Trump preparing to crisscross the country for final midterm push
Posted October 29, 2018 6:02 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — President Donald Trump is preparing to dial up the intensity of his political schedule in the final week ahead of critical midterm elections, even as hate acts have rattled the nation and thrown new scrutiny on his deeply divisive style of campaigning.
Already, the President has shown little willingness to curtail his political schedule. Officials have told CNN there is little to no consideration of abandoning the ambitious final week plans that will have the President on the stump most of the next seven days.
Trump's battle plan for the final week includes a three-day sprint to the finish line, with multiple events a day slated for the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before voters cast their ballots, a source close to the process said. Another source familiar with discussions said the White House is considering a joint rally with both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on the eve of Election Day.
But a hate-fueled attack on a Pennsylvania synagogue, a politically motivated attempt to bomb Democratic figures, and a seemingly racially motivated double homicide in Kentucky -- all occurring within two weeks of the election -- have complicated the President's plans to close out midterm season. Torn between his role as the GOP's most valuable surrogate and his duty to reassure a divided country, Trump has attempted to perform both responsibilities simultaneously -- to mixed reviews.
After a shooting Saturday at a Pittsburgh synagogue left 11 dead, Trump opted to leave the White House anyway for a pair of events in Indiana and Illinois while the tragedy was still unfolding. He received briefings on the situation en route to an agricultural event that he attempted to turn into a venue for responding to the shooting before awkwardly pivoting back to the speech he'd come to deliver. The tensions created by a massacre so close to Election Day were on full display later in the evening, when Trump openly toyed with the prospect of canceling a campaign event in Illinois before deciding to proceed as scheduled to the rally -- where he then wove presidential statements of unity in with the red meat he frequently tosses to his supporters.
Trump told reporters on Saturday he planned to visit Pittsburgh this week, though he didn't specify a day. White House schedulers will need to time the visit amid a heavy slate of campaign appearances that officials indicated would not be canceled or rescheduled.
Trump has made a point of telling crowds during the past week that he was toning down his rhetoric in a show of respect. But his crowds have reacted with disappointment, including loud groans on Saturday evening inside an airplane hangar in southern Illinois.
"I had a feeling you might say that," Trump said, before launching into familiar attacks on Democrats, the news media, and his vanquished 2016 rival Hillary Clinton.
The tragedies have threatened to knock Trump off what he had hoped would be his message heading into the home stretch of the midterms: immigration. White House aides had eyed having Trump deliver a major immigration speech in the week before the election as he sought to channel images of a Central American migrant caravan heading to the US into a rallying cry for his supporters.
But the President has struggled to control the conversation amid fallout from the shooting and attempted bombing spree, and he has expressed frustration with the focus on the effects of his rhetoric in the aftermath of the attacks.
The President's team had laid out a number of states Trump could hit during the last week of the midterms, but waited to finalize which of those options they'd choose as rally destinations for as long as possible so they could base their decisions on the freshest polls. Trump's political aides are effectively triaging races based on which Republican candidates need his help the most, and will attempt to direct him where his presence can move more numbers.
With so little time left on the clock, that may be in statewide races. One source familiar with the planning said a number of the sites under consideration for the final days of campaigning are in states where Republicans want to defend or make a play for Senate seats. And a fundraiser Trump attended Thursday evening for three Republican candidates running in open-seat House races will likely mark the President's final effort to raise money this cycle as the party's focus turns to closing arguments, the source said.
Trump has rallies on the books next week in Florida, Missouri and West Virginia -- all states with Senate races where Republicans are looking to flip a Democratic seat.
Another trip to Montana?
Trump's team is considering yet another visit to Montana the week before Election Day, signaling their increasing confidence in Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's vulnerability. For the President, that race is more personal than most: Tester played a leading role in sinking the nomination of the presidential physician, Ronny Jackson, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs in the spring. Two White House aides said the President has continued to vent about Tester and harbors a personal grudge against him.
Aides claim Trump's visits to Montana have helped shift momentum in favor of Matt Rosendale, the GOP state auditor whose challenge to Tester was considered a long shot until recently. Trump rallied in Montana on September 6 and October 18.
In a state Trump won by more than 20 points, Tester's slim lead in recent polls is likely cold comfort for Democrats fighting to preserve their hopes of retaking the Senate. Those hopes have dimmed in the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation; the bitter battle over his Supreme Court nomination awoke sleepy Republican electorates across the country and tightened races Democrats had viewed as winnable contests just last month. But some Republicans -- including the President himself -- have expressed concerns that the chilling acts of violence dominating headlines over the past week will blunt the momentum GOP candidates had begun to see.
Tester's race is emblematic of a broader phenomenon affecting Senate contests around the country. While Republican candidates struggle to fight off robust Democratic challenges in more than two dozen House districts, they rode that late surge of enthusiasm to positions of relative safety in several states where Democrats had hoped to defend or even pick off a Senate seat.
Other states the President might visit
Those include Arizona, where Democrats hope Rep. Kyrsten Sinema can defeat GOP Rep. Martha McSally to flip the Republican-held seat Sen. Jeff Flake will vacate when he retires after this cycle. But Sinema's lead in earlier polls has shrunk as McSally's campaign picks up steam after a bruising primary, and the GOP congresswoman will head into the final week of the midterms with what Republicans hope is a real shot at winning.
In Nevada, Republicans had initially feared Sen. Dean Heller was doomed to lose his seat in a state Trump did not win and a year when the political landscape is tilted toward Democrats. Heller has managed to stay ahead of Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen in recent polls, however, and is now seen as capable of surviving.
And in Tennessee, Democrats are still projecting optimism that their popular former governor, Phil Bredesen, can tip the seat presently held by Sen. Bob Corker away from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican running to replace him. Trump is considering a visit to Tennessee in the final days of campaigning, revealing Republican hopes that Blackburn can keep the seat in the GOP's column.
Even Senate seats Democrats did not expect to lose over the summer have become increasingly competitive as Election Day approaches. For example, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana has slipped in recent surveys -- particularly following his decision to vote against Kavanaugh's confirmation.
The White House and Republicans appear increasingly bullish that they will not only hold the upper chamber, but expand their currently slim majority by knocking off some Democrats in states Trump won.
But the House is a different story for Republicans, who have struggled to compete with Democrats this cycle in fundraising, enthusiasm and incumbent retention.
White House aides have privately conceded that the numbers point toward Republicans likely losing their House majority, albeit by a smaller margin than some once feared.
Trump has filled his schedule and Twitter feed over the past few weeks with support for struggling congressional candidates -- but his intervention isn't helpful everywhere that GOP candidates trail. In a cluster of Republican-held seats around the Los Angeles media market, for example, Trump's assistance is not viewed as beneficial for embattled incumbents fighting to hold on in an increasingly progressive state.
Aides say Trump has enjoyed the pace of midterm campaigning and relishes discussions about individual races and strategy.
But his usual tone on the trail -- which thousands of people flock to his rallies to hear -- is an ill fit for the sensitive national moment Trump finds himself facing just days before voting begins. Several Republicans in key races, however, are polling so close to their Democratic opponents that the enthusiasm a Trump visit would inspire could be the only thing that puts them over the top on Election Day.
Meanwhile, Pence will crisscross the country himself the week before Election Day, with Ohio, Kansas City, Wisconsin and even Alabama for fundraising on his schedule, a source familiar with the planning said.
The Vice President will also campaign in Michigan for John James, the Republican challenging Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, as he winnows away at her lead. While James' chances of victory are still considered slim, the source said Pence and other Republicans are still interested in running up the GOP candidate's margins "even if it's just getting it as close as it can be to help his future in the party."
Trump has also tweeted recently about James' surprisingly strong showing in polls. He still trails the Democratic incumbent by what many believe to be an insurmountable deficit.