Top GOP officials and senators say White House chaos and impulsiveness are crippling efforts to expand the Republican Senate majority in 2018, unraveling long-laid plans and needlessly jeopardizing incumbents.
There’s a widespread sense of exasperation with the president, interviews with nearly two dozen senior Republicans reveal, and deep frustration with an administration they believe doesn’t fully grasp what it will take to preserve the narrow majority or add to it.
The most recent flash point involves Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who was attacked by a White House-sanctioned outside group after announcing his opposition to the now stalled Obamacare repeal bill. Heller, the most endangered GOP incumbent up for reelection in 2018, was initially targeted with a surprise $1 million digital, TV, and radio assault — an act of political retaliation that stunned both senators and other top GOP officials.
The TV and radio commercials, produced by America First Policies — which is staffed by a number of Trump’s top campaign aides — accused Heller of refusing to keep his “promise” to dismantle Obamacare.
The offensive reflected Trump’s mounting frustration with Capitol Hill Republicans who refuse to advance his stymied legislative agenda and was designed to send a loud message that it’s time to get on board. Yet it infuriated Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself, who privately fumed that it would make it harder to get Heller’s support for the legislation. Some McConnell allies reached out to the organization directly to express their displeasure and to plead with them to cease the attacks, reasoning that it could badly hurt Heller’s already-challenging re-election bid.
“I share the administration’s frustration on members wavering on repeal but the answer is not to attack the most vulnerable member of the conference,” said Rob Jesmer, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director.
By Tuesday evening, after several senators directly complained to the president today about the anti-Heller ads in a meeting at the White House, the group decided to stop airing the spots. Heller himself brought up the commercials during the meeting, a spokesman for the senator confirmed.
"It was a responsible decision that I’m hopeful leads to a good working relationship going forward," said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff.
McConnell has also been stewing about another race: the Alabama Senate primary, which has turned into a personal priority for the majority leader. For weeks, McConnell and top political aides had been asking the Republican National Committee to release coordinated funding to help newly-appointed Sen. Luther Strange, who is trying to fend off a large field of GOP primary opponents in a late summer special election. The NRSC and another McConnell-allied group, Senate Leadership Fund, are already aggressively boosting the Alabama senator.
Yet after weeks of requests, no RNC expenditures have been granted, and Senate Republican strategists began to wonder whether if it had simply been lost in a bureaucratic logjam — or worse, whether the anti-establishment president was reluctant to have the national party wade into a contested primary.
The lack of commitment caused so much consternation that McConnell and Strange brought the matter directly to the White House, asking for the administration to approve of the funding. Strange has talked directly to Trump about it, according to two sources briefed on the matter. McConnell personally lobbied Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a former RNC chief of staff who remains plugged into the committee’s operations.
As of Tuesday morning, however according to an RNC official, the national party still hadn’t given final approval.
In Arizona, where Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic, is facing a difficult reelection, Trump-fueled primary worries are intensifying. Prior to the 2016 election, Trump vented openly about Flake’s criticism of him — at one point, backstage before a campaign rally in Arizona, telling top aides animatedly that he wanted to find a Republican opponent to challenge the senator in 2018, according to two people familiar with the exchange. The administration’s anger at Flake has flared anew amid his criticism of the president’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey.
Flake has already drawn a Trump-friendly primary opponent in former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and two other allies of the president — Trump 2016 campaign COO Jeff DeWit and former state GOP chair Robert Graham — could also try to unseat him.
Republican officials say they expected some turbulence as they learned to coexist with a president who is, at heart, a political newcomer who is relatively unfamiliar with congressional politics. But even so, the wild unpredictability of the Trump White House has led to considerable consternation and rattled a GOP firmament that views next year’s Senate election landscape as a golden opportunity to expand the majority.
“No committee likes instability and it appears they’re creating instability,” said Rob Collins, who as NRSC executive director during the 2014 cycle helped to lead the successful GOP push to seize control of the upper chamber.
Appearing before a small group of donors and activists recently, NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), expressed concern about how the political environment is making it harder to get candidates into races and said the wooing of potential Senate candidates was going slower than expected, said one person who was present for the private gathering.
Potential contenders, he said, were deeply uncertain about whether to enter races given the challenging political conditions and were worried that things could get worse.
An NRSC spokeswoman said "our recruitment efforts are going as planned" and disputed the notion that Gardner had concerns about Trump or the political environment.
"Chairman Gardner, who didn’t get into his Senate race until March of 2014, knows first-hand that candidates do not need to announce early in a cycle to win," said Katie Martin, the spokeswoman.
Trump has already complicated the GOP’s 2018 candidate recruitment plans, dating back to just before the inauguration when the president nominated Montana Republican Ryan Zinke to the Interior secretary post. McConnell had been pursuing Zinke for months, viewing the congressman as a prized recruit who could defeat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018, and had met with him to discuss a possible race. Top party strategists had reviewed polling data suggesting that Zinke would start out the contest in a virtual dead-heat with the incumbent.
When he found out that Trump was about to tap Zinke for the Cabinet post, McConnell launched a late effort to get him to reconsider. He phoned several White House officials and explained to them that Zinke was a top prospect in the Montana race, one whom Senate Republicans had been after for months, said one person familiar with the calls. It didn’t work.
McConnell had been pushing the White House to appoint a pair of red state Democratic incumbents up for reelection in 2018, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, to Cabinet positions – a gambit that would improve the GOP’s odds of seizing their seats.
Yet Trump ignored the advice. While Manchin and Heitkamp were invited to Trump Tower – something they were happy to publicize to their conservative constituents – neither were tapped. In the months since, Manchin, who faces the hurdle of running for reelection in a state that Trump won by over 40 percentage points, has eagerly presented himself as something of a White House ally – a rare Democrat who is willing to work with the president.
The image of Manchin being close to the president — fed by a photo of Manchin seated next to Trump in the White House, and by the tales the senator tells of his phone conversations with the commander-in-chief — have created headaches for the NRSC, which has planned to target the West Virginia seat aggressively. At the committee’s Capitol Hill offices, said one senior Republican, discussion about how to contend with the perception that Manchin is working with the president has come up in meetings.
For Senate Republicans, not everything about the Trump White House has been negative. Among party operatives, there is extensive praise reserved for Vice President Mike Pence, who has emerged as the administration’s de-facto ambassador to Republicans planning for next year’s races.
Pence has begun promoting the party’s Senate contenders. During a stop in West Virginia, Pence asked to take a photo with GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is challenging Manchin, and then posted the picture on his Twitter feed, accompanied by the caption: “Enjoyed seeing Rep. @EvanJenkinsWV while visiting Charleston, WV today. Thanks to his leadership we will Make America Great Again.”
“There is nothing more powerful than a fully engaged and fully functional White House,” said Jesmer. “One that is using its political arm to sell its agenda on TV and online. One that is using the prestige of Air Force One and Air Force Two to garner significant grassroots and earned media. And one that has a coordinated messaging strategy with allies on the Hill, the cabinet and stakeholders.”
For now, the GOP will have to be content with the president’s efforts in Florida, one of the swing states he won in 2016. During a recent visit, Trump began a speech by noting that he wanted the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, to run for Senate in 2018. It was an unexpected move, given that other Republicans might be interested in seeking the seat and because presidents typically don’t weigh in on primaries at such an early stage in the election cycle.
“I hope he runs for Senate,” he said, before interrupting himself. “I know I’m not supposed to say that.”