Senior Republicans on Wednesday tapped Rep. Karen Handel, R-Ga., to advise colleagues on surviving a potentially brutal midterm election driven by President Trump’s polarizing leadership.
Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he asked Handel to share insight during a conference-wide meeting held to discuss 2018, because the congresswoman has practical experience in balancing the unique challenges of running as a Republican in the Trump era.
Handel addressed the fundamentals of preparing for a competitive environment, like raising money and voter turnout. More to the point, sources tell the Washington Examiner that the congresswoman offered tips on navigating Trump — his provocative Twitter feed and the divisions he has sowed among usually reliable Republican voters.
“Karen ran a very adept campaign, and there’s a lot people can learn from everything she did,” Stivers said. “People needed to understand that you can win, you just need to be smart about what you do.”
Rick Saccone, the GOP nominee in the March 13 special election to fill Pennsylvania’s vacant 18th Congressional District, joined House Republicans for the meeting. The seat was drawn to elect Republicans. But party leaders are concerned and Saccone, a state representative, was in D.C. to strategize. Trump was headed to the southwest corner of Pennsylvania on Thursday to boost Saccone's chances.
Republicans in Congress are facing a possible anti-Trump tsunami this fall. The president’s job approval rating has hovered around 40 percent through most of his first year in office despite a booming economy.
Thin support for Trump among upscale, suburban voters — usually reliable Republicans who tend to back his policies but are repelled by his politically charged rhetoric — threatens the party’s House and Senate majorities. Handel overcame this challenge last June to win a targeted special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
Her 52-48 percent victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff improved upon Trump’s 1.5-point victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 in which he failed to crack 50 percent. Handel won despite tens of millions in Democratic spending and deep skepticism about Trump among GOP voters in a suburban Atlanta district that has voted Republican for years.
Handel declined to disclose the advice she offered fellow Republicans for mitigating Trump, signaling both how toxic the president remains politically and how his at-times divisive leadership continues to roil the GOP internally. Sources say her main message was: Ignore Trump’s tweets and don’t make a spectacle of distancing yourself from him.
“The things that we talk about in detail, we really try to keep those confidential,” Handel said. “We just did a recap of the special election. Primarily, everyone just needs to be ready.”
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who was standing nearby and listening to Handel’s interview with the Washington Examiner just off the House floor, complimented, unprompted, the congresswoman’s advice during Wednesday morning’s conference meeting.
“She was able to win a close race, because she did the right thing, and that’s why she’s the best person to talk about the environment that could happen but may or may not,” Davis said. Handel, criticized in some quarters on the Right as a mediocre campaigner, received a ton of help from the party establishment.
Republicans are defending a 24-seat House majority and a 51-49 advantage in the Senate. They’re bracing for a voter backlash against Trump in November. Polls that ask voters which party they would prefer be in charge on Capitol Hill have consistently favored the Democrats.
Stivers is warning Republican members to prepare for the worst.
He also wants to keep their spirits up amid a dumb beat of dire predictions about the midterm. Designed as a show of confidence, eight House Republicans on Wednesday pledged money to the NRCC from their campaigns. Most offered less than $100,000. But Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, gave $1 million; Rep. Bob Gibbs of Ohio contributed $237,000.
The NRCC finished 2017 with $43.6 million in cash in the bank to spend in the upcoming elections.
Giving Republicans hope is the impact of the federal tax overhaul signed by Trump last month that cleared Congress without any Democratic votes. Corporations continue announce bonuses for workers and plans to invest in the U.S. because of tax reform, with voter support for the bill also rising from the depths of its unpopularity.
As voters connect the growing economy and improvement in their personal finances to the tax bill, Republicans predict that their midterm prospects will rise as well and make up for Americans’ reservations about Trump.
In an interview on NPR, NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman said voters are going to have a “real choice” between the Democrats’ reactionary policies and “whether we’re going to have this American comeback.”