Trump ramps up midterm travel as Republicans grow worried about immigration debate
Posted June 19, 2018 8:55 p.m. EDT
MINNEAPOLIS (CNN) — President Donald Trump is ramping up his political travel ahead of the midterm elections, eying November as the most potent referendum on his presidency even as he faces widespread condemnation over his administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy.
Trump's focus on the midterms, which Republicans believe will come with an invigoration of the President's loyal base, is welcome news for some Republicans focused on keeping their majority in the House. But those same operatives admit it also comes with significant political risk: Trump's presence fires up Democrats, puts every race in a national context that can be detrimental to Republican candidates and risks knocking campaigns off message by forcing them to take on sticky issues like immigration.
As Trump has increased his focus on the midterms, he has made clear this week that he plans to make immigration central to his messaging this campaign season. Revisiting the anti-immigrant attacks that animated much of his 2016 campaign, Trump pledged that the United States "will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility" and argued that undocumented immigrants "pour into and infest our Country."
"Democrats are the problem," he said stridently on Tuesday.
Armed with that messaging, Trump will embark on a week-long sprint that will take him to five key states -- Minnesota, Nevada, South Carolina, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
The President will first headline a rally in Duluth, Minnesota on Wednesday, touting a series of Republican candidates in the state. On Saturday, Trump will then rally with Republicans in Las Vegas and headline a fundraiser for Sen. Dean Heller, arguably the most endangered Republican incumbent in the Senate.
Trump will then travel to South Carolina on Monday, according to two sources with knowledge of the President's plans, rallying with incumbent South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster who finds himself in a difficult runoff election against John Warren.
Trump's week of travel will then take him to Fargo, North Dakota on June 27, where he is expected to tout Rep. Kevin Cramer, the Republican Senate candidate looking to unseat Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
According to Republicans with knowledge of Trump's plans, the President will then travel to Wisconsin the following day for a 250-person fundraiser with the Trump Victory Committee and the Republican National Committee in Milwaukee. One Republican told CNN that the RNC expects to raise $3 million at the event. RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel will be in attendance, according to the Republican source.
Trump has told aides that he expects to constantly be on the road for the midterms, with an increased focus on large rallies that bring hundreds of his supporters together for lengthy speeches full of red-meat.
"He has said he expects to be on the road five or six times a week," said Bill Stepien, White House political director. "And nothing revs of the base, garners attention and draws contrast with those who have obstructed this President every step of the way like a rally, so I expect his tactic to be used quite often."
Republican candidates are well aware that the President's presence comes with risks.
"I think he's got better things to do at this point," Young Kim, the Republican candidate running to replace Rep. Ed Royce in Southern California, told CNN before June's California primary. Though she admitted she wouldn't reject his help outright, she said it would have to be the right kind of help.
But some candidates are calculating that the benefits outweigh the hazards.
"I am very excited that the President has decided to make Duluth one of his campaign stops," said Pete Stauber, the Republican candidate running to flip Minnesota's 8th Congressional District who will rally with Trump on Wednesday. "This event just reaffirms how important this open seat is both to our district and Republicans nationally and we are excited to be hosting the President in the 8th District Wednesday."
It is not happenstance that Trump is heading to Duluth, either. The blue-collar area is, in the eyes of most Republicans, prime territory for Trump to flip longtime Democratic voters with a pledge to protect the steel industry powered by the nearby Iron Range, a group of major iron deposits in northern Minnesota.
The Trump re-election campaign is making Minnesota an early priority after losing by only 2 percentage points to Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- the closest the state has come to tilting Republican in a generation. Richard Nixon was the last Republican to carry the state in a presidential race.
The race was tight in the Duluth area, too. But the President proved during the election that the right kind of Republican can compete in the state known for its liberal icons, welcome news for Republicans like Jim Hagedorn, a Republican House candidate in southern Minnesota.
"I have made very clear: I am running to be a conservative reinforcement in the House and to partner with President Trump and like-minded colleagues," said Hagedorn, who made the four-hour drive up to Duluth the day before Trump was set to arrive.
While it is difficult for aides to predict what the traditionally free-wheeling Trump will say once he takes the stage before a campaign crowd, Michael Glassner, the COO of Trump's 2020 campaign, said the President will discuss economic growth, trade and his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But it is unlikely that Trump, who is in the middle of a firestorm over families coming to the United States illegally being separated, will be able to avoid the immigration debate, even if he will be more than 1,500 miles from the US-Mexico border.
Immigration animated Trump's 2016 campaign and the issue remains relevant in Minnesota, where farm workers are a staple of the economy in the southern reaches of the state and there is a large Somali population in the Twin Cities.
Trump plans to continue that rhetoric through November, sources with knowledge of his plans tell CNN, believing that immigration is the kind of political issue to invigorate voters that flocked to him in 2016.
"I think every district is different. (But) I have seen poll numbers that show this issue polls well with Republicans," the source with knowledge of Trump's political thinking told CNN. "Anyone who has run a campaign knows that a midterm election, as this is, it is all about making sure that our own party turns out and the base is motivated. Every poll I have seen shows this issue accomplishes that."