Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation could upend the 2018 midterm elections — whether it reveals wrongdoing at the highest levels or exonerates the president. And yet campaign officials and party insiders on both sides are unprepared for it.
Interviews with two dozen political strategists reveal that there is very little planning underway for the possibility that Mueller will make significant news this year, potentially in the middle of a campaign cycle that history suggests will already be difficult for the president's party.
"It's something on everybody's minds," said one Republican strategist working on races in Tennessee, who like many sources interviewed for this story requested anonymity to discuss internal campaign strategy. "There's an unknown there. That's certainly a fear."
Many Republicans said it’s nearly impossible to prepare for the myriad Mueller scenarios, and they argue their time is better-spent dealing with current realities of the race. Those Republicans who have given the issue thought have wildly divergent views about how they would advise candidates to proceed if there is a Mueller verdict, from dismissing negative results as “fake news” to pushing for a pivot to local issues.
Democrats, meanwhile, are in their own messaging quandary, caught between a desire to seize on a potential one-of-a-kind scandal or stick with pocketbook issues such as health care. Some party operatives even think Democrats would be better off in November if Mueller’s investigation never existed in the first place.
“It’s not as if Trump wasn’t already the driving narrative of midterm campaigns,” Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist advising a handful of House and gubernatorial candidates. “But this would block out the sun to a large degree.”
Here's a roadmap to how the political class is grappling with the most significant uncertainty of the 2018 campaign cycle.
The combative conservatives
Many conservative voters doubt Mueller will find anything damaging about Trump—and even if he does, they are unlikely to believe it, making conservative candidates less likely to spend time plotting responses.
“It would have to be really big, really important, really a smoking gun, really damaging, documentable and verifiable and provable in a court of law,” said conservative strategist Brendan Steinhauser, stressing he was characterizing views of voters he encounters, not his personal opinion. “And even then, I think there’s a good, healthy 50 percent, 55 percent of the Republican Party that would come out and say, ‘Well, this is just a political witch hunt.’”
That’s how Trump has been describing the wide-ranging investigation into Russian election meddling and possible Russian connections to his campaign. And some operatives say that seemingly bad news from Mueller’s investigation could juice turnout on the right if the base feels Trump is under attack.
“If they come out with something before the election, I think there’s an opportunity to rally the base and remind people that…Trump has a lot of enemies out there, a lot of people trying to bring him down,” said a Republican strategist who is working largely in districts that Trump won. “We need to rally together to keep sending Republicans to Congress to work with him.”
Some in the donor class think even a “worst-case” Mueller scenario would not automatically hand Democrats the House.
“Let’s say it’s the worst-case scenario for President Trump, which would be, Mueller indicts a family member in the coming months,” said a major Republican donor. “At that point, the narrative will be impeachment versus a strong economy and Republican results. Republicans are probably salivating about the idea of Democrats explicitly running on impeachment.”
The tune-it-out crowd
Most of the strategists interviewed by McClatchy say there’s little that candidates can do to prepare for Mueller’s findings, since the possibilities are so wide-ranging.
“It’s got a lot of people nervous,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “It’s always lumped into the greater, ‘Who knows what happens with Trump, what’s next?’ Is it the investigation, is it a scandal?...Because it’s this bottomless pit of crazy things that could happen, you just need to block it out and run the campaign you know how to do.”
For many contenders, that means focusing on cultivating a strong local brand and message to be as shielded as possible from the whims of Washington story lines. It’s an approach that worked in some key contests in 2016 in which Republicans outperformed Trump.
“Nobody knows whether President Trump or Nancy Pelosi will be a bigger drag on local candidates,” said the major Republican donor. “We’re not going to know that for six months, so the smartest strategy is to focus on constituent and local issues and create the platform to then nationalize or not, based on the circumstances in September and October.”
And for many candidates, said a Republican operative involved in races across the country, it wouldn’t take much time to determine a response if Mueller does emerge with a tough report: their answers would largely be dictated by the kind of district in which they’re running.
“If you’re running in a [Republican] plus-20 district, plus-10 for Trump, that’s going to motivate the s*** out of the base,” the source said. As for a district that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton?
“You throw him under the bus.”
The alarm bell caucus
The challenge grows for candidates running in clear swing districts, where bad Mueller news would further activate Democrats even as Republicans can’t afford to lose their Trump-loving base.
Some strategists say it would be wise for candidates in those seats to start thinking through potential responses, though there’s little indication many are doing so yet (some sources stressed that it’s likely still early and that preparations may intensify this summer).
“You should be prepared at least notionally for some of the possible outcomes with any announcements from Mueller,” said another national Republican strategist involved in the midterms. “You need to be prepared ahead of time partly because you just don’t know when an announcement will come down…I don’t think any candidate is expected to have a full-scale answer minutes after some sort of announcement is made, but they should be able to at least, over the course of a couple days, develop some sort of response.”
So far, the furthest some have gone is publicly contemplating what would happen if Trump fired Mueller.
“For Republicans in these swing districts, especially in the suburbs…firing Mueller is probably what they’re most concerned about,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist based in California. “I think you’d definitely see some of these members at that point say they’d support articles of impeachment.
“That’s the scenario that’s easier to contemplate, that’s being talked about, you can think about the consequences of that,” he continued. “Anything else regarding Mueller is hard to anticipate or game out.”
The Democratic divide
Most Democrats say the range of possible outcomes from Mueller’s investigation – from the timing of the revelations, to the nature of the charges, to who’s being indicted – make all preparations near-futile. Some operatives even doubt that additional, significant charges come before November at all.
“You can spend all week game-planning all the scenarios,” said one veteran Democratic strategist. “It’s just not worth your time.”
Since the outset of Mueller’s investigation, Democrats have argued internally about whether to incorporate it into their message. Most party leaders are convinced the party should continue emphasizing pocketbook issues.
“We’ve got really potent arguments to make,” said one party strategist eyeing Senate races. “And I would much rather be leading the news with that than I would Russia stories.”
Zac Petkanas, a former aide to Hillary Clinton who now works on messaging related to the Russia investigation, agreed that for now, Democratic campaigns should stick to issues like health care and taxes. But, he said, “if charges come down and wrongdoing is found, the political landscape changes dramatically. And then everyone needs to re-evaluate what kind of campaign they have.”