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Trump readies for 2020 campaign with no plans to change his approach

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, shown outside the West Wing on Tuesday, says President Trump “has made the choice clear.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, shown outside the West Wing on Tuesday, says President Trump “has made the choice clear.” (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
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President Trump plans to quickly focus on his reelection campaign following Tuesday’s midterm elections, believing his brand of divisive and confrontational politics will mobilize his supporters and carry him to a second term.

Fresh off an 11-rally, six-day campaign swing through key conservative states, Trump has begun talking about holding Make America Great Again rallies early next year, two of the president’s advisers said. He continues to judge his success by crowd sizes — which were large throughout his recent campaign blitz — and applause. Even as he was on the trail for other Republicans, Trump often focused on himself, touting his accomplishments and taking shots at potential Democratic presidential challengers. 

But it’s an open question whether Trump can re-create the coalition of voters and swing-state victories that delivered him the White House — particularly on the same hard-line themes he relied on during the 2016 campaign and the first two years of his presidency. Trump didn’t campaign throughout the country ahead of the midterms, instead spending the bulk of his time in conservative territory where he remains popular while staying away from the suburban districts that helped hand Democrats control of the House on Tuesday.

President Trump tried to sway voters Nov. 5 during his final rally on the eve of the midterm elections in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

“There is a certain segment of the population that has totally bought into the arguments he’s making and the way he’s making them, but it’s not a majority of the population,” said Michael Steel, who was an adviser to onetime House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. 

Trump is preparing to portray Tuesday’s results in the best possible light, focusing on keeping control of the Senate and some victories in gubernatorial races.

“Tremendous success tonight. Thank you to all,” he tweeted Tuesday night.

But there were plenty of warning signs flashing for Trump despite his positive rhetoric.

Along with losing the House, Republicans also couldn’t flip Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin — key parts of the industrial Midwest that helped hand Trump the presidency in 2016 but where the GOP struggled to gain traction against strong Democratic incumbents this year. His poll numbers also remain mired around 40 percent. 

Following Democratic House gains and Republican Senate gains, The Fix's Aaron Blake analyzes the winners and losers from the 2018 midterm elections. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who handily won reelection Tuesday, said in his victory speech that leaning into popular liberal policies, as he did in his own race, would be the “blueprint for our nation in 2020.”

“You showed the country that by putting people first and by honoring the dignity of work, we can carry a state Donald Trump won by nearly 10 points,” Brown said. “And you showed that we do it without compromising on women’s rights or civil rights or LGBTQ rights.”

To deal with the loss of the House, the president’s political aides were encouraging allies to characterize the setback as the result of historical trends and retirements rather than as an indictment of Trump, according to a person in contact with the White House. The White House has prepared detailed numbers on past midterm cycles to back up its case, this person said.

“I don’t know what else the White House could have done about it,” said Marc Short, Trump’s former legislative affairs director. “You have a record number of retirements in the House. We knew that months ago.”

Midterm elections are not necessarily an indicator of how a president will fare in a bid for a second term — President Barack Obama was dealt major losses in his first midterms in 2010 and then handily won reelection two years later. 

Trump has shown no inclination that he’ll moderate his tactics ahead of 2020. Instead, he’ll probably be emboldened by a Democratic House, filled with members who will be hungry to investigate his administration and possibly launch impeachment proceedings against him, advisers said. 

The president has started talking about how he would battle a potential Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was on track to lead House Democrats after losing the speaker’s gavel eight years ago. While his advisers have grown worried that he is not prepared for the onslaught of investigations, he has taken some pleasure in saying he will have a foil in House Democrats. At the same time, advisers said Trump might be open to dealing with the opposition party on certain issues and will probably welcome meetings with Pelosi more than some of his aides would like. 

Pelosi’s spokesman said Trump called Pelosi on Tuesday night and acknowledged her call for “bipartisanship” in a speech to Democratic supporters.

Many Republicans are eager to continue to promote Pelosi as a political nemesis.

“There’s no question she was one of the biggest villains in the election for Republicans,” said Scott Jennings, a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who also worked in the George W. Bush White House. “So if she’s in charge, she’s already at a place in her own image where Trump can turn her into a great foil for the next two years, and the American people would probably appreciate it very much if he worked with Mitch McConnell to stop some of her worst impulses.”

Trump has taken several lessons from the midterm elections, according to his advisers, including that Congress is not as popular as he is and that immigration continues to rile up his base.

Trump gets regular briefings on what his numbers are in key districts and compares them with congressional candidates and what his numbers were in 2016. In private conversations with allies, he has shown no willingness to tone it down — instead talking about how he can ramp up his rhetoric and complaining that other Republicans are not following his lead.

“Are we going to win Pennsylvania?” he asked advisers recently on Air Force One as they traveled to the state that was key to shattering the Democrats’ “blue wall” in 2016.

In some ways, the president’s 2020 operation is more organized than other parts of his White House. Trump brought on Brad Parscale, who served as his digital media director on his 2016 campaign, in March, and a host of White House aides — including Justin Clark, the head of the Office of Public Liaison — are expected to transition to the campaign in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign and affiliated committees have raised more than $106 million, stashing away a massive sum and at an earlier time than his predecessors at this point in their presidencies. 

At the White House on Tuesday evening, Trump assembled a crew of top-tier donors and political allies to watch the election returns — including billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, financier Stephen Schwarzman and real estate magnate Richard LeFrak — after spending the day on the phone and monitoring key congressional and gubernatorial races nationwide. 

Corey Lewandowski, his first campaign manager, and David Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager, were also there, as were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, political director Bill Stepien and senior aide Johnny DeStefano.

“The president has energized a staggering number of Americans at packed arenas and in overflow crowds at rallies across the country,” Sanders said as the polls began to close Tuesday night.