WASHINGTON (Circa) -- Donald Trump has always seen himself as a salesman, whether marketing hotels, steaks, or his own presidential candidacy, and he is gearing up to pitch Republicans to voters across the country this fall, but it is not yet clear what the Trump brand will be worth for GOP candidates on the campaign trail.
President Trump took a victory lap on Twitter Wednesday as five candidates he endorsed in primaries and special elections Tuesday won or held small leads.
“5 for 5!” Trump tweeted in celebration, later adding “RED WAVE!”
Trump’s presence was felt most strongly in a Kansas primary, where he endorsed Secretary of State Kris Kobach against the sitting Republican governor, and an Ohio special election, where he held a late rally for GOP House nominee Troy Balderson on Saturday. Although votes are still being counted, he offered both candidates a boost that may have shifted the dynamics of their races.
Even before the validation Trump received from Tuesday’s results, he was planning a heavy fall campaign schedule, talking about holding events up to six or seven days a week in the lead-up to the midterms. He renewed that promise on Twitter Wednesday.
“As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason), they will win! I LOVE the people, & they certainly seem to like the job I’m doing,” he wrote. “If I find the time, in between China, Iran, the Economy and much more, which I must, we will have a giant Red Wave!”
An omnipresent President Trump dropping into tight races to deliver fiery stream-of-consciousness rants, outrage liberals, and latch himself onto the local Republican nominee could be a blessing or a curse, depending on the district. For Balderson, Ohio-based Republican strategist Mark Weaver believes the last-minute rally was decisive.
“I think the rally was more significant than the endorsement,” Weaver said. “There were thousands of people in and around that rally and the Balderson campaign and others were signing up Election Day volunteers left and right.”
Democratic strategist Scott Ferson recognized a degree of “brand transference” when Trump puts his anti-establishment stamp on a candidate, but the exact impact is impossible to measure and there are always many factors at play.
“I would not be surprised if President Trump takes credit for the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening,” he said.
Despite the declarations of victory by Trump and Balderson, the Ohio race remained unresolved Wednesday. Though Danny O’Connor trailed Balderson by 1,754 votes with all precincts reporting, thousands of provisional and absentee ballots have yet to be counted. Similarly, the Kansas GOP gubernatorial primary is still too close to call, with Trump-backed Kobach up by less than 200 votes and a recount a distinct possibility.
“The 12th was gerrymandered to be a safe GOP seat, and Trump won it by 11 points [in 2016],” said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. “So Balderson underperformed. It is a continuation of Democratic momentum.”
The district’s House seat has been held by Republicans for 35 years. It should have been an easy race for the GOP, and win or lose, Democrats argue O’Connor even coming within striking distance of a victory bodes well for their party in November.
“Democrats were very pleased to see O’Connor’s over-performance, especially in a district where Trump won by 11 points,” said Janetta King, president of Innovation Ohio. “To come within one point really shows us the environment is right for success in the fall.”
Still, strategists for both parties say a close loss should provide limited solace.
“If you lose, you lost,” Ferson said. “We’re not going to change the things we want in Congress if we don’t actually elect the person.”
Weaver also noted Democrats had to expend a lot of resources to keep the race this tight.
“They’re claiming a moral victory but they won’t be claiming a seat in the House,” he said. “They spent a lot of money. That’s money that can’t be used to defeat Republicans in November.”
In total, Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to take control of the House. There are 60 Republican districts around the country they believe are more favorable for them than the Ohio 12th, and there are more than 40 GOP-held seats in districts Trump won by a smaller margin than he did there.
“The base is very energized,” King said, “but I also think we have a real opportunity, like Danny O’Connor did, to speak to disaffected moderate Republicans who are not happy with their current party’s leadership nationally, who are rejecting the divisiveness of Donald Trump.”
If Trump carried Balderson over the finish line, experts say, he is also one major reason why the race was a photo finish instead of a blowout, and why a Republican majority presiding over a job market with a 3.9 percent unemployment rate and an economy growing at 4.1 percent is at serious risk of losing control of Congress.
“Trump is dominating the electoral landscape this year. He is the reason it was so close to begin with,” Beck said.
A Trump endorsement has proven a potent force in Republican primary elections, but it has yet to be tested like it will be in November’s general elections with dozens of close House races and several key Senate battles on the ballot. The president’s candidates may have prevailed Tuesday, but his record of endorsements in special elections over the last year-and-a-half is mixed.
Republicans eked out wins in several early 2017 elections in historically-red districts that were far closer than they should have been. Democrats have racked up surprise victories since then in Alabama and Pennsylvania, where Doug Jones and Conor Lamb defeated Trump-backed GOP nominees.
As Trump often likes to point out, his favorability among self-identified Republicans is nearly unparalleled in recent history. At the same time, his overall approval rating has consistently trailed other presidents for most of his term.
“Time will tell,” Weaver said. “We are a divided country. We are roughly 48 percent/48 percent support and opposition of Donald Trump. Elections have become a referendum on how people feel about this president.”
Few things excite the GOP base like a Trump rally, but the president can be an equally animating force on the left. Hours before Trump boarded Air Force One en route to Ohio, he lashed out at LeBron James, reigniting anger from those who see racism in his frequent attacks on black athletes.
“There’s no doubt the far left is triggered by Donald Trump and that has increased their turnout,” Weaver said. “There just weren’t enough of them in this district.”
While Trump seems to have had a good night Tuesday, some prominent progressive icons did not. Candidates endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and House nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lost primaries in Michigan and Missouri to establishment Democrats.
Abdul El-Sayed fell to former state legislator Gretchen Whitmer in the Michigan gubernatorial primary, and activist Cori Bush failed to defeat Rep. William Lacy Clay, whose family has held his seat for nearly 50 years, in St. Louis County, Missouri. Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for both in the run-up to the election.
Progressive candidates did succeed in other races, including James Thompson, who lost a close special election in the Kansas 4th last year and is taking another run at it, and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan’s 13th District.
"With her victory, Rashida Tlaib is not only set to make history as the first Muslim woman to win a seat in Congress, she's poised to be a key organizer on Capitol Hill in the fight for critical inclusive populist reforms like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and a $15 minimum wage,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America, a political action committee that endorsed Sanders in 2016.
Much has been made since Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory over Rep. Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary last month of the rise of Sanders-style democratic socialism within the Democratic Party. The outcome of these Midwestern primaries suggests supporters and critics who have attempted to paint her as the future of the party may have spoken too soon.
As in previous special elections where moderate and conservative Democratic candidates either won or far exceeded expectations, experts say the takeaway for the party should be that they need to nominate the right candidate for the district regardless of broader trends.
“If they have good candidates and a strong campaign effort, they will take the House, at least at this reading,” Beck said. “And if Trump’s disapproval goes up, as it could, given all that is going on, it could be a sizable swing.”
O’Connor’s near-success may provide a roadmap for other Democrats in competitive races this fall, according to Ferson, by focusing on bread and butter economic issues instead of veering to the left to appeal to activists.
“Everyone has their own agenda and people who are fighting to elect far-out liberals and nominate them would rather be right than win,” he said. “If the House flips, it would be purely incidental to them, it seems to me.”
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Neither party can easily replicate the results they achieved Tuesday on a national scale in November. Motivated Democrats have had an advantage in typically low-turnout special elections, but Republican voters are more likely to show up at the polls with other important state and local races on the ballot. Balderson was buoyed not just by a Trump visit but by a massive influx of cash from GOP interests that will have to parcel out their ad dollars across dozens of competitive races in the fall.
“All the top GOP leaders came to the district in support of Balderson,” Beck said, “yet he barely won, at least before provisional ballots are counted.”
Regardless of the outcome when all the votes are counted, Balderson and O’Connor will face off again in November. Weaver expects that race to revert to something closer to the district’s historic 7-point GOP advantage as the Trump effect is diluted on both sides.
“The anti-Trump peanut butter will have to be spread much thinner across the entire loaf of bread,” he said. “It was all focused in one place for this election.”