President Donald Trump has been acting like a candidate on the ballot this week, staging daily double-header rallies and blasting out ads for Republicans up for election on Tuesday. Given the stakes for his presidency, he might as well be.
A knot of investigations. Partisan gridlock. A warning shot for his re-election bid. Trump faces potentially debilitating fallout should Republicans lose control of one or both chambers in Congress, ending two years of GOP hegemony in Washington. A White House that has struggled to stay on course under favorable circumstances would be tested in dramatic ways. A president who often battles his own party, would face a far less forgiving opposition.
On the flip side, if Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate, that’s not only a victory for the GOP, but a validation of Trump’s brand of politics and his unconventional presidency. That result, considered less likely even within the White House, would embolden the president as he launches his own re-election bid.
White House aides insist the president doesn’t spend much time contemplating defeat, but he has begun to try to calibrate expectations. He has focused on the competitive Senate races the final days of his scorched-earth campaign blitz, and has distanced himself from blame should Republicans lose the House. If that happens, he intends to claim victory, arguing his efforts on the campaign trail narrowed GOP losses and helped them hold the Senate, according to a person familiar with Trump’s thinking who asked for anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss White House conversations by name.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has been tested out other explanations – pointing to historical headwinds for the party of an incumbent president and complaining about a rash of GOP retirements this year. He told the AP last month that he won’t bear any responsibility should Democrats take over.
At a rally in West Virginia Friday a defiant Trump brushed off the prospect of a Democratic House takeover. “It could happen,” he said, adding “don’t worry about it. I’ll just figure it out.”
Meanwhile his staff has begun preparations to deal with a flood of subpoenas that could arrive next year from Democrat-controlled committees and the White House counsel’s office has been trying to attract seasoned lawyers to field oversight inquiries.
Should they take the House, Democrats are already plotting to reopen the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Other committees are plotting aggressive oversight of Trump’s administration and his web of business interests. Some Democrats are looking at using the House Ways and Means Committee to obtain copies of the president’s tax returns after he broke with decades of tradition and withheld them from public scrutiny during his campaign for the White House.
A slim Republican majority in the House would also present challenges, likely inflaming simmering intraparty disputes. First among them would be a potentially bitter leadership fight in the House to replace retiring Speaker Paul Ryan. But a narrowed majority would also exacerbate divisions over policy – and continued unified control could leave the GOP facing the blame for gridlock.
“Clearly there’s an awful lot on the line in terms of the legislative agenda,” said Republican consultant Josh Holmes. “The prospect of a Democratic controlled House or Senate puts a serious wrinkle in getting anything through Congress.”
Some in the White House think losing to Democrats might actually be preferable. They view Democrats eagerness to investigate the president as a blessing in disguise in the run-up to 2020. They view House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a potent foil for Trump, and believe they can tag the party responsibility for Washington dysfunction.
Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary, said Democratic control of the House “has both peril and promise for the president.”
“The peril is subpoenas, investigations, legal bills and headaches,” he said. “The promise is Trump will have an easy foil to run against: Pelosi and Democratic leadership.”
White House aides have discussed floating popular legislative issues, such as infrastructure, to tempt Democrats and test the unity of the Democratic opposition.
While keeping the House remained an uphill battle for the GOP, in the closing days of the campaign, Trump and Republicans have tried to sell voters on the possibilities of another two years of GOP control. They promised hardline immigration policies and more tax cuts, arguing that Democrats would erase two years of progress.
In the closing weeks of the midterms, Trump has unleashed a no-holds-barred effort to boost Republicans as he dipped into the same undercurrents of unease that defined his 2016 campaign. From stoking fears about illegal immigration to warning of economic collapse if Democrats are victorious.
But a House loss will prompt GOP hand-wringing about the divides in the party and the struggles for moderate Republicans to run in the Trump, as well as raise questions about whether the Democratic gains point to a path for presidential hopefuls in 2020.
Democratic consultant Jim Manley said Tuesday may reveal if Democrats are having any success recapturing white working class voters in the Midwest who backed Trump in 2016.
“Trump is helping. He’s becoming more and more radioactive,” Manley said. “There’s a chance to try and win them back over.”
But while the results may reveal weaknesses in the Republican coalition, midterm elections are very different than presidential years. Republicans were quick to point out that the party in power typically suffers defeats in midterms. Former President Barack Obama was in his words “shellacked” in 2010 and went on to win re-election in 2012.
Said Fleischer: “In the aftermath people with exaggerate its meaning and in 2 years’ time everything will have changed.”