After months of confidence that public discontent with President Trump would lift Democrats back to power in Congress, some party leaders are fretting that their advantages in this year’s midterms are eroding amid a shifting political landscape.
Driving their concerns are Trump’s approval rating, which has ticked upward in recent weeks, and high Republican turnout in some recent primaries, suggesting the GOP base remains energized. What’s more, Republicans stand to benefit politically from a thriving economy and are choosing formidable candidates to take on vulnerable Democratic senators.
One of their biggest sources of anxiety is the Senate race in Florida, where some Democrats fear that three-term Sen. Bill Nelson has not adequately prepared to defend his seat against Gov. Rick Scott, a well-financed former businessman handpicked for the race by Trump. Scott and Nelson are close in early polls.
“I’m concerned about the race. I think everybody is,” said Ione Townsend, the Democratic Party chair in Hillsborough County, home to Tampa. Townsend said it will “be hard to compete” with Scott’s money.
The growing alarm about Nelson, one of 10 Democratic senators running this year in a state won by Trump in 2016, prompted the Senate’s top Democrat, Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), to sound the alarm a few months ago in a private meeting in which he pleaded with Nelson to step up his efforts and hire a campaign manager, which he did not do until March, according to people familiar with the conversation.
In West Virginia, where Trump won by about 42 points and Republicans gave the president credit last week for urging voters to reject the primary candidacy of a former coal executive who had served jail time, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III acknowledged that Trump’s popularity in the state is a major boon for the Republicans.
“The more he can stay out of West Virginia and direct his energies elsewhere would be helpful,” Manchin said.
Democratic worries are mounting in the House, as well, where the party has been more confident of gaining the 23 seats it needs to retake the majority. Democrats are picking strong candidates in dozens of Republican-held suburban districts where Trump has lost significant support — but recent surveys suggest the races may be tightening.
Trump’s approval is now at the highest point it has been all year, measured by Gallup in early May at 42 percent, a five-point increase from the start of 2018. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ advantage when voters are asked which party they want to control Congress has shrunk, from 10 points in December to just six now, according to a Washington Post average of recent quality polls.
And Republicans are showing signs they will fight for the House, with GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson agreeing to give $30 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backed by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), according to a person familiar with the donation.
“I think anyone who was proclaiming victory a couple of months ago was premature,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee of Michigan, who is a member of the leadership team of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I think the president’s standing obviously has some impact.”
Republicans still have plenty of reasons to worry. While Trump’s numbers have improved, his standing is still historically low for a first-term president, and his administration continues to face scandals and chaos, as well as the expanding inquiry by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
History shows a president’s first midterm does not usually go well for his party. And recent special election results signal a strong year for Democrats, including their stunning win in the Alabama Senate race and the victory this year by a Democrat in a Pittsburgh-area district that Trump had won by nearly 20 points.
Republican leaders, many of whom were previously uneasy about Trump and his brand of nationalistic politics and had clashed with him early in his tenure, have in recent weeks embraced the president, in large part because the party’s success could hinge on keeping his base fired up.
In private conversations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has advised Trump not to criticize the Senate, said three people familiar with the discussions. McConnell told Trump that it is not good for either Trump or McConnell if voters feel as though it makes no difference whether they choose Republicans to represent them there.
McConnell has also urged the president to work with him to promote electable Republican Senate candidates. Lately, Trump has heeded his advice.
He warned West Virginia Republicans not to vote for Don Blankenship, who served prison time for his conviction on mine safety violations and used racial epithets. On May 8, Blankenship lost the primary to state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a more mainstream candidate.
Republican officials are touting the GOP tax cuts, although polls suggest they have not been the political godsend the party had predicted, as well as Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korea’s leader, which stirs hope of stability and detente.
“Peace and prosperity’s a pretty good platform,” said Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Some local Democrats are nervous about the general election.
“I do worry. I think the pharmaceutical companies are going to throw all kinds of money in here,” said Marion Tanner, chair of the Fayette County Democratic Executive Committee in West Virginia. Morrisey has past lobbying ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
Trump and McConnell welcomed the Republicans nominated for Senate in Indiana and Ohio on May 8. Trump held a campaign rally in Indiana on Thursday, where he stayed remarkably on message and praised the GOP nominee, Mike Braun.
“You saw a template for what you’ll see moving forward,” said White House political director Bill Stepien, referring to Trump’s rhetoric at the rally in Elkhart, Ind.
White House officials are trying to complement Trump’s efforts on the campaign trail by making Congress look better. At a recent briefing hosted by the White House’s Office of Public Liaison, Stepien emphasized that Republicans could help motivate their base by showing that the Senate was working, according to a person who attended the meeting.
Like others interviewed for this story, the person spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
During a Senate Republican luncheon Thursday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) distributed pocket cards to senators that listed what the GOP has done since last year to help them remind voters. The cards included the tax law, repealing regulations and confirming conservative judges.
Nationally, Republican strategists said they believe that by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, engaging with North Korea and pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, Trump is giving conservative voters a powerful reminder of the blows he has landed against the policies of President Barack Obama.
Trump’s North Korea strategy has resonated with Keith Lowry, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee in West Virginia.
“His presentation leaves a lot of people lacking. And they don’t necessarily agree with his brash techniques or the way he tweets a lot,” Lowry said of Trump. “But the essence and the substance of the man — you just can’t argue with the accomplishments.”
In Florida, Scott’s entrance into the race not only boosted Republican chances of flipping Nelson’s seat, it also ensured that Democrats would have to spend more cash in the state that they would otherwise dedicate to other states.
Scott is wealthy and has a strong national fundraising network. He raised as much money in three weeks — $3.2 million — as Nelson did in three months.
On Saturday, Nelson held one of his first campaign events since Scott launched his campaign.
Republicans still have messy intraparty fights to navigate in Mississippi and Arizona, with polarizing Senate candidates who party officials believe could lose to Democrats. They are plotting ways to elevate the more electable ones.
If Democrats can flip one or both of those seats, their path to the majority will be easier, contingent on holding seats. Democrats also have a plum opportunity for a pickup in Nevada.
Democratic senators have focused on issues such as health care, veterans and local matters rather than the national parties or culture wars. They are wagering that they don’t need to stoke the anti-Trump sentiment that is prevalent among base voters; they need to convince Republicans that it is okay to cross over.
Even in the House, where elections tend to align more closely to the national mood, candidates are trying to distinguish themselves on a personal level.
“Anyone who’s counting on a national wave to carry her into office isn’t much of a candidate,” said Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), who is running in a district where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 10 points. “You’ve got to run your own race and you have to be your own person.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.