CORONADO, Calif. — With the White House in meltdown mode, top Republican Party officials and operatives gathered at a posh oceanside resort here and contemplated a 2018 midterm election that will test them in unimaginable ways.
At the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting, strategists expressed alarm about a pair of upcoming special House elections and what they might portend for the battle for the lower chamber next year. One high-profile potential candidate outlined how he would distinguish himself from the embattled president.
And, as often happens with a party in peril, fingers were already being pointed over next year’s races.
The private talks over the three-day meeting pulled back the curtain on a Republican Party leadership grappling with a profoundly unstable White House. While some attendees shrugged off the firestorm surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey and put a positive spin on the latest Trump controversy, others conceded they were struggling to adapt to a a political moment without precedent.
“I don’t think there is anything to compare it to. You have a non-politician who’s the president, so he doesn’t do things in a political way and that completely drives insiders of both parties bonkers because they don’t understand it,” said Randy Evans, a Republican National Committeeman from Georgia who was a top adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Right now, we’re just in a completely different and foreign political environment where pollsters and pundits and focus groups don’t matter.”
“Anybody that tells you they have a feel for what’s going to happen next year is just delusional,” he added.
The House elections took center stage at the meeting, since the Senate is seen as much less likely to change hands.
In one presentation on the GOP’s challenges ahead, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s executive director, John Rogers, pointed out that far more vulnerable Republican incumbents represent districts that Hillary Clinton won than endangered Democratic incumbents in districts that Trump carried. Rogers reminded attendees that midterm elections are historically unkind to the party in the White House.
And he offered a surprisingly gloomy forecast of looming special elections that the party has been favored to win. While the race for a Georgia House seat is a tossup, he said, one in Montana later this month is closer than public polling indicated.
While Republicans have a far more favorable playing field in the Senate, they weren’t overly optimistic about those elections, either. National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Chris Hansen noted at one closed-door briefing that the party was expected to notch big gains in the 2010 midterms but “whiffed,” according to one person present.
One of the attendees at that session was Jeff Essmann, who as Montana’s Republican Party chairman is working to salvage the congressional seat. Republicans, Essmann said, face as volatile an environment as he could remember in his four decades in politics.
“The bottom line is that we’ve got to recruit well, we’re going to have to raise a bunch of money,” he said. “Democrats are upset that they lost, they didn’t think that was going to happen. They’re motivated, and we’re going to have to redouble our efforts.”
Over margaritas and seafood on the sun-drenched back patio of the Hotel del Coronado, GOP operatives began sketching out what a 2018 campaign would look like — and how they would contend with an unpredictable president with record-low approval ratings. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is being recruited by party leaders to run for California governor, said Republicans running in challenging political terrain would be able to differentiate themselves from the president by casting themselves as inclusive and highlighting local issues.
“To be successful in California is to be successful across party lines,” said Faulconer, who noted that he spoke Spanish in the first TV ad of his mayoral campaign. “You have to have Democrats, you have to have independents, you have to have Republicans. That message of bringing people together is incredibly important.”
This week’s meeting wasn’t all gloom and doom. After eight years of being locked out of the presidency, many attendees were still basking in the afterglow of Trump’s stunning election win, even if some of them were slow to come around to him during the campaign. A few wore “Make America Great Again” hats, and there was talk that the summer meeting will be in Washington, which would give RNC members proximity to the White House.
“This was a party that when the process of nominating started probably was not in the Donald Trump [camp] — there were pretty divided [RNC] meetings all the time," said Steve Duprey, an influential committeeman from New Hampshire. But "they came together after the convention, put their shoulder to the wheel and people are happy about it.”
The president did not appear at the conference, though Michael Glassner, the top strategist on his reelection campaign, was seen making the rounds on Thursday. Trump cut a five-minute, face-to-camera video that played during the closing session in which he briefly addressed the midterms.
“Your commitment will help us keep the House in 2018 and gain more seats in the Senate. I’ll be going around to different states, I’ll be working hard for the people running for Congress and the people running for the Senate,” he said. “We can gain a lot of seats, especially if it all keeps going like it’s going now.”
Yet as party officials begin preparing for 2018, tensions are flaring. On Wednesday, as the besieged administration struggled to answer questions about the Comey dismissal, the NRCC released a fundraising email that raised the prospect of a Democratic-led Trump impeachment.
Several strategists close to the RNC and the White House, neither of which got a heads-up before the message was sent, said they were rankled by the move. The House GOP campaign arm and the administration have already been at odds over the early planning for 2018.
As word of the email raced through the hotel, NRCC officials, who had been watching NBA playoff games and holding meetings in a downstairs bar, scrambled to control the damage.
With the Comey firing and Russia investigation dominating the headlines, there were also moments of discomfort. During a welcome reception Wednesday, a national committeeman took the stage and, perhaps jokingly, referred to those assembled as “comrades," drawing grimaces.
At times, the RNC appeared to take pains to obscure any dissent about Trump. On Thursday, RNC members gathered for a closed-door breakfast meeting to discuss issues confronting the committee. Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, fearing leaks, implored attendees to turn off their phones and not record the proceedings. She also asked RNC and hotel staffers to leave the room.
McDaniel warned the group that reporters were covering the event and trying to eavesdrop in the hopes of writing negative stories.
McDaniel’s aides insisted the move was typical. Yet some members felt she was going too far to project a united front.
For all of Trump’s difficulties, however, GOP leaders said his base of support – among the conservative grassroots and party hierarchy – was largely intact. At least for now.
“I think he’s still in a honeymoon period,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan GOP chairman, “and he’s getting a pass on a lot of things that in another six months, eight months might become a bigger issue.”