As he flew aboard Air Force One to an airport hangar rally in Mosinee, Wis., President Trump groused to aides about having to tone down his prepared remarks.
Pipe bombs had been mailed to several of his favorite foils, including to the homes of two former presidents and the New York offices of CNN. It was a moment for presidential leadership, less than two weeks before the midterm elections that would deliver a verdict on his first two years in office.
But, according to two aides familiar with Trump’s objections, the words set to be loaded into the teleprompter didn’t match the president’s own plans for closing the campaign, the details of which he had kept from other Republican leaders. He wanted controversy, fury and fear that would push limits and get ratings, paint a caravan of Central American migrants as a mortal threat and color Democrats as their co-conspirators.
Now speechwriters were telling the man who encouraged fistfights at his 2016 campaign rallies to call for “all sides to come together in peace and harmony.” They wanted the real estate promoter who dubbed his Democratic opponent “crooked” to demand an end to “treating political opponents as being morally defective.”
The midterm elections were always going to come down to a moment like this: President Trump, isolated and imperious, deciding the fate of his Republican Party’s electoral hopes.
In three short years, he had become an omnipotent force in American life, overturning the customs of the White House, the values of the Republican Party and the rules of public debate. His opponents had reacted fiercely, with the largest street protests since the 1960s and the greatest wave of political engagement — as measured by money and volunteer energy — that had ever been seen in an off-year election.
They were united, as rarely before, against him. But that was just how he liked it, always at the center of attention, going with his gut, selling his defiance as a foundational attribute. He believed in the reactions of his own enormous crowds. They would allow him to defy the prognosticators and polls, show up his media critics, and once again rewrite the rules of American politics.
At the White House, a number of senior aides had argued privately that Trump’s focus on fanning fears over immigration went too far. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) would call Trump twice in the final weeks to urge him to get off the nonstop immigration talk and refocus on the economy.
He argued that Trump should focus on how voters outside the boisterous rallies reacted. Avoid distractions and needless fights, Ryan’s team argued with White House colleagues. Frame the election as a choice between Republican accomplishment and Democratic rhetoric.
Trump would sound like he agreed on the phone, and then veer quickly back to what interested him, while complaining to his own advisers that Ryan, who was leaving office, had allowed too many of his members to retire.
Now as Air Force One crossed over Lake Michigan, Trump would once again listen only to himself. He agreed to read the words about unity without abandoning his own strategy of division. To explain the contradiction, he just added a wink and a nod.
“Do you see how nice I’m behaving today? Have you ever seen this?” Trump told the crowd, going off script, in a sarcastic aside after calling for harmony. “We’re all behaving very well.”
The crowd burst into laughter, providing a nice segue to tease his plans. “Wait until you see what we’re doing with our border over the next two weeks,” he said. “Our country is assaulted by thousands and thousands of people marching,” he said of a group of migrants more than 1,000 miles away.
What followed were days of shocks to the political system. The mail-bombing suspect was a Trump booster who had attended his rallies and, authorities said, internalized his name-calling. Three other men suspected of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist or anti-immigrant delusions allegedly would shoot and kill 15 people in three states over 10 days, at a supermarket, a synagogue and a yoga studio.
But Trump stayed the course, consistently raising the temperature of the public debate. He would not make phone calls to the pipe-bomb targets, including former president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. He complained about the distraction of domestic terrorism hurting Republicans. “For seven days nobody talked about elections,” he told a crowd in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 1.
Instead, he rolled out his own news events, without coordinating them with Ryan or the leadership of the National Republican Congressional Committee: new troop deployments to the border, a profane campaign ad that falsely accused Democrats of letting a Mexican cop killer into the country, the threat of answering rock throwers at the border with gunfire by U.S. soldiers, even the claim of a treasonous “Democrat-led assault on our sovereignty.” Sometimes, he did not coordinate his announcements with his own aides.
When the president threatened to undo birthright citizenship with an executive order, Ryan spoke out to defend the Constitution as written, prompting Trump to publicly attack his governing partner. The two men talked by phone later that day. The conversation was short, said three people familiar with the call, and Trump made clear he thought that immigration was still a better message than the economy.
It was pure Trump, and it cleared the way for a blow to the president’s governing coalition as Republicans lost the House while keeping firm control of the Senate. Republican losses in the House on Tuesday ran directly through the suburban districts that were most concerned about the president’s divisive behavior, with many races being decided by the thinnest of margins.
It was just the latest step in a political realignment — a repolarization of politics — that began in 2015 with Trump’s announcement that he would run for president as a Republican.
This account of the battle for power on Capitol Hill is based on more than four dozen interviews with campaign strategists, White House advisers, party officials, government advisers and elected leaders, on both sides of the aisle. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
They told the story of a Republican Party battered, emboldened and increasingly redefined. Trump also helped Democrats find a new voice, with a new generation of leaders emerging and a new playbook for winning.
The election season began for Dan Sena, the executive director of the Democratic House effort, at a Cracker Barrel in Pennsylvania, where he went to watch diners stream Trump’s 2017 inauguration on their phones. “There was a woman who was sitting there,” he remembered, “and she says to her daughter, ‘We’re recording this at home. He’s our president.’ ”
In a blink, Sena saw the challenge. Midterm elections tended to be referendums on the sitting president. Whole parts of the nation, particularly women in well-heeled suburbs, were rejecting Trump. But Sena knew that was not enough, given the way districts were drawn.
To win the speaker’s gavel, Democrats would have to compete for voters who had already forgiven Trump his rule-breaking and liked his policy pitch amid a rising economy. The party would have to break from its instincts, lay off Trump and resist moving left on policy. Sena found himself describing Trump to other Democrats as a godlike figure. Trump held the nation’s attention in his hands, able to unleash chaos whenever he wanted.
“I can’t control what happens when Donald Trump goes like this to the snow globe,” he would say, shaking his hands as if holding one. “We knew that to pick up seats in this cycle, we needed a strategy that allowed us to put as many boats into the water, not necessarily waiting on a wave or banking on a wave, but just as many chess pieces on the board as you possibly can.”
The first step was to come up with a message. A poll by the Democrats’ House Majority PAC in the summer of 2017 raised alarms: Congressional Republicans scored far higher with working-class whites on issues Democrats believed they should own, such as reducing the power of special interests, rewarding hard work, fighting for people “like you.” Less than 1 in 4 said Democrats in Congress helped to improve the economy and create jobs, compared with 41 percent who credited Republicans.
“They were certain that Washington was wholly corrupt, and they were the inevitable losers in that equation,” said Jill Normington, the pollster. As the discussions continued, voters kept coming back to the same question: “Is there going to be more money in my pocket or less money in my pocket?”
Pollsters soon returned with a way for Democrats to claw out of their abyss — a broad message focused on fighting GOP plans to raise health-insurance premiums, remove protections for preexisting conditions and cater to special interests.
“We sort of combined taxes and health care — the idea that Republicans were going to cut taxes on insurance companies and they were going to raise premiums on people didn’t sit well with people,” said Matt Canter of Global Strategy Group, who led focus groups as part of the effort.
By the summer of 2018, Democrats had a pocketbook plan that minimized issues like immigration and went after Trump in only a handful of districts where he was deeply unpopular. It was a sharp departure from the Republican strategy in 2010 and 2014 to campaign more directly against Obama.
But first Democrats had to find new faces to sell their new message, a task that suddenly appeared far easier than anyone had expected. They were people like Dan McCready, a Marine veteran who had led troops in Iraq before graduating from Harvard Business School. He began talking to an old classmate, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), in the weeks after Trump won.
“We spent hours on the phone,” said Moulton. “At one point he told me, ‘Seth, I’m 99 percent certain. I just need to know I can be as good a dad as a member of Congress.’ ”
Moulton told McCready, who would trail in early results in North Carolina’s 9th District, that the commute to Washington would not make him a better father. “But you weren’t when you were a Marine, either,” Moulton added. “You were serving the country.”
Before long, there were about 20 military-veteran candidates for Congress, including Jason Crow in Colorado, who began trading campaign tips on a private Slack channel organized by Moulton. None identified as liberal crusaders, and most voiced skepticism of the current Democratic leadership.
They were joined by a swell of hundreds of female candidates, many of them encouraged by the activist groups that had sprung up in defiance of Trump and in sync with the women in suburban districts who would prove the biggest target of the midterm elections. The rush of new talent with scant political records and more-moderate views was a nightmare for Republicans.
Many cut biographical videos for YouTube, filled with military hardware and straight talk, that brought in millions from around the country. M.J. Hegar, a long-shot Democratic candidate in Texas, raised $750,000 in 10 days after posting a three-minute video that went viral.
Over the course of the campaign, as the popularity of Trump and Democrats rose and fell, the polling for first-time candidates in the tightest races would hold steady, a sign that they had defined themselves as distinct from the poisonous national conversation that had convulsed the party in earlier campaigns.
Republicans had always wanted to run against Nancy Pelosi-style liberals, like they had in the first special election after Trump’s win, when Democrat Jon Ossoff had been defeated in Georgia after his supporters were mocked as old San Francisco hippies. But Democrats had learned from that race, and would not make the same mistake.
“If you get to be seen as a nonpartisan parent of three cute little kids, and before you go to Washington to save the world, you blew up terrorists in the Middle East, you are going to win,” griped one Republican election strategist.
Pelosi made clear there were no consequences for denouncing her. “Just win, baby,” became her mantra. Candidates like Kansas Democrat Paul Davis, one of the first to publicly oppose Pelosi, were quietly invited to Washington to receive strategy advice and a pep talk from Pelosi.
“She allowed a large swath of candidates to run against the party without consequence and present themselves as genuine political outsiders,” said Andy Surabian, a former White House political adviser who worked for Donald Trump Jr. later in the cycle.
Republicans also saw their dream of a socialist rebellion in the Democratic Party fail to materialize. Nominees like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made for early targets but quickly became team players. Only one liberal candidate, Kara Eastman in Omaha, won a primary that Democratic strategists believed undermined their chances of winning the seat.
In the U.S. Capitol, meanwhile, Democrats moved quickly to diminish the calls for impeachment in their rank and file, and coached candidates away from talking about massive new government programs favored by the Democratic base.
“Stick with lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks and cleaner government,” Pelosi would say, publicly and privately. “The health-care issue is dominant — it’s dominant.”
Behind the scenes, she would speak with more-colorful language about Trump. “You can’t get in a tinkle contest with a skunk,” she told colleagues. “You just can’t.”
Members were won over. “The message ‘Contain Trump’ is a stronger political message than ‘Impeach Trump,’ ” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who was one of the first to introduce articles of impeachment for Trump, before deciding he did not want the House to vote on them.
Before a Pennsylvania special election in March, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Ryan that would spend $107 million on House broadcast ads, sent a researcher to Pittsburgh for three weeks to find dirt on Democratic candidate Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran who had also served as a federal prosecutor. The effort turned up nothing, a fact that CLF’s executive director, Corry Bliss, would later explain to a group of Republicans, including Ryan.
“So you are saying he is a good person?” asked Ryan.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Bliss responded.
Republicans, meanwhile, were having less luck in the candidate department. Early in 2018, Republican strategists convened a focus group to screen a positive ad about Rick Saccone, Lamb’s opponent. Several women in the group reacted with laughter. When asked why, they pointed to the candidate’s close-cropped mustache.
Lamb, who was 26 years younger, looked like a clean-
shaven action hero, and he beat Saccone in March by 627 votes, or 0.2 percent, in a district Trump had carried by nearly 20 percentage points.
Even before that defeat, the sense of looming disaster had been spreading through the party. Between 1930 and 2016, there had never been more than 27 Republicans retiring from the House in a single election cycle, according to the Brookings Institution. On Tuesday’s ballots, 41 Republican-held districts, including Ryan’s, lacked an incumbent on the ballot, either because of retirement or resignation. Of that group, at least 15 were vulnerable to Democratic takeover, more than half the number Democrats needed to take the majority.
Tens of millions of dollars had to be set aside to defend these seats, and in several cases there was little hope. “If we had half as many [seats to defend], we would keep the House,” predicted one Republican strategist of the retirements.
Inside the caucus, years of dysfunction had taken a toll. Leaders had little sway with members, and former committee chairmen had little incentive to stick around. At the White House, political advisers were taken aback as the names started dribbling out. “There was no strategy to keep people around,” said one person involved in the effort.
More often than not, party leaders found that out someone was heading out the door only after the decision had been made. Over at the NRCC’s office, staffers could be heard screaming when news broke on Twitter of another key lawmaker throwing in the towel.
Other members debating retirement found themselves captive to the new wave of anti-Trump activism sweeping the country, with protesters camped outside their offices.
In early 2017, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the NRCC chairman, responded with an all-hands-on-deck effort to stop Republicans from even holding town halls, lest embarrassing video result. Those who insisted on meetings were instructed to follow clear rules: Enter and exit the event separately from voters, bring security, make sure the participants were constituents and try to get questions submitted in advance.
In New Jersey’s 11th District, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen had been expected to continue his family’s Republican dynasty of elected leadership that dated to his state’s founding. Since 1994, he had never won his Democratic-leaning district by less than 58 percent of the vote, but now the resistance was camped outside his office, with a surprisingly sophisticated operation.
“We had a full-on research team. We had a data analysis team that was looking at the entire area,” said Sally Avelenda, the executive director of NJ11th for Change. “We showed up at every farmers market, every town event that wouldn’t shut us out.”
Frelinghuysen complained about Avelenda’s political work to a board member of her employer, Lakeland Bank. She says a supervisor later warned her that the congressman was a “friend of the bank,” prompting her to quit her job and go public with the story, which the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cut into a digital ad. Frelinghuysen called it quits less than a year later, allowing Democrats to pick up the seat with Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor who became an early favorite.
Out in California, the weekly rallies against Rep. Darrell Issa (R) grew over the course of 2017 into a sort of street carnival, with a sound system manned by a former musician for Sha Na Na and a retirement cake baked into the shape of a Hawaiian shirt.
Ellen Montanari, a corporate consultant who had seen Trump’s election as a catastrophe, made sure everyone stayed on message. When one speaker took the microphone to thank Democrats, Montanari grabbed it away, and quickly thanked independents and Republicans as well. “I said to her, ‘Don’t ever do that again,’ ” Montanari remembered.
Issa tried to engage, speaking several times at the rallies against him. But in the end his heart was not in it. He decided over Christmas without telling party leaders, paving the way for a likely Democratic pickup. “It was really a growing frustration with how the House was operating and the absence of an ability to get things done,” said Dale Neugebauer, Issa’s former chief of staff.
With the deck stacked against them, Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) decided their best option was to try to get both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on the same page. At a Camp David retreat in early January, McCarthy stood before the president to perform his best imitation of a TED Talk, with a slide show of animated charts and graphs.
McCarthy explained that the president’s party typically lost more seats in midterm elections than Republicans could afford if they wanted to stay in power. But there were two recent exceptions — in 2002 after the attacks of 9/11 and in 1998 after the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when Republicans also overreached by shutting down the government.
That second example, McCarthy argued, could provide a model, especially since Democrats were headed toward a shutdown over Trump’s decision to end legal protections for migrants who had been brought to the country as children.
The key, McCarthy said, would be to minimize losses with college-educated women in the suburbs and keep the partisan advantage of Democratic House candidates at less than six points, according to a person familiar with the briefing.
He recommended focusing on legislative efforts to curb the opioid epidemic and limit human trafficking, along with an aggressive plan to sell the tax cut — issues meant to project a sympathetic face to voters outside Trump’s base. Notably, the presentation did not focus on immigration, the topic Trump would choose to obsess over in the fall.
But for Trump, whose entire brand was anchored in disruption, sticking to a plan based on soothing suburban women was a challenge. At an April tax cut roundtable in West Virginia, he announced that his prepared remarks were “a little boring” and threw the paper into the air.
What followed was a rambling preview of the closing message. He decried birthright citizenship and claimed, without any evidence, that a group of asylum seekers then walking through Mexico included women who had been “raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before.”
GOP strategists watched Trump nervously as the generic ballot polls fluctuated like a stock market ticker, rising and falling with national events and the president’s actions. The failure to repeal Obamacare and the struggles over tax law discouraged Republicans, just as the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh encouraged them. Trump’s reaction to the 2017 white-nationalist protests in Charlottesville, the Parkland shooting and the bungled Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin all inflated Democratic energy.
House Republican leaders wanted Trump to talk about economic issues. Trump wanted to talk immigration. The president became upset when his campaign produced an ad that focused on economic gains through the eyes of a mother hoping her daughter would succeed, surprising his own political advisers.
He repeatedly said that his voters wouldn’t come to the polls for the economy, advisers said, and that they did not like Congress. So he ordered the ad to be replaced with a spot focused on the dangers of immigration.
“He thinks what is good for the base is good for everybody,” said one senior Republican official, who noted that issues like crime and national security did not play the same in all competitive districts. “You just work around him.”
At the White House complex, Trump’s political team had examined every House and Senate district to see where he could have the most impact. In an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the wall was plastered with details of his 2016 performance.
The aides concluded that there was little he could do for some in the House, but substantial sway that he could bring to Senate races by reminding Republicans in rural states why they voted for him. The message matched Trump’s own desire, never changing, to be out there on the trail, dominating cable television news.
The decision only magnified divisions in the party that Stivers, the NRCC chair, had long struggled to navigate. In early November 2017, weeks after former White House aide Stephen K. Bannon had appeared on “60 Minutes” to declare that Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed Trump’s “populist economic agenda,” Stivers met with Bannon at his home base on Capitol Hill. The hope was to form a truce within the party, but the immediate effect was the opposite.
Josh Holmes, an adviser to McConnell, was enraged. “Fellas — this is genuinely hard to believe,” he wrote in an email to Ryan’s staff. Neither House nor Senate leaders had been given advance warning about the meeting.
Late in the cycle, as suspected hate crimes came to dominate the news, Stivers became defensive. He had been criticized for a Sunday show appearance in which he defended Republican ads that called out George Soros, the Jewish financier who was often the target of anti-Semitic propaganda.
After a story broke about Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) traveling to Austria to meet with representatives of a party with neo-Nazi roots, Stivers announced on Twitter that he “strongly condemned” King’s behavior — without first consulting other Republican leaders. He had a debate scheduled back in his own district that night.
“It is the NRCC’s job to win races, not to be the morality police,” said one former NRCC aide. “Once you start commenting on one thing, you have to comment on everything.”
Pressure built throughout the House caucus. Many realized they would have to fend for themselves, without any cover from the president or the national party.
“Birthright citizenship is protected by the Constitution, so no @realDonaldTrump you can’t end it by executive order,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) tweeted after Trump floated the idea.
In Colorado, Rep. Mike Coffman (R) would take an even harder public line, announcing that Trump’s “attempt to demonize” migrants as criminals “is simply wrong.”
Coffman was a classic victim of all that had changed about his party — the polarization that pulled the suburbs away from Republicans, the rush of anti-Trump enthusiasm among Democrats and the sometimes crossed signals among Republicans desperate to hold the House.
He also was a symbol of those crossed signals: On the same day in September that the Congressional Leadership Fund announced that it was pulling $1 million in television advertising out of Coffman’s district, the NRCC’s independent expenditure arm announced a $600,000 investment, only to pull out of the race weeks later.
Candidates like Coffman, a moderate critic of Trump who had long outperformed his party in the Denver suburbs, had another problem: the flood of Democratic spending. In past races, Coffman had invested heavily in digital and cable, where Democrats did not compete, but now even these platforms were filled with ads for his opponent, Jason Crow, a former Army infantry captain who had served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Coffman’s campaign staff would gather around the computer every week when ad buys were announced to find out if they would be outspent by 4-fold or, once, even 13-fold on broadcast television.
At one point, 16 Democratic groups were attacking him, compared with just three Republican defenders for the cycle. The Democratic plan to expand the map had taken its toll, and Republican strategists in Washington told Coffman’s team that they had to cut bait.
“The general answer was, ‘Look, the map is so freaking big,’ ” said Tyler Sandberg, a consultant for Coffman. “It was just an onslaught.” After winning by eight points in 2016, Coffman was headed for a loss by about the same margin on Tuesday.
For Republicans, the money flood felt ubiquitous. Through the beginning of November, Democratic candidates were outspending Republican candidates on broadcast advertising by $173 million to $93 million.
The conservative billionaires were chipping in, but they could not compete with ActBlue, the liberal donation-processing company that made it incredibly simple to convert anger at Trump or the GOP into a $5, $10 or $50 donation on the phone.
The platform raised $1.5 billion for liberal candidates and causes during the cycle, nearly twice as much as during the 2016 presidential campaign. Of the 4.7 million small-dollar donors, 63 percent were giving for the first time. Money given directly to candidates could be used to purchase airtime, under the law, at far cheaper rates than paid by outside groups who collected bigger checks.
Democratic super PACS, meanwhile, had found new ways of coordinating their efforts. Priorities USA, a group that backed Clinton in 2016, devoted itself to digital advertising, creating a dashboard so that all the liberal efforts could coordinate their purchases on Hulu, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms.
House Majority PAC, which coordinated more than $200 million in spending, created a separate clearinghouse that combined polling, online interviews and spending to provide predictions for key House races. The group also expanded the online testing of ads, after being surprised by how many spots actually had a negative effect on the goal.
“One-third of the ads we tested actually caused backlash,” said Jesse Stinebring, a data scientist at Civis Analytics, who worked on the project. Clients were encouraged to test small ad runs before any major buys.
By summer, Republicans began to worry that the party was losing the definition battle. Brian Baker, a political strategist for billionaire donors Todd Ricketts and Sheldon Adelson, tested more than a dozen ads to try to paint Democrats as extreme. One focus group began on the day Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) encouraged supporters to harass Republicans in restaurants and department stores.
“Even the Democratic focus groups were turned off,” Baker said. His groups would put $15 million behind a national advertising effort that promoted GOP accomplishments and painted Democrats as a screaming, violent mob of socialists and anarchists who would burn the flag, raise taxes, open the borders and impeach the president.
But even this effort was swamped in the final weeks by a billionaire with murkier partisan leanings. After splitting his donations between parties in 2016, Michael Bloomberg would invest more than $115 million of his own money in the Democratic cause, most of it in the final weeks, including about $44 million into the House campaigns.
“It’s a backbreaker in a lot of races,” said a second senior Republican official.
Without any donors to answer to, Bloomberg went into the most expensive suburban media markets, in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. He also had money to experiment. Howard Wolfson, a former Democratic House strategist who ran the Bloomberg effort, ranked all the districts by educational attainment, in a search for highly educated districts that might have flown under the radar.
He then polled for opportunity, eventually deciding to pump nearly $1 million into the suburban Atlanta district of Rep. Rob Woodall (R), who had already been outraised by more than $1 million by his Democratic opponent. Even though he had won by nearly 21 percentage points in 2016, Republicans were forced to scramble for cash to bail him out, only to find donors and strategists resistant, furious that the candidate had done so little to prepare.
Woodall, who spent most of the cycle in what Republicans considered a safe seat, held on to a narrow lead with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump always believed that his opponents underestimated the power of grabbing people’s attention. By the time he got to Pensacola, Fla., three days before the elections, he felt he needed to educate his critics.
“Why doesn’t he talk about the economy? Why does he talk about immigration and what’s coming up with the caravan?” he asked the crowd rhetorically. “We can talk about the economy, but the fact is we know how well we’re doing with the economy and we have to solve problems.”
His advisers kept trying, anyway. Some continued to tell Trump that he faced both a base motivation problem and a suburban women problem. He only seemed fixated on the former. Even his strategy to bring female aides on stage was less calculated strategy, White House aides said, and more that they were standing beside him before he went out and he thought the crowds would love them.
In what seemed intended as a hint, the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, told ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday that the president was focused on the economy; only the media, she said, focused on immigration. On Monday, the White House placed an opinion piece on Fox News’s website, under the president’s own byline, that contradicted Trump’s points on the stump. “Vote Republican and continue the jobs boom,” the headline said.
It was a hallmark of Trump’s politics. There was no shame in contradiction, misinformation or vilification. When several companies, including Fox News and Facebook, refused to run a version of his closing campaign ad demonizing immigrants as murderers, he responded breezily to a reporter. “A lot of things are offensive,” he said. “Your questions are offensive.”
What he was after was attention. “You know the midterm elections used to be, like, boring, didn’t they?” he said at a Monday rally in Cleveland. “Now it’s like the hottest thing.”
At the White House, aides had already begun to lower expectations for the House. Trump’s efforts to awaken the Republican base had been effective in rural areas and in states where Senate Democrats were struggling to stay in office, they argued. There was just no more talk of the red wave Trump had once promised. The final average of public polls showed Democrats had a 10-point advantage, far higher than the six-point benchmark set by McCarthy at Camp David.
But Trump’s own approval rating had ticked up from its lows, and he appeared to have energized his own voters down the stretch. His fingerprints were all over the Senate contests, where Republicans gained ground in conservative states like North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, while beating back a moderate Democratic challenge in Tennessee.
“These are NOT ‘red states’ or ‘Republican states’ — they are ‘Trump states,’ ” White House political director Bill Stepien wrote in an internal memo that was leaked before Halloween.
It was enough for Trump to declare victory, in a tweet that betrayed no misgivings.
“Tremendous success tonight,” he tweeted as the results came in, ignoring his defeats in the House. “Thank you to all!”
Mike DeBonis and Robert Costa contributed to this report.