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As they dial for dollars, GOP congressional candidates are pondering a strategic dilemma. Embrace Donald Trump, appeal to the party's base, or forge a personal brand all their own?
Many candidates, especially first-timers, may feel a natural urge to push off the charged decision until campaign season is in full swing. “Isn't it a risk to decide so early in the race? What if the political climate changes?”
Waiting isn't a strategy. Successful campaigns build a cohesive and consistent narrative that targets a winning coalition of voters from the moment they announce. And they keep up that sustained appeal until the polls close.
To be sure, there's no guarantee President Trump will be at odds with the GOP establishment by November 2018. Republicans still have time to score meaningful legislative victories on tax reform and health care. But as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon made clear during his recent 60 Minutes interview, should Congress stall Trump's agenda, the grenade throwers eagerly await internecine warfare.
Eyes are mainly on presidential approval ratings these days. But congressional approval ratings are woeful across the board. Recent polling data shows Trump faring much better than Congressional Republicans among Republican voters. The numbers are so grim that some seasoned campaign pros believe candidates are better off standing by Trump.
“For all the D.C. beltway types wringing their hands about @POTUS and the GOP base,” tweeted GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio. “Republicans in Congress are the ones losing the base.”
Better off with Trump? Not if you’re a member of California’s delegation. Trump underperformed Mitt Romney’s vote share in every congressional district in California. In three targeted seats in California (CA-49, CA-52, CA-45), Trump fared 10 points worse than Romney.
GOP members of Congress are in a bind. They lose if they blindly follow Trump, and they lose if they stick by the party leaders that obstruct Trump's agenda. There’s no easy answer. Smart campaigns will conduct polling early in the race and allow the data to drive their strategic decisions. Here’s a rundown of when to embrace president, party, or a personal brand.
Embrace the president: In rural, predominantly white districts, even Democrats want to “Make America Great Again”
In 2016, Trump flipped 21 congressional seats in 10 states: Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Shockingly, in one of these pro-Trump districts, Republicans didn’t even field a congressional challenger. Of these seats, nine are held by Democrats, all of whom can expect strong Trump-aligned GOP challengers.
Now, Republicans are optimistic about their chances against Pennsylvania Democrat Matt Cartwright, whose district backed Trump after supporting Obama twice.
Trump’s appeal is likely to remain strong in rural communities, especially in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he substantially improved upon Romney’s 2012 performance. At the start of the summer, a survey by Brown’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy found Trump’s support slipping in the majority of swing regions, with one exception: rural Midwestern Iowa.
Even some Democrats are aligning themselves closer to Trump than the national Democratic Party. One Democratic member of Congress believes House Minority Nancy Pelosi is more toxic than Trump.
“The brand is just bad," Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat that represents Ohio’s 13th congressional district told CNN. “I don't think people in the beltway are realizing just how toxic the Democratic Party brand is in so many parts of the country."
Embrace the party: Wealthy, well-educated GOP voters still embrace the party’s core values
Liberal activists are salivating at the prospect of claiming Rep. Mimi Walters’s coastal Orange County seat. Seven Democratic challengers have announced for the +9 GOP seat that Clinton carried by 5 points.
As Orange County Register columnist Martin Wisckol points out, Walters’ district is the most educated in Orange County – 55 percent of residents have college degrees. There’s no question that Trump’s brand is weak among wealthy, well-educated Californians. But these well-educated voters still identify with core Republican values and principles, especially on law and order issues.
Last November, Walters’ district overwhelmingly opposed Proposition 62 to repeal the state’s death penalty and strongly supported Proposition 66 to speed up the death penalty review process. Wealthy, well-educated GOP districts still like the party’s core principles and will continue to support their local GOP representative.
Go with a personal brand: The Trump-Russia narrative isn’t hurting “Putin’s Favorite Surfing Congressman”
For some members of Congress, their personal brand is so strong that neither the president nor the party can bring them down. Case in point: California’s pot-smoking, surfing congressman.
No member of Congress is more susceptible to the Russia-Trump narrative than Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who has called for improved relations with Russia, boasts about his arm-wrestling match with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even earned the moniker, “Putin’s favorite congressman.”
You’d think it’d be a fatal blow in a district that supported Hillary Clinton. The DCCC certainly appears so. Far from it – instead it has reinforced his independent persona. Rohrabacher aligns naturally with the coastal district in his perspectives, his persona, and his political views. His district views him as being independent, and when he takes a position on something that seems to be outside the mainstream, it further buttresses his favorable regard.
Avoid At All Costs The ‘Do-Nothing' label
Voters want action. If the Republican Congress doesn’t advance its two core policy issues, healthcare and tax reform, then they’re going to be labeled do-nothing and for good reason. In the eyes of the voters, the GOP shoulders the ultimate responsibility for moving legislation under a GOP triumvirate governance.
Justin Wallin is CEO of J. Wallin Opinion Research, a national opinion research firm with business, political and government clients.