(Jeff Roe) – I’m here to tell my fellow Republicans, in particular Republican members of Congress and the Republican consulting class: You can run, but you can’t hide.
President Trump may not be on the ballot in November, but the election will be a referendum on him, as 2010 was on President Barack Obama and 2006 was on President George W. Bush. We will lose seats. The only question is this: Will these losses be catastrophic or manageable?
That will be determined by a very specific choice: Will the party retreat from its leader or fix bayonets and storm to the front with him?
No one fought Mr. Trump harder and longer than I did, as the campaign manager for Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination. I know the maddening brilliance of Mr. Trump. I also know history doesn’t favor the president’s party in midterm elections.
With the election of a Democrat in the 18th Congressional District of Pennsylvania — a district Mr. Trump carried by 20 percentage points, but which also has tens of thousands more registered Democrats than Republicans — it has become media gospel that the president is toxic and that Republican candidates will have to distance themselves from him. That narrative is wrong.
For starters, I am not persuaded that the national Democrats will allow many more personally anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-Pelosi Democrats in battleground seats to win nomination. Among Democratic candidates, Conor Lamb, the victor in Pennsylvania, is the exception, not the rule.
While some Republican candidates, in swing seats, may benefit from creating distance from Mr. Trump, a strategic retreat will work only in rare instances. The myth that midterms are decided by swing voters ignores the prevailing reality that large midterm electoral shifts are driven by shifts in base motivation.
If you are a Republican on the ballot, you are in the same boat as Mr. Trump, whether you like it or not. If enough people jump ship, generic party identification will suffer, and everyone will sink. In other words, if enough Republicans run from their leader, the Republican brand will be so diminished as to produce historic defeats up and down the ballot.
This happened to the Democrats in 2010. To their credit, the Democratic consultants and members of Congress never formed a professional class of Never Obama Democrats. They stayed in the boat. But when it came to defending Obamacare, they stopped rowing. The lesson for Republicans: Stay in the boat and keep rowing.
No, you don’t have to support the president’s tweet storms. But you do have to defend his policy accomplishments. If the election is only a personality contest — rather than about the president’s policies — a historic defeat awaits.
It is undoubtedly difficult to differentiate Trump policies from the Trump persona, because the Trump persona dominates news coverage. But Republican candidates for Congress have to try. Tactically, that means being laser-focused on generating local news coverage of policy accomplishments, even when the national cable news fixates on the latest Trump outrage.
And guess what? Despite breathless coverage of the daily outrage generator in the White House, the economy is improving. The tax cuts will, and in fact already are, spurring growth, freeing capital for investment, creating jobs and returning overseas profits to our shores. There is a message to sell. So sell it.
I would go further and argue that it is the Trump persona so vilified in the media that has in fact made bolder, more sweeping reforms possible than would have been conceivable under almost any other Republican who might have been elected.
Would a President Jeb Bush have signed a strong executive order on religious liberty, or would a President Marco Rubio have started construction of a wall? Would President John Kasich have had the intestinal fortitude to execute such a huge reorganization of the Environmental Protection Agency, dismantling the liberal bureaucracy that with its deeply embedded biases harms our economy? Would President Mitt Romney have pushed through such a major tax overhaul? No way. What makes Mr. Trump different is that he just doesn’t care what the bed-wetting caucus says about his policies.
Instead of wringing our hands about his tweets, let’s start playing up his triumphs. That is the best way to minimize midterm damage. Democrats lost over 1,000 seats nationwide under Mr. Obama. While effective in engineering his own political fate, he gutted the hopes of Democrats for a decade. Republicans have to learn to do what Democrats failed to do: run campaigns as the governing party.
Half the consulting class on our side has spent half of their careers, if not more, running opposition campaigns. They have had the tailwind of resentment and grievance fueling popular anger. Now they have to flip the script. They have to learn to highlight accomplishments like tax reform, job creation and regulatory relief.
The Republican Party will either rally around its Republican president — and defend our shared accomplishments — or it will enter the fall with a depressed base and a turnout disadvantage that will lead to major losses in Congress, governorships and state legislatures. Manageable losses or catastrophic defeat: What will it be, my fellow Republicans? My answer: Fix bayonets and charge the hill.
Jeff Roe (@jeffroe) is the founder of Axiom Strategies, a Republican consulting firm. This column was originally published by the New York Times on March 17, 2018.