GOP Election Strategy
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Four hundred and thirty-five House races and 35 Senate races will be decided this week. And every single one of them revolves around - you know it - President Donald Trump. For some Republicans, that's a good thing. Others would just as soon run without ever mentioning Trump by name. And it's playing differently depending on where they're running.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: President Trump was right. We need fewer career politicians in Washington.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So he became president the United States. We started working together. We started working together, and it build trust.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm running to represent you, whether you like Trump or not.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm the only one that has stood up to the president when he has done something wrong and have worked with him when he's done something right.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This divide and conquer strategy that the president is employing and that more and more politicians employ by the year is just deeply troubling.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR congressional reporters Scott Detrow and Kelsey Snell have been all across the country over the past few weeks. And they found four basic ways Republicans are navigating the Trump dynamics. But before we get to that, good morning.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning. Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All Trump all the time...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are midterm elections always this focused on a president?
DETROW: Kind of. I mean, usually, they're a referendum on how the president's doing in his first two years. And that's one reason why, almost all the time, the president's party...
DETROW: ...Loses seats. But this is especially president-focused.
SNELL: Oh, yeah. And that is in part because the president wants it that way. He has been out at rallies saying that his name isn't on the ballot, but it is on the ballot and that this is a referendum on him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But as unpopular as Trump is nationally, most Republicans are happy to embrace him, right? I mean, they seem to be backing him up.
SNELL: Well, most Senate Republicans are happy to embrace him, particularly places like West Virginia or candidates in Indiana and in Florida, where they really expect that the base is going to show up to vote for President Trump. But we're really not seeing it quite as much in House races where the battleground is really happening in the suburbs. And the issues there are just different. It's a different set of electorate. And it's people who are just not as excited about Trump's really, really tough rhetoric.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's go back to 2016, which I know will bring you flashbacks. So many Republicans initially opposed him. How have they been able to change their tune and sort of sell that to voters?
DETROW: So many Republicans in Congress have made that migration in one way or another. But I think the most dramatic and stark change is Dean Heller, who's running in Nevada. He's probably the most endangered Republican incumbent in a real tight race. This time two years ago, he was saying he was 99 percent against Trump. Just a couple weeks ago, he was on a stage with the president saying this.
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DEAN HELLER: In fact, I think everything you touch turns to gold.
DETROW: They've traveled a long, long way. And...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, I was there when he said that.
DETROW: Yeah. He argues this is a case of pragmatism. He worked with the president. They got to know each other. They got to like each other. And he tells voters, and that helps me be a better senator. But this has really opened up a big vulnerability for him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because they're calling him a flip-flopper, that he goes back and forth. And the people that love Trump feel like he's not on their side, right?
DETROW: Exactly. That's almost entirely what Democrat Jacky Rosen is campaigning about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about Republicans who are worried about Trump?
DETROW: This is an interesting case because so many of the Republicans who criticized President Trump, said they didn't like what he was doing, many of them just chose not to run again. But Mia Love is a Utah Republican in a very close race. And she is doing this dance of trying to keep the president at arm's length but also supporting what he's trying to do. She's out campaigning on the Republican tax cuts and a lot of the things the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have done.
But at the same time, she is very quick to remind Utah Republicans of the moments where she has criticized the president, especially on immigration, where in Utah, there's a lot of acceptance of immigrants and a push for more liberal immigration policy. So she's saying, I criticized the president. You remember I criticized him on this thing, on that thing. But I also work with him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It feels like a very uncomfortable dance. There are a few Republicans - a few...
SNELL: A few (laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Who are outright opposed to him, right?
SNELL: Yeah. And it goes back to, again, immigration. I think that that is the issue that divides Republicans the absolute most, in part because the president himself has been so - his rhetoric has been so heated lately. And he's made it such a focal point. Now, there really are only one or two Republicans who are outright opposing Trump. Carlos Curbelo in the suburbs south of Miami might be the best example of somebody who is overtly running against Trump. He didn't endorse Trump in 2016. And he's been very open about the fact that he has criticized the president throughout the past two years. I went down and spoke with him just a few days ago. And this is what he had to say about it.
CARLOS CURBELO: Whatever I've said is what I believe. So why would I walk it back, you know? (Laughter).
SNELL: And he has been out there criticizing the president over his comments about birthright citizenship. And he has been just really out there in the press standing firm behind that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've got a last question for both of you. What do you think we're going to learn off the back of this about where the Republican Party stands with President Trump?
DETROW: Throughout the primary season, we saw that Republicans were rewarded. The closer they stuck to the president, the more they were rewarded. But we have no idea how that plays with the general public. There hasn't really been a test of that in terms of firm results since the 2016 election. So we're going to see whether this running-to-Trump strategy is a sustainable governing strategy or not.
SNELL: And I think that it's going to play out really, really clearly in the House, where we're expecting Republicans to lose seats. And the party is going to be transformed by the president because as Scott said, so many people in those protected Republican districts ran with the president. That's something they'll have to grapple with for years to come.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR congressional reporters Kelsey Snell and Scott Detrow. Thank you so much.
DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.