President Trump is not on the ballot in 2018, but the White House is planning a full-throttle campaign to plunge the president into the midterm elections, according to senior officials and advisers familiar with the planning.
Trump’s political aides have met with 116 candidates for office in recent months, according to senior White House officials, seeking to become involved in Senate, House and gubernatorial races — and possibly contested Republican primaries as well.
The president has told advisers that he wants to travel extensively and hold rallies and that he is looking forward to spending much of 2018 campaigning. He has also told aides that the elections would largely determine what he can get done — and that he expects he would be blamed for losses, such as last week’s humiliating defeat that handed a Senate seat in Alabama to a Democrat for the first time in 25 years.
“For the president, this isn’t about adulation and cheering crowds,” White House political director Bill Stepien said in an interview. “This is about electing and reelecting Republicans.”
But getting deeply involved in the midterms could be a highly risky strategy for a president with historically low approval ratings, now hovering in the mid- to low 30s in many national polls, and might be particularly disruptive in primary contests pitting establishment candidates against pro-Trump insurgents. Last week’s upset in Alabama — where Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican nominee Roy Moore — came after Trump endorsed two losing candidates in both the primary and special election.
Many Democrats also say they relish the idea of being able to run against Trump.
“He absolutely is turbocharging the opposition. My guess is most of the people running for office in 2018 are not going to want to cleave too closely to him,” said David Axelrod, former president Barack Obama’s chief strategist. “He torques up both sides, but he torques up the opposition more. He is the greatest organizing tool that Democrats could have.”
Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors’ Association, said, “we look forward to everything that comes out of the president’s iPhone.”
In coming months, Stepien is planning nearly daily meetings with potential candidates from around the country and aims to give Trump endorsement recommendations by the spring, officials said. The White House is also working with the Republican National Committee to discuss the strongest fundraising opportunities for Trump, they said.
Stepien meets with Trump weekly to talk about the 2018 slate, poll numbers, candidates, their issues and their level of agreement with Trump, and he also regularly convenes with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and other senior aides on the midterm outlook, officials said. Trump, senior officials said, has shown particular interest in certain races, including Republican senatorial candidate Josh Hawley in Missouri and the possibilities of Senate bids by Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and Gov. Paul LePage of Maine.
On Saturday, Trump’s campaign sent out a “2018 candidates” survey to supporters on issues including abortion, gun rights and Trump’s call for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But fundraising has been hurt in some quarters under Trump’s presidency, posing a financial challenge for a party increasingly spread thin in defending potentially vulnerable seats in the House and Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, for example, has raised only about $2 million a month for the past four months and is spending more money than it is taking in. The White House has grown concerned about the anemic fundraising, according to one political adviser. Committee officials declined to comment.
Trump himself has proved to be a prodigious fundraiser when he wants to do it, and advisers say he may share his valuable donor and supporter database with favored candidates.
There are other risks for Trump on the campaign trail. The president frequently wanders off topic at rallies and often prefers to talk about himself, sometimes generating new controversies and making the candidate a sideshow at best. But the president can also draw a crowd as few other Republicans can.
Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said the president needs to work to broaden his appeal ahead of the midterms.
“President Trump deserves far more credit for his accomplishments, but any president who has those types of numbers loses the House and the Senate,” Ruddy said, referring to recent polling. “He must move to the center. He must be the old Donald Trump — the bipartisan dealmaker who is looking for consensus.”
Trump’s political team plays down popularity concerns and says candidates are lining up to get in the door, particularly for GOP primaries.
“To say the president has shaky political standing, I’d say the pollsters, the experts, the pundits have never figured out how to poll this guy,” Stepien said. “You look at public polling — we have our own numbers that I trust because the experts don’t know how to poll him. They never have.”
The president is also unpredictable in following his political team’s advice. In Alabama, Stepien warned Trump not to endorse anyone, according to White House officials. He first backed establishment favorite Sen. Luther Strange in the primary, who was trounced by Moore. Then, Stepien and others urged him to shy away from Moore after the candidate faced allegations of sexual misconduct; Trump vocally supported him anyway.
Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon remains another wild card as he pledges to continue backing anti-establishment candidates like Moore. In Nevada, for example, Bannon has told others he will help raise money for Danny Tarkanian, an insurgent candidate with a controversial past planning to challenge Sen. Dean Heller (R), while Trump has yet to make a commitment. Bannon also wants to back Chris McDaniel for Senate if he runs in Mississippi, while Trump and McConnell support Sen. Roger Wicker (R).
Bannon's rift with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is particularly treacherous for Trump, who is expected to try to thread the needle, and could make it more difficult to recruit establishment candidates. Last week, defeated Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie — who was endorsed by Trump and attempted to reach Trump voters with incendiary positions on immigration and crime — said the political atmosphere was so "poisonous" that he would not recommend that other Republicans run for office.
Democrats have been watching the Republican infighting from the sidelines with rising hope that Trump’s approach will play into their hands next year.
“They are mixing a very risky cocktail, where they are alienating suburban voters at the same time that they are motivating progressives and people of color,” said Joel Benenson, who served as the top pollster for Obama and continues to work on Democratic campaigns.
Trump’s team has also struggled at times to make basic decisions. Republicans aligned with the NRSC struggled for weeks to get a reading from the White House on what it wanted to do in the Alabama primary earlier this year, with calls and emails often going unreturned, strategists said.
Some consultants say the White House’s political team doesn’t have the influence to secure decisions from Trump, and some fear that much of the midterm campaign will hinge on his unpredictable moods.
Still, some Republicans say they have recently seen improved communications with the White House. Trump has patched up his fractious relationship with McConnell for the most part, advisers say, and the political team has been given more leeway under Kelly.
“In a challenging midterm, a split within the party is deadly. Everything other than internal consensus is totally irrelevant,” said Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser. “I think there are some improved communications between the White House and political entities related to 2018.”
The White House plans to send surveys to candidates across the country to complete — an audition of sorts for Trump’s endorsement gauging their views on issues such as immigration and health care. They are also asking potential candidates for internal polling and fundraising numbers and to secure petition signatures.
In 2018 governor’s races, the White House is particularly interested in three states that will be battlegrounds in 2020: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, advisers said.
Trump is expected to start meeting regularly with candidates in the next month, including Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), whom he wants to run for Senate against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). The president’s team has already met with Josh Mandel, the Ohio treasurer running for Senate; Paul Mango, a gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania; and Troy Downing, a Senate candidate from Montana.
In Pennsylvania, the White House has begun planning for a special House election to replace former congressman Tim Murphy, who resigned amid a personal scandal in October. Cabinet secretaries are expected to fly into the area for events. A senior White House official said a Trump visit is also possible.
The White House political team, with 12 members, says its messaging in 2018 will largely focus on the economy — if Trump sticks to the theme.
With the Republican tax cut package expected to pass in Congress this week, Stepien argued that the administration and Republicans have a marquee issue to sell despite its low approval among the public so far. Stepien said the White House expects people to vote largely on economic issues such as, “Are you employed? How are your investments doing?”
“On many key issues, the American people are still with Trump. He needs to focus on defense, infrastructure and terrorism. All indications are the economy is doing well,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “He needs to stop tweeting and getting in all these culture wars.”
Even with the recent defeats in Alabama and Virginia, Stepien said the president improved the fortunes of both candidates by raising turnout near the end.
“The president’s base is motivated and strong in every poll we see,” he said. “Off-year elections are all about turnout, and we believe the president’s base will be motivated to turn out.”
But Steve Israel, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012 and 2014, said there are many districts the president can’t touch and that he would be better off quietly raising money.
“Democrats have all the energy. They are on offense,” Israel said. “It’s very difficult for an unpopular president to move the needle in the other direction.”