Donald Trump is pinning the hopes for his first midterm-election contest on the same assumption that carried him to victory two years ago: Beltway Republicans are wrong again.
The party elite had once envisioned a 2018 campaign season in which they would tout a historic package of tax cuts, low unemployment, and steadily rising middle-class wages.
But for Trumpworld, that was way too boring.
The president has taken to privately bemoaning GOP leaders’ instincts to play it safe. According to a source close to Trump, he has in recent days viciously mocked the idea that those in punditry and Republican politics, who have advocated for an approach preferred by those such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, know better than he does, given how wrong they were about the 2016 election and Trump’s ultimate triumph.
So instead, Republicans’ core midterm messaging, spearheaded by the president, has focused on divisive issues that make many establishment Republicans squeamish, but which have huge appeal among Trump’s die-hard right-wing supporters and the party’s fervent base.
The final GOP and Team Trump sales pitch has largely zeroed in on spreading nativist lies about a migrant “caravan” heading to America, reviving calls to do away with U.S. birthright citizenship, hyping a Trump campaign ad widely denounced as a racist bullhorn, and fearmongering about widespread voter fraud, a phenomenon that, for all practical purposes, simply doesn’t exist.
The closing argument has been so thoroughly dominated by Trumpian verve that Speaker Ryan even got on the phone with the president on Sunday to practically beg him to talk about the economy. Ryan did this on behalf of “anxious Republicans” skittish that Trump’s rhetoric will end up costing conservatives more congressional seats, Politico reported.
But according to Republican operatives in states that will actually shape the makeup of the U.S. Senate this week, Trump is right, and Paul Ryan is wrong.
“It’s about issues that hit people in the gut, that people react to and matter a lot to them instinctively,” Corey Stewart, the former Trump campaign chairman for Virginia and current (and likely doomed) U.S. Senate candidate in the state, told The Daily Beast on Monday.
“We got this great economy under President Trump,” Stewart said, “but it’s not as much as an emotional issue as some of these other things…[like] the caravan and the invasion by illegal aliens. Those are the kinds of things that people are most concerned about. And those are the things that drive people to the polls.”
And as CNN reported Monday, Trump loathed a closing TV ad that played up a sunny economic message and that his campaign debuted last week. The president reportedly demanded to aides that his final push ahead of the midterms remain his anti-migrant onslaught.
Clearly, Trump and Republican candidates across the country are running with this all the way to the finish line, in the hopes that these scorched-earth appeals and weaponized xenophobia will keep Congress in GOP hands. “I think it’s been a good strategy,” Ed Rollins, a strategist who leads the pro-Trump Great America PAC, said. “I think the president has done more than you could ask any president to do... I think the economy is something the candidates themselves should be pushing... He has to energize a lot of people who voted for him last time, who are not traditional voters.”
Indeed, echoing the baseless claims from Trump and various Republican figures, Rollins concluded by insisting “the untold story is whether there’s gonna be any voter fraud in the last days here.”
At an Ohio rally on Monday afternoon, the president started by emphasizing jobs, unemployment levels, economic indicators, and a “massive” tax cut “for workers.”
But before long, he was back to railing on “illegal aliens” and “bloodthirsty MS-13 killers” as his focus—and as his main applause lines and crowd-pleasers.
Though, perhaps because the election loomed so close, he upped the ante.
Instead of one caravan, there were multiple.
“Democrats are inviting caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to flood into our country and overwhelm your communities,” he declared Monday. “If you want more caravans and more crime, vote Democrat. If you want strong borders and safe communities, vote Republican.”
At his second campaign stop Monday, this one in Indiana, Trump augmented this slightly, stating, “Democrats are inviting caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to pour into our country, overwhelming your schools, your hospitals, and your communities. If you want more caravans, if you want more crime, vote Democrat tomorrow.”
The caravan (singular) refers to a group of thousands of Central American migrants now moving through Mexico. They remain hundreds of miles from the U.S. border, but Trump and his allies have nevertheless turned it into a central midterm-election issue, warning voters as far north as Minnesota of an imminent migrant “invasion.”
But that wasn’t all. The rampant “voter fraud” Republican politicians keep talking about, despite all available evidence showing it’s not a thing? Trump tweeted Monday that “Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any ILLEGAL VOTING which may take place in Tuesday’s Election (or Early Voting),” and warned that “Anyone caught will be subject to the Maximum Criminal Penalties allowed by law. Thank you!”
The allegedly dangerous migrants in the caravan? The Department of Homeland Security claimed Thursday that it had identified 270 people in the caravan with “criminal histories, including known gang membership.” The department did not specify how it arrived at that number. That same day, the president claimed at a rally that “these are tough people in many cases” and that “this isn’t an innocent group of people. It’s a large number of people that are tough. They have injured, they have attacked.”
And at his final pre-election rally Monday night, this one in Missouri, Trump told his supporters that horrific, violent “crime will pour into our country,” in the form of undocumented immigrants, if elected Democrats get their way. As Trump tries to sell it, only he and Republicans on the ballot Tuesday can avert this supposed hellscape.
The president has been refreshingly explicit about why he’s taking this approach. “They all say, ‘Speak about the economy, speak about the economy… we have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy,” he said at a rally in West Virginia on Friday.
“Talking about a tax cut that you already passed into law doesn’t motivate anyone to vote, it just makes people shrug their shoulders,” said a Republican strategist close to the Trump White House. “You motivate people to vote by creating clear contrasts and talking about what you plan to do in the future.”
The Trump campaign itself has sought to turn out voters in states with crucial U.S. Senate contests, with ads drumming up fears over the caravan and immigration generally. One particularly controversial ad has been pulled from the airwaves, or rejected entirely, by CNN, NBC News, Fox News, and Facebook.
Some Republicans supportive of the strategy point to historical analogues. “This isn’t new,” a former senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast. “In 2006, when the October unemployment rate was 4.4 percent the Bush White House ran on opposing gay marriage.”
Left unsaid: Republicans were clobbered in the 2006 midterm elections.
But Republicans are hopeful that the president’s brand of messaging, with its intent focus on issues like immigration and voter fraud, has been a boon. “It helps motivate rural voters. It motivates our base,” said a Republican operative working with Senate campaigns in two crucial swing-state contests.
Trump knows what his base wants, and he consistently gives it to them. The Republican operative noted that when the president has rallied for his candidates, the events are inevitably more about Trump than the candidates for whom he’s ostensibly stumping. And that’s just fine with them: Republican campaigns largely feel that a referendum on Trump will suit them better than a localized contest, precisely because of the red meat he consistently feeds Republican voters.
“If Trump wasn’t on the ticket, I don’t know that it’d be a race,” the operative said. To that end, Republican campaigns have actively sought Trump tweets more than they have campaign contributions or presidential campaign boots on the ground. “People would rather have tweets than anything else because you get so much more coverage.”
—With additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff