COLUMBUS, OHIO — Being a Republican lawmaker under President Trump can be like walking a tightrope, one that may wobble with the press of a "tweet" button.
But Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, may face the most challenging high-wire act of all: protecting the GOP's House majority in the 2018 midterms with a mix of districts where Trump is sometimes an asset and other times a liability. Like a member of the Flying Wallendas, Stivers could pull off the death-defying stunt or watch fellow Republicans plunge to their electoral doom.
Keeping the House will require bucking both a potentially Democratic political climate and recent historical precedent. Dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president's party has lost seats in the House in their first midterm election every time except for when Republicans gained seats in 2002 under President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That's no simple feat.
"I think we have a fight coming our way, and we know it," Stivers said in a wide-ranging interview with the Washington Examiner. "If we can get some big things done and make a difference for the American people, I feel really good about our chances."
In between bites of a buffalo chicken sandwich slathered in ranch dressing and glasses of lemonade at Max & Erma's restaurant in nearby Hilliard, Stivers is clear about the need for congressional Republicans to pass big-ticket items, especially tax reform. The four-term lawmaker knows if they fail, Democrats will be ready to run against their inaction next year in their campaign to give House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the speaker's gavel again.
That will require calming the divisons among Washington Republicans, including Trump's jabs at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Stivers generally tries to avoid incurring Trump's wrath.
"Infighting takes two," Stivers said. "When one person does it it's an insult, when two people do it it's infighting, so I'm not going to participate in infighting, and I'm not going to hurl insults."
"We need to focus on the things we can get done, which is also why I don't focus on any infighting," Stivers said. "I focus on how we can accomplish the policies we need to accomplish, and me saying nasty things about the president doesn't help us accomplish the things we need to accomplish either," he said, adding that he plans to "run like a racehorse with blinders toward success for America and the American people."
Stivers recently led a roundtable in Columbus with 40 local leaders to discuss the opioid epidemic that has struck the heart of Ohio. In the midst of that meeting, Trump continued his public bashing of McConnell over the failed "skinny" Obamacare repeal bill.
When told about it afterward, Stivers responded with nothing more than a shrug. "I try to put blinders on and run toward policy," he said.
Yet Stivers has at times found it necessary to speak up. "I don't understand what's so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended," Stivers tweeted after Trump said "very fine people" were among the participants in a racist-led rally in Charlottesville, Va., Stivers told the Washington Examiner he didn't think the president was "intentionally" saying the wrong things, just that Trump was "inarticulate" on the issue.
While Stivers believes Trump can be a plus for the party overall, he acknowledges that the president is a drag on suburban swing district lawmakers like Reps. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz. But he does think vulnerable Republicans can separate themselves from Trump when they have to.
"In the races where he might not be as helpful, we have candidates who already understand how to build their own independent brand and not just understand how to do it, but they have a history of doing it," Stivers said, "The DCCC's playbook last year was exclusively to make every Republican into Trump, and the voters didn't buy it. And I don't think the voters are going to buy it. They voters also didn't buy it in any of the special elections ... So I think these individuals really do have an independent brand."
The Columbus native also pushed back on Democrats who are already comparing the 2018 elections 2006, when they won 31 seats and made Pelosi speaker the first time around. Stivers said a changed congressional map, fewer toss-up seats and Pelosi's continued unpopularity in key battlegrounds nearly 11 years later all make it a stepper climb for Democrats.
Stivers has experience running tough races and dealing with the NRCC. Prior to winning Ohio's 15th Congressional District by nearly 30,000 votes in 2010, he lost by just 2,311 votes in 2008. In 2012, Stivers got breathing room thanks to redistricting after most of Columbus was moved out of his district, making it a solid Republican seat.
Since 1985, Stivers also has served in the Ohio Army National Guard, and currently serves as a brigadier general, forcing him to spend a weekend a month on duty and two additional weeks during the year in Colorado Springs. In 2005, he was called into active duty while a state senator and served in Iraq, earning a Bronze Star.
While his military background has largely been a positive, it also puts him in a tough spot on occasion. Stivers is uneasy with Trump's decision to ban transgender individuals from joining the military (the president is expected to let Defense Secretary James Mattis decide what to do with those who are already in the service). He does, however, acknowledge Trump's authority to give the order and doesn't think it will be an overriding issue in 2018.
"I don't want to minimize it because that's not fair to a very few group of people who are serving our country already or interested. It is a giant deal," Stivers said. "But to most Americans, it's not going to be the issue that are going to decide their vote for Congress or president or anything else on. ... But again, I don't want to make light of it because for a very few people that are currently serving or interested in serving, it is the world to them."
"It's not something I've advocated for or against, but it is — again, I just hope we focus on military readiness, because as a military guy, that's what matters to me," he added.
To Stivers, a lot is riding on whether Republicans can get big-ticket items like tax reform done by February 2018. After healthcare reform efforts failed in the Senate, he believes this is crucial both politically and in terms of policy.
"I think it worries some people because some American citizens are losing confidence in our ability to get things done," Stivers said. "We need to reclaim their confidence and regain their confidence by getting things done."
"In the end, the American people, I think, are willing to forgive us not getting everything done," he concluded. "But they're not willing to accept us getting nothing done."