The call to Steve Stivers, the chair of House Republicans’ campaign wing, came in Tuesday evening, roughly an hour after President Donald Trump ended his speech to a joint session of Congress.
On the other line was a former candidate wanting back in on the action.
“He said, ‘The president did a great job. I’m thinking about this and I might want to run again, I want to be a part of something,’” Stivers said. “He had taken it off the table and now he called me to say, ‘I’m thinking about it again. I want to sit down and talk.’ That was a very important and positive step.”
It’s far too early in his term to speculate about what the 2018 political climate might look like. And one speech can’t paper over a polarizing policy agenda. But if a large part of Democrats’ plan for the 2018 midterm elections was to let Trump stumble his way into a pile of Republican losses, his speech to Congress on Tuesday night reminded them it would not be that easy. At the same time, it reassured Republicans spooked by recent town hall intensity that the president might not be the flat-out liability he once seemed in the chaotic early days of his presidency.
“There’s been a lot of quality Republican candidates who have been waiting to decide whether they’re going to run in 2018,” said John Brabender, a veteran Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist. “I think that speech last night will actually give some quality Republican candidates that will be up against Democrats more courage than they had.”
Many Democrats sounded frustration Wednesday that Trump was receiving plaudits for a speech that was light on specifics and merely represented a change in tone.
“He gives an ordinary speech, and by not embarrassing the country over the course of an hour, people are astonished. Can he benefit from low expectations there? Sure,” said South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an up-and-coming Democratic leader whose home state Sen. Joe Donnelly is in for a tough re-election battle in 2018. “He went out there, he gave a well-structured speech, he stuck to what was on the Teleprompter, and it was not clear until now that he could do that.”
The Democrats’ public message barely shifted at all in the speech’s wake on Tuesday night, and liberal frustration with the “new Trump” narrative bubbled over by Wednesday, with officials and operatives alike heatedly pointing to Trump’s detachment from policy or budgetary reality.
“It’s smoke and mirrors,” said Roberta Lange, the Democratic Party chair in Nevada, where Republican senate and governor seats held by Dean Heller and Brian Sandoval are among the most vulnerable ones up for grabs in the country in 2018. “The bottom line is the Trump administration is supporting breaking up families, going into people’s homes.”
The post-speech debates turns out to be nearly identical to the one prevalent throughout the general election, when Republicans were continually hopeful that each isolated instance of discipline or each Teleprompter-centric speech represented The Big Pivot and Democrats were convinced that voters would never tolerate Trump’s wild swings. But they did.
After that searing experience, the idea that Democrats have to start taking the president more seriously as a political operator had more currency after the speech.
“Following his address to Congress Tuesday that pundits graded as his most presidential moment to date, we cannot sit back and assume his numbers will stay dismal on their own all the way through 2018,” added the Priorities USA Action super PAC in a post-speech memo circulated on Wednesday. “The bottom line: if Democrats are going to reenergize base voters who did not turn out at all last year and win persuadable swing voters in key battleground districts and states, they cannot just hope Donald Trump remains his own worst enemy.”
Priorities’ memo sounded the alarm clearly, forcing party leaders to recognize that for all the rage on the left and all the president’s early miscues, Trump remains a formidable opponent with a formidable message — one who can turn on the political charm when necessary.
“Even as Trump courted unprecedented levels of controversy in his presidency’s opening weeks, most Trump voters have yet to show signs of any buyers’ remorse. And the style points Trump earned Tuesday night may not cause some voters who had soured on him to give him a second look,” reads the note, which offers Democrats ten ways to send a message about “Trump’s betrayal of working class voters.”
“Further, according to focus groups conducted by Priorities in Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, many millennials and African Americans who voted in 2012 but not in 2016 do not regret their decision to sit out the last election.”
Many of the red-state Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018 already understood the task at hand. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — who recently explicitly challenged Bernie Sanders supporters to give him a primary challenge amid criticism of his departures from Democratic Party orthodoxy — went so far as to escort Trump around the Capitol, reflecting his need to appeal to Trump voters in a state that the Republican won by 42 points in November.
Whether Trump can maintain the posture he struck Tuesday is a huge “if.” A divisive intraparty squabble over repealing and replacing Obamacare could devolve into an agenda-destroying morass on Capitol Hill. Trump could revert to his campaign-season form, overshadowing his policy wins with divisive rhetoric. His new travel ban on a handful of majority-Muslim countries, and his sweeping deportation policy could dominate the discussion at the expense of nearly everything else. New disclosures about Trump aides’ contacts with Russia could stymie GOP momentum.
“If the Republicans who didn’t support Donald Trump and center right independents or even middle of the road independents continue to associate the Republican Party with what they find negative about Donald Trump, the Democrats will win the election in November,” said Virginia GOP chairman John Whitbeck.
But to some nervous congressional Republicans, the prospect of a softer-sounding and less heavy-handed Trump for the next few months offered some promise — stylistically it could have more appeal in the suburbs come 2018. That’s an acute concern in the 23 GOP-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried, and a point of hope for Republicans in the 12 Democratic-held districts where Trump won.
Whitbeck said Trump’s address to Congress was a chance for him to begin building his support in the Virginia suburbs, where he was badly beaten by Hillary Clinton. He’ll try to capitalize on that momentum Wednesday, when he delivers remarks on his call for increased defense spending in Newport News, Va. That’s the state where Trump’s first test will come in November this year, when Virginia holds a gubernatorial election.
The task for Democrats, then, is to keep the message focused on what Trump is actually doing, not just what he’s saying.
“Every day in our newspapers there are at least two editorials supporting the Affordable Care Act. He could do all these things to try to get to people’s emotions like he did last night, and people forget the reality,” said Lange. “But he’s a businessman. Businessmen say things people like to hear.”
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