WASHINGTON — Headed into a election that’s supposed to favor Democrats, a top GOP Senate strategist says Republicans are counting on President Donald Trump’s media dominance to turn out their voters in November — and drown out opponents’ messaging.
If successful, Republicans could pick up as many as four Senate seats this November, even as the left swamps their candidates in fundraising and enthusiasm, GOP operative Josh Holmes told Beyond the Bubble on Monday.
“Everybody thinks that President Trump is some kind of drag on the Republican Party, [when] in this case, he’s just the essential ingredient,” said Holmes, who’s helped engineer his party’s Senate strategy for the past 16 years as a chief aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“What the president is doing by continuing to discuss the investigation [into allegations of collusion between his campaign and Russia] and the quote-unquote ‘witch hunt,’ particularly on prime time Fox [News], is doing more to mobilize base voters than any legislative issue we’ve seen,” added Holmes.
Republicans have long relied on the campaign mantra of repealing Obamacare to get their base to the polls. Now in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, efforts to end Obamacare have failed, and party leaders have moved on to other priorities, like reforming the tax code.
“There’s nobody who votes on the hypothetical or the ideological implication of the economy… they vote their own pocketbook,” Holmes said of the sweeping tax bill the GOP passed last year. “If you see a significant difference in your paycheck, you will probably have a reaction to that.”
Democrats, on the other hand, now call health care their top campaign issue headed into the 2018 elections. They point to rising premium costs and a Republican-led effort to remove Obamacare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
“You could be up with 10 million points of health care messaging from now until the election,” said Holmes, referring to the unit of measurement of TV ad saturation.
“None of that matters if President Trump doesn’t utter the word health care. He controls the conversation in a way that we have not seen a president do,” he added.
Holmes was among Trump’s critics last election cycle, suggesting early on that then-candidate Trump could hurt the chances of GOP candidates running down ticket.
Republicans went on to defy expectations by holding onto control of the Senate majority that year, defending a large number of seats in states Obama won.
Democrats now face a similarly challenging landscape this November, defending 10 seats in states Trump carried two years ago. While the party out of power traditionally picks up seats in a president’s first midterm election, Holmes said Republicans are still bullish on expanding their majority.
“You’ve got a whole host of issues that play largely to Democrats’ favor on a national scope, but in states like North Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri... They play out a lot differently than they do along the coasts,” said Holmes.
“I think the range at this point is one to four [Senate pickups],” said Holmes. “I don’t see Republicans moving backwards right now in the Senate.”
Republicans already lost one Senate seat since Trump took office, in a special election in bright red Alabama last year.
They now control a razor-thin majority of 51 seats. Democrats are targeting GOP-held seats in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee, and are talking up their chances of potentially flipping the chamber.
“What worries me the most is… the overheated turnout machine of Democrats at this point,” said Holmes, who pointed to a handful of Democratic victories in special elections in the House this year. “You can lose an election a million different ways, but the one that you’re absolutely guaranteed to lose is if your people stay home.”
Along with that enthusiasm, Democratic candidates nation-wide are raising serious money from a base newly awakened by Trump’s election.
Senate Democrats and challengers posted jaw-dropping figures in fundraising reports due this month, alarming even some relatively safe Republican incumbents. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, was outraised by Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, who brought in $10.4 million to Cruz’s $4.6 million in the same span.
“This kind of money advantage is totally unprecedented,” said Holmes. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out.”
McClatchy’s Beyond the Bubble show is produced by Jordan-Marie Smith and Davin Coburn. Alex Roarty, a national political correspondent for McClatchy, and Andrea Drusch, Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recorded this episode at McClatchy’s Washington Bureau, July 17, 2018.