Donald Trump gave the Wall Street Journal an impromptu, 20-minute interview on Wednesday, touching on everything from his beloved tariffs to his decision to yank John Brennan’s security clearance. The president’s preferred topic, though, was clear. According to the Journal, Trump repeatedly “interrupted the conversation to summon aides to the Oval Office to share charts” detailing the electoral success of candidates he’s endorsed. Trump sounded very much like a man confident that he alone can keep Republicans in control of Congress.
“As long as I can get out and campaign, I think they’re going to win, I really do,” Trump said of his party. “It’s a lot of work for me. I have to make 50 stops, it’s a lot. So, there aren’t a lot of people that can do that, physically. Fortunately, I have no problem with that.” But won’t all that stumping just motivate Democratic voters to make sure they show up for the midterms? “If you want to know the truth, I don’t think it energizes them,” he said. “I think it de-energizes them. I think they give up when I turn out.”
There is—brace yourself, dear reader—little evidence to suggest this is even remotely true. Polling from the Pew Research Center and others suggests that Democrats and Republicans are both historically excited to vote in the midterms, and that excitement is due predominantly to their feelings about Trump. And while the president says it was, for instance, his rally that propelled Troy Balderson to a “great victory” in Ohio’s special election last week, it’s just as likely that his appearance there failed to turn out the GOP base and instead mobilized Democrats. Balderson himself feared just that possibility, if Gov. John Kasich can be believed. At the very least, it’s clear Democrats didn’t throw in the towel after Trump’s MAGA show came to town. The race has not yet been officially called, but Balderson currently leads by less than one percentage point in a district Trump won by 11 and that Democrats haven’t represented in Congress for more than three decades.
It’s not entirely clear that even Trump’s own inner circle believes his boasts, at least not with regard to the House. A number of Trump loyalists recently floated the self-serving idea to Politico that losing the lower chamber would lead to Trump’s impeachment but also ensure his reelection. The report, published Thursday, relied almost exclusively on unnamed sources—including “one prominent conservative and Trump supporter” granted anonymity so that he could claim that unnamed “well-respected thinkers” totally agree with him—leaving it more than a bit muddled. But the buried rationale is that some slice of these Republicans believes the House is as good as gone and so they’d rather Trump make his peace with that and then use his time trying to save the Senate. Given the lower chamber will be decided largely in districts Trump lost and the upper chamber in states he won, it’s no secret why the GOP Powers That Be would rather see Trump take the stage in North Dakota than in Orange County.
The danger, as always, for Republicans is that the president won’t listen. Trump’s comments to the Journal show he is either unwilling or unable to accept the possibility that he’s anything but a closer. During the Oval Office interview, the president and his team repeated two of their favorite claims as evidence: No Trump endorsee has lost a GOP primary, and only one of nine Trump-backed Republicans has lost a special election. Both claims are false, but even if they weren’t, they still wouldn’t be convincing.
There have been a total of 11 federal special elections since Trump took office last year. The president didn’t bother getting personally involved in the first, in a deep blue Los Angeles-area congressional district that Democrats held, but he played a factor in the next 10, eight of which Republicans did indeed win—but by nowhere near by the size of the partisan lean of each district, which ranged from suburban-Atlanta red to southeast-Utah dark red.
And then there were the two special election losses, the first of which doubled as a primary defeat. In Alabama last year, Trump backed interim Sen. Luther Strange, who lost the GOP primary to Roy Moore, who then received Trump’s backing—both before and after he was accused of being a sexual predator—only to lose to Democrat Doug Jones when it counted. And in western Pennsylvania this spring, Rick Saccone fell to Conor Lamb even after Trump made a late appearance on the Republican’s behalf. (Trump’s self-scorekeeping also conveniently excludes last year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Trump-backed Ed Gillespie lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by 8 points.) Trump is free to argue that Moore was a special case and should be excluded from his win-loss record, but he is instead suggesting it simply never happened, much as he is doing with the Strange blotch on his otherwise perfect primary record.
It remains possible that Democrats won’t gain the two dozen seats they need to take back the House, or even if they do, that they fail in their bid to overcome a brutal calendar to win the Senate as well. But everything we’ve seen to date suggests either of those outcomes would be due largely to gerrymandering, geographical quirks, and other factors. That Trump can’t accept that, though, is hardly a surprise. Just ask him about the popular vote.
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