INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Tom Willis, white, wealthy, and educated, is warming to President Trump one year into his administration.
The mild-mannered, middle-aged ethanol manufacturer from rural southwest Kansas was resistant to the populist businessman, preferring established Jeb Bush as the Republican presidential primary commenced three years ago. Willis has gradually come around, as Trump compiled a string of accomplishments on the domestic and international fronts.
“The policy output I’m very happy with,” chiefly the $1.4 trillion federal tax overhaul, Willis said this week, in an interview with the Washington Examiner while attending the conservative Koch political network’s annual winter donor conference at a posh desert resort 150 miles east of Los Angeles.
Yet, like many traditional Republicans, there is a lingering uneasiness with Trump’s coarse behavior and provocative rhetoric the president’s enthusiastic supporters find so appealing. “Sometimes, he doesn’t know when to shut up,” Willis said.
Trump on Tuesday delivered his first State of the Union address to a country divided along cultural and political lines as another polarizing national campaign loomed. The midterm is shaping up as backlash against the president and his party.
Congressional Republicans’ ability to withstand the political headwinds depends largely on Trump’s ability to keep the traditional wing of the party active and in the fold. The same could be said of Trump’s electoral prospects in 2020, when in all likelihood he’ll be facing a Democrat other than the unpopular and distrusted Hillary Clinton.
The answer to both questions are likely to come from independent swing voters, and upscale suburban women, who are inclined to vote Republican but are turned off by Trump or, at best, remain skeptical. On this, Republican strategists hold varying opinions. “The jury is out,” Republican pollster Chris Wilson said, echoing widespread concern about the midterm. “Whether or not they stay with the GOP in 2018 will depend on each campaign and their ability to motivate the voter. But as of today, I don't see them turning out at 2010 or 2014 levels.”
The 2010 and 2014 midterms were GOP waves that built in reaction to President Barack Obama, netting Republicans record gains in Congress and state legislatures across the country. Brad Todd, a Republican consultant, is more optimistic about the party’s chances in Trump’s first midterm than some of his colleagues. “The Republican base has begun to view him as just a Republican president, in a good way. The only group who is not in that camp is the traditional swing voting independents and a slice of upscale suburban Republicans who didn’t vote for him in 2016,” Todd said.
“In survey after survey, I see very little remorse or regret from people who voted for him, and a lot of people who voted for him with reservations but are pleasantly surprised,” he added.
For Republicans who voted for Trump reluctantly, or not at all, and that are still unhappy with is leadership, portions of his State of the Union address could give them cause to change their mind, or at least give him a second look.
"Tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color and creed."
Of course, Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress soon after he was inaugurated last year earned rave reviews. Three days later, the president went on a Twitter tirade and accused former President Barack Obama of personally ordering tap of his communications at Trump Tower, the skyscraper he owns in Manhattan, extinguishing any chance of winning over skeptical Republicans or independents.
The reverence Trump’s populist, working class base has for him is well known. There has been minimal erosion of support for the president from this block. Whether they’re willing to show up for congressional Republicans in a midterm election in which Trump is not on the ballot is a crucial unknown.
Trump’s relationship with traditional Republicans, many of whom supported one of his primary challengers in 2016 and have had a difficult time acclimating to the president’s unorthodox leadership style, is more complicated.
This wing’s assessment of him matters because he wouldn’t have won the presidency if they had not fallen in line nearly 15 months ago, and Republicans will have a hard time holding their House and Senate majorities if they defect nine months from now. One year in, views are mixed.
Chris Wright is a Koch network donor from Colorado who, like Willis, opposed Trump in the Republican presidential primary. So far, he likes what he sees from the president when it comes to policy. But Wright is equally concerned that Trump’s rhetoric is turning off younger voters and giving conservatism a bad reputation with the next generation.
“We moved the ball policy wise in 2017, but we’re not sowing — the idea of freedom in this country — the idea of it — backed up in the last 12 months. The reality on the ground moved forward. I want to win on both,” Wright said during a reception with reporters, one of the events that marked three days of seminars hosted by billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch.
The Koch network conference functioned as a microcosm of Trump’s uneven relationship with the Right, and the opportunities he has to grow his base and solidify his standing with a broad cross section of Republicans, which in turn could help his party in November.
Trump has fans in the network, but many come from the more traditional sector of the GOP, or the libertarian wing. They worried Trump would govern as a protectionist on trade, as an isolationist on foreign policy, or retreat to his roots as a former Democrat on other matters.
His politically charged demeanor, and penchant for stoking cultural and racial divisions, continues to be a major turnoff. Anxiety that dissatisfaction with the president’s behavior will overshadow optimism about the economy, leading to steep Republican losses in the midterm, is palpable.
But after a year in which he nominated scores of conservative judges to the federal bench, passed conventionally Republican tax reform, and engaged in a massive deregulation effort, Koch network officials and donors heaped effusive praise on the Trump administration. Some predicted that political gains would follow.
“There are some big differences between 2010 for the Republicans and 2018 for the Democrats. First and foremost is the economy,” Art Pope, a Koch network donor and Republican financier from North Carolina, said. “If tax reform works as well as everyone thinks … That’s one reason I think 2018 will be better for Republicans.”