2018 and 2020. But it’s a problem for Republicans as well. A ferocious runup to the midterms dominated by Trump and culture-war issues may help Republicans turn out their vote in places like the First District of Iowa or the Second District of Maine or the Eighth District of Minnesota. But it might also help mobilize Democrats, and might not help the GOP at all in highly educated suburban districts like Virginia’s Tenth or Georgia’s Sixth. And there are many competitive districts with both kinds of voters where the choice of targeting one or the other category can be excruciatingly difficult.

Truth is, it is a bit late in the game for either party to be arguing over electoral messaging, which increases the pressure on individual candidates (and their ad-buying “independent” friends) to tailor an appeal to individual districts that makes the most sense. When all else fails, of course, candidates can just go negative and hope to win by damaging opponents as much as by attracting support. Republicans do have the advantage of very low expectations, along with structural advantages that mean they can lose the national House popular vote and still control a majority of seats (as they did in 2012), just as Trump won the Electoral College while losing the presidential popular vote by 2.1 percent. But if they approach November dissenting from their own president’s message, a bad result will inevitably mean all sorts of blame games and finger-pointing at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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