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How Tightly Should Congressional Republicans Embrace Trump?

In this week’s politics chat, we pretend we’re strategists for Congressional Republicans and try to figure out how to deal with President Trump. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): So, after a GOP candidate in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, Karen Handel, made it into the runoff on Tuesday, she did an interview with CNN and was asked whether she wanted Trump to campaign for her. She said, “ I — I would hope so. I mean, look, we — all Republicans, it is all hands on deck for us.”

The exchange nicely encapsulated this overriding question: If you’re a Republican senator or representative, what should your stance be with regards to Trump right now? He still has a somewhat terrible approval rating, but he’s moved to more mainstream positions on a few issues. (Let’s not call it a pivot — maybe a pirouette.) Where does that leave the various factions of the GOP coalition?

Let’s take a first swipe at answering that question by trying to answer it specifically for Handel. She said that she hoped Trump would campaign for her. Is that smart?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Not particularly. But whatcha gonna do? I think Handel probably wishes Trump hadn’t taken such a fancy to the race, to be honest.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I think it was smart to say that — as long as he doesn’t actually campaign for her.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I’m not sure she had any choice other than to give the answer she gave. Trump’s net approval rating in Georgia’s 6th District is about even. She needs the Republicans who like Trump to vote for her. Of course, on the other hand, Trump’s involvement motivates Democratic voters too. Bottom line: I think I agree with Perry and Clare.

micah: So she says she wants him to campaign for her, but behind the scenes says “stay away!”

perry: That would be my advice to her, yes. Don’t diss the president, who is from your party, on CNN.

clare.malone: Right.

It’s like inviting people to a wedding who you’re hoping — and even counting on — will say “no” in the RSVP. If that makes sense?

harry: Handel, like the rest of us, is also dealing with uncertain terrain. The district used to be very Republican but was more competitive in 2016 because well-educated white voters (who dominate Georgia 6) turned against Trump. So do the 2012 or 2016 results better reflect the real Georgia 6? The fact that Democrat Jon Ossoff got so close to 50 percent on Tuesday indicates that, at the very least, we can say the district is not as red as it was in 2012.

clare.malone: I’m trying to imagine what a Trump campaign event would look like there … also, is there something to be said that campaigning in Georgia 6 would dilute his brand a little bit? Like, he’s just traveling to make sure that what the media perceives as a referendum election on his first 100 days goes the way he wants it to?

I get that Trump cares about media perception, but it seems ill-advised to play to those stakes too much.

perry: Right. Handel might be better off having Vice President Mike Pence, Mitt Romney, etc. campaign for her — high-profile Republicans but not Trump. Georgia 6 is a very well-educated district, so Handel needs someone who appeals to that portion of the GOP.

clare.malone: Pence makes sense.

perry: Trump should get a win, wherever he can. He should campaign in these special elections if he could make the difference, like a swing district where the voters in play were older, non-college whites.

clare.malone: Do we know who won Georgia 6 in the 2016 Republican primary?

harry: Marco Rubio.

I guess Trump could try and show he’s more of a Georgia 6 Republican by eating at the local Panera Bread instead of his usual McDonalds. To the larger point, Handel needs all Republicans on board. Pence is a smarter move for sure, though even he isn’t the type of Republican I imagine when I think of Georgia 6. Maybe Rubio!

clare.malone: Where is Marco these days???

micah: Florida.

clare.malone: Perfect time of year for the beach.

micah: OK, so let’s widen this discussion out and talk about how you feel about Trump and how you position yourself in relation to Trump if you’re a Republican in Congress. We’ll go through a few different types of Republicans. Sound good?

clare.malone: LANES!

harry: I’m ready. Granted, I have had no sleep, but since when has that stopped me?

clare.malone: BRING BACK THE LANES!

micah: I miss the lanes!

clare.malone: Now everyone just gets along peachy-keen. There is only one lane.

micah: OK, role-playing time!

clare.malone: 😳

micah: Clare, Perry and Harry, you’re a member of the Tuesday Group, the informal coalition of more moderate, establishment friendly Republicans in the House. How do you feel about Trump?

perry: I would oppose him on some policy matters, like the health care bill. But not bash him personally. Make it about issues. You need some of his voters.

clare.malone: Yeah. Health care is a safe space to bash. I think we’re heading into a potential rough patch coming up with the budget.

harry: It depends on the district I’m from, if I’m a moderate. If I’m from a district like Dan Donovan’s on Staten Island, I know my district went heavily for Trump. I don’t want to distance myself from him too much. On the other hand, if I’m Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, I’m from a district that went heavily for Clinton. I’d distance myself from Trump both on a personal and policy basis as much as possible.

perry: That ^^^ is the most true answer.

clare.malone: “I’m not as conservative as you think” is one tactic.

micah: So the bash-Trump-on-issues-not-personality answer is interesting. I feel like a lot of Republicans have done the opposite, but maybe they’re the more conservative members?

perry: If you are an electorally-endangered Republican, I would say issues and personality are different.

clare.malone: Or maybe you just try to avoid talking about the president if you’re a Tuesday Grouper. You talk about your legislative agenda, how exciting it is to have a Republican congress, etc. etc.

harry: You can try and do that, Clare. But I’m just not sure that works. The Democrats are going to bring it up over and over again. Of course, I’m not sure there is an answer that is satisfactory.

perry: Right.

clare.malone: Some Republicans, like Ted Yoho, are saying Trump should release his tax returns. That’s a way to get him on “personality” vs. politics.

perry: Yeah, tax returns are personal to Trump, and I think Republican members have to be careful there of not offending his base.

I suspect the Tom Cotton answer — defending Trump on the tax returns — is more common than Yoho’s.

clare.malone: Right. But if you’re a moderate, this is perhaps not a bad way to show that you’re your own man or woman to the people of your district.

harry: Dan Donovan, a moderate, did want Trump to release his tax returns.

micah: OK … next up: You’re a member of the Freedom Caucus.

harry: If I’m a Freedom Caucus member, I just do what feels good.

clare.malone: Their districts ended up embracing Trump, so you’re certainly in a trickier position.

perry: True, Clare, but as our data showed, lots of these members won by more than Trump did in the 2016 general election. And Trump lost the Republican primary in many of their districts. So it’s not clear they all have much to fear.

harry: They seem to be going further to the right. They’ve made Trump seem more moderate. And, exit polls show, Trump’s worst group in the primary was very conservative Republicans. Ergo, distancing themselves from Trump by running to the right may not be a bad strategy.

clare.malone: Yeah, that’s interesting to bring up the fact that they’re hard ideologues.

micah: Are they going to be a problem for Trump in the budget fight?

harry: If you’re a Freedom Caucus member, I think the way you ensure your appeal stays high is to do what Eric Cantor didn’t do. You keep up your constituent services to show voters you care about them.

As to your question, Micah, I’d say they could be a huge problem. Of course, long time to go, etc.

perry: The chairman of the Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows, says no.

clare.malone: Shutting down the government while your party is in power is a bad look.

harry: But they sorta don’t care how things look. Not passing a health care bill when you promised you’d pass one is also a bad look.

micah: So, to wrap up the Freedom Caucus people, you think of and pitch yourself as the conservative check on the Trump administration?

perry: That seems right, yes.

harry: I agree with Mr. Bacon.

micah: OK, let’s turn to the iconoclastic GOP senators: John McCain, Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham.

clare.malone: The only good things these guys have to say about Trump are: They like his picks on defense/national security; they like his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.

That’s their brand.

perry: In some way, these guys are like Freedom Caucus members in that they do have some deeper principles. For example, McCain and Graham are going to be strongly anti-Russia, no matter who is president, as long as Putin is Russia’s leader.

harry: Depends on when they’re up for reelection. McCain just won reelection and doesn’t care.

Sasse I’m interested in; he’s up for reelection in 2020. His anti-Trump record is more talk than action so far — he’s voted mostly in accordance with Trump’s position on most issues. (Sasse is really conservative, according to his voting record.)

Graham, up in 2020, has always had problems with the GOP base.

If you look at all of these guys’ voting records (McCain’s, Sasse’s and Graham’s), it’s tough to find a lot of issues where they cast their votes against Trump. It’s mostly been about personality. And on that end, a lot of Republicans do wish that Trump would tone it down, and not, for example, tweet the stuff he does.

clare.malone: I mean, Sasse isn’t up for reelection until 2020, but he’s the most interesting one to watch because he’s the newest and he took a pretty bold public stance against Trump early on in the campaign.

perry: Agreed. I think if you are up in 2018 your posture is different, because you have to worry about a primary. Arizona senator Jeff Flake, I suspect, is anti-Trump already in some ways but would be more so if not for fear of a primary challenge. If I were Flake, I would not be too anti-Trump, particularly on the wall and anti-immigration ideas I suspect Flake might personally oppose.

Graham can be very anti-Trump until 2019 or so.

harry: Flake is the one most in trouble. Arizona was one of Trump’s best states in the primary. He’s also the only one up in 2018 of that iconoclastic group.

micah: Is Trump still popular enough with Republican voters that anti-Trump moves/rhetoric would inspire a primary challenge?

clare.malone: Hm.

harry: What happened in Georgia 6 last night? The pro-Trump GOP candidates fell flat on their face.

clare.malone: I guess if that pattern carries on, you could have primary challenges the other way around, to people who are considered too in bed with Trump.

perry: There is a whole group of states in the South where I would say Trump is pretty strong statewide and I would be cautious about taking him on. Rand Paul just won reelection. If he were up in 2018, he would not be doing all this Trump bashing.

harry: I think one of the bigger questions is whether these voters knew what they were getting themselves into. Folks in Kentucky knew Paul was a libertarian. Flake has a very interesting record. But there was no way for primary voters to know he’d end up being fairly anti-Trump for a Republican when they first elected him in 2012 obviously.

micah: To close, just for fun, let’s say you’re a somewhat high-profile Republican; you can be more moderate or more conservative, but you’re virulently anti-Trump (for whatever reason). And you have presidential ambitions, and in your fancier moments you dream about stomping through New Hampshire snow in 2020. What do you do?

clare.malone: Ooh, my fancier moments.

perry: I would not blatantly visit New Hampshire like John Kasich is doing. Too soon.

clare.malone: Kasich is a whole thing, though.

harry: You don’t insult voters. You don’t tell them that they were stupid for choosing Trump. Tell them that Trump let you down. And find a big issue where he let you down. Then you work your behind off in New Hampshire.

clare.malone: I would try to build a good reputation in the Congress while I subtly hammer away at Russia stuff, transparency stuff for the near future.

And then I would start to say where he’s betraying conservative values as the term goes by. And finally you say, “I gotta do this, guys. I gotta run to be the savior of conservatism” — the updated Ronald Reagan.

micah: So a primary challenge to Trump comes on policy or personality?

harry: It has to be on policy, in my opinion. Or, at least, rooted in it. If his personality problems mattered, Trump would have lost the primary the first time around.

clare.malone: I mean, both. But you justify it on a policy basis by saying that he’s basically relying on a more liberal governing agenda (point to Jared Kushner’s influence, etc.)

perry: Politics. If he’s at 35 percent approval and the GOP just lost the House, you can make it about saving the party from a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren presidency with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi giving everyone free college. You can’t really start this campaign against Trump till after the midterms.

harry: I think Perry is right. The reason there have been strong primary challenges of incumbent presidents is because they are unpopular. George H.W. Bush vs. Pat Buchanan in 1992. Jimmy Carter vs. Ted Kennedy in 1980. Even Lyndon Johnson vs. Eugene McCarthy in 1968.

perry: If Republicans lose the House and Trump looks like a bad bet to win reelection, I think the case is something like his personality and his lack of policy accomplishments are holding back the conservative movement and potentially leading to the return of an Obama-style America.

perry: Sasse would be perfect if all of that happens

harry: Sasse could kick some…

micah: Butt?

OK, take us home, Perry.

perry: At least right now, Republicans should disagree with Trump at times, but in an agreeable way. He still has support in the party’s base, the people they need to vote for them in 2018. The key is to make sure you have a broader coalition than Trump, but one that includes his voters.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.