After several months of assuring supporters of a solid Republican victory in the midterms elections, President Trump has shifted his message in response to warnings from Republican operatives that his rhetoric could hurt the GOP by dampening its voter turnout.
His refusal to talk about the possibility of Democrats winning was making Republican voters complacent, and could end up helping Democrats retake the House, operatives warned.
“In his recent rallies, he has maybe heard a few of us operatives out here that are saying, ‘Mr. President … I know we’re pushing back on our narrative but this actually needs to be a different strategy. We need to turn out our base,’” said Mike Shields, a Republican consultant who is a central player in the House GOP’s efforts to retain its majority.
Trump warned voters at a rally in Montana last week that if Democrats take the House this fall they could try to impeach him. Trump’s speech was “the message that will help,” said Shields, in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast, “The Long Game.”
“That will get our base turned out and it will cut into this lead and it will help us save the House,” Shields added.
Shields spent two years as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee in 2013 and 2014, where he oversaw its rebuilding effort to catch up with Democrats in the use of data and technology. He continues to play a key role in that space as a senior adviser to the Data Trust, a private company that serves as the repository for the Republican voter file. From 2015 to 2016, Shields ran the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super-PAC aligned with the house speaker. He now runs his own media firm, Convergence.
Shields said that during his time at the RNC, he gradually realized that part of his job would be not only to help the Republicans overtake the Democrats in their ability to run modern campaigns. He would also have to fend off challenges from conservative groups like the Koch brothers political operation, which wanted to replace the RNC in key areas such as providing voter data to campaigns.
“I suddenly started realizing how tenuous a position the parties are in, how much under attack they are,” Shields said. “I believe in parties, and I think parties are good. No one says that.”
Parties, Shields said, are “essential to a functioning democracy.”
That echoes the warning in a book published earlier this year called “How Democracies Die,” by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
“We like to believe that the fate of a government lies in the hands of its citizens. If the people hold democratic values, democracy will be safe. … This view is wrong,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “What matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.”
Shields said that after the McCain-Feingold legislation of 2002 shifted political donations out of the party structure and into the world of outside groups, the RNC drifted for several years. Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012 was a wakeup call that the RNC had to be reimagined if it was going to remain relevant. Shields, and RNC chairman Reince Priebus, decided to focus on maintaining and improving the GOP’s historic voter file, so that year in and year out, Republican campaigns could come to the RNC for the best data on which to base their voter targeting efforts.
“We hadn’t redesigned ourselves along those lines until Reince did it in ’13, until we sort of asked ourselves, ‘What are we actually here to do?’ Shields said.
Shields is married to another high-power GOP operative, Katie Walsh, who took the RNC chief of staff job after him. They were engaged in early 2017 and married a year ago. Walsh was a deputy White House chief of staff in the first few months of Trump’s presidency and is now back at the RNC as a senior data and digital adviser.
Shields and Walsh are both deeply involved in the work of building a Republican party infrastructure that lasts over time, but for now, the coming midterms are their focus.
Increasing GOP turnout may help save seats, but it won’t be enough in some key races to counter extremely high enthusiasm among Democrats and anti-Trump independents. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats in the House to get to a majority of 218. And the Cook Political Report said in late August that of the 66 races that were too close to call, 62 were held by Republicans and only four by Democrats, pointing to a huge number of vulnerable Republican incumbents.
It’s not a good sign for the GOP.
It hasn’t been just Trump who has ignored overwhelming evidence that Democrats are likely to win back the House. Conservative media personalities like Fox News’ Sean Hannity have reinforced the belief among many Trump supporters that polls are wrong.
“When you see a poll or something comes out that says Democrats might win, the conservative media says, ‘That’s not true. We’re fine,’” Shields said. “And that’s actually harmful because it tells our base you don’t need to bother [to vote].”
“We need conservative media to quit telling people everything’s fine, and we need the voters to know that what’s at stake is higher taxes, government-run health care,” he said. “Once they understand that they go, ‘Oh my God, I better show up and vote. We don’t want that.’”
Hannity, who talks frequently to Trump, often imitates and echoes the president’s messaging, and this case is a good example. Trump first started saying he thought Republicans could win the majority of contests for congressional seats this fall — which he labeled a “red wave” — in June, according to the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser.
On June 22, Hannity’s personal website carried an article headlined, “RED WAVE RISING: Trump calls for ‘RED WAVE’ in November.” Three other headlines on the page amplified the same message.
On Aug. 8, Trump tweeted, “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. If I find the time, in between China, Iran, the Economy and much more, which I must, we will have a giant Red Wave!”
Two days later, Hannity’s radio broadcast was headlined, “The Red Wave Can Happen.”
By the time Trump arrived in Billings, Mont., for a campaign rally on Sept. 6, he had gotten the message that he needed to amp up the fear factor among his base. Yet even then, he chose to do so in a way that deflected blame from his own bad poll numbers, and pointed the finger at his own supporters.
“If [impeachment] does happen, it’s your fault, because you didn’t go out to vote,” Trump said. “You didn’t go out to vote — that’s the only way it could happen.”
The Hannity echo effect was predictable. The talking head ran a segment the next evening in which a graphic appeared over his left shoulder that said in big white letters, “Most Important MIDTERM of Our Lifetime.”
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