Republicans sound the alarm about Democratic fervor

SACRAMENTO/WASHINGTON, March 14 (Reuters) - Republican state senators in California gathered in Sacramento late last month for what amounted to an intervention.

A leading Washington, D.C. polling firm warned the senators in no uncertain terms that intense Democratic antipathy toward President Donald Trump could spur that party’s voters to turn out in record numbers, jeopardizing safe Republican districts and potentially costing the party control of Congress.

The firm’s presentation, viewed by Reuters and not previously reported, showed a significant “intensity gap” between the two parties, with 82 percent of Democrats strongly disapproving of the job Trump is doing as president, while just 56 percent of Republicans strongly approve of his performance.

Similar alarms were sounded recently to big-ticket donors at retreats organized by billionaire Republicans Charles and David Koch in Palm Springs and by Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Ronna McDaniel in Washington.

"Complacency is our worst enemy," McDaniel said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. “Democrats have the energy.”

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Rising political stars to watch in 2018

Randy Bryce (D)

Bryce made waves earlier this year when he announced he would run against House Speaker Paul Ryan in the 2018 midterm elections. Bryce, a Democrat, is a U.S. Army veteran, cancer survivor and union ironworker.

Rep. Scott Taylor, (R-VA)

A former Navy SEAL, Taylor has represented Virginia's 2nd District since he was elected in 2016. He has branded himself as a Republican lawmaker who is unafraid to speak out against President Trump and members of his own party -- recently calling out Roy Moore for allegations of sexual misconduct.

Rep. Seth Moulton, (D-MA)

39-year-old Seth Moulton has increasingly emerged as a prominent House member and one to watch within the Democratic party. He served four tours of duty in Iraq and notably serves as the. Recently, he has advocated for "a new generation" of Democratic leadership.

Rep. Chris Collins, (R-NY)

Collins was elected to represent New York's 27th district on Capitol Hill in 2012, and has since positioned himself as a vocal right-wing defender within the Republican party. He also came out as one of President Trump's most vocal supporters leading up to an after the 2016 election.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.)

Krishnamoorthi was elected in 2016 -- making him one of the more freshman lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Still, the former lawyer with a past of aiding the Obama administration has played an integral role this year in congressional investigations into the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russia. As a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he has taken many opportunities to speak critically of the clearance aides like Jared Kushner have -- and has firmly positioned himself as a staunch opponent of GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK)

As one of 21 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate, Murkowski has positioned herself as a more moderate leader within the Republican party. Murkowski refused to toe the party line on an attempted Obamacare repeal earlier this year, and has since raised skepticism over specific elements of the GOP tax bill and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Rep. Charlie Crist, (D-Fla.)

Crist is one of the more interesting players currently positioned in the political landscape. Once a Republican, Crist served as both attorney general and governor of Florida -- but then switched to a member of the Independent and eventually Democratic party. In his current House role representing Florida's 13th congressional district, Crist has emerged as a Democrat unafraid to take a middle-ground approach in his policy stances.

Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-AR)

As the youngest U.S. senator, Cotton's political future currently looks very bright. As one of the few Capitol Hill lawmakers that has yet to have a public feud -- on Twitter or otherwise -- with President Trump, Cotton was recently on the shortlist to replace Mike Pompeo as CIA director if Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV)

Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

Governor-elect Ralph Northam (D-VA)

Northam was elected governor of Virginia in the series of "anti-Trump" Election Day victories Democrats celebrated in Nov. 2017. Northam's victory over Ed Gillespie signaled a potential shift in the oft-fraught over Virginia battleground state -- and Northam's gubernatorial tenure will be one to eye in the context of midterms and the 2020 presidential election.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D, NY)

Many who watch politics closely have noted Gillibrand as one to watch since she was appointed to Hillary Clinton's former Senate seat in 2009, and then elected in 2012. Early in her Senate career, Gillibrand used her position as a member of the Committee on Armed Services to chalk up a major legislative win by championing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Gillibrand has also recently spoken out against sexual harassment allegations stemming from both Democratic and Republican offices -- calling on both Sen. Al Franken and President Trump to resign.

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Interviews with more than 20 Republican lawmakers, operatives and strategists nationwide reveal a party increasingly worried about high levels of enthusiasm on the Democratic side and struggling to motivate its own voters to come out in the numbers needed to retain its grip on the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

“It’s a challenge, it is,” said Jeff Flake, a Republican U.S. senator who is retiring this year. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Issues that typically fire up conservatives when a Democrat is in the White House, including gun control, abortion, immigration and healthcare, have lost potency with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress as well as both legislative chambers in 32 U.S. states.

Many Republican operatives and lawmakers believe their best argument will be the state of the economy and the tax overhaul passed by Congress late last year. They also believe the party’s fundraising power can boost Republican candidates and get-out-the vote efforts in critical contests.

But some worry tax reform is not enough to get Republican voters to cast ballots in congressional races.

"Republicans are going to struggle to turn out voters if we can't get a lot more accomplished before November,” said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster involved in key Senate races in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and elsewhere.

'WE'RE IN RE-FREAK-OUT'

After a brief period of optimism when the tax package passed in December, Republicans are now openly fretting about their party's image as Trump’s White House appears gripped by turmoil, with a range of policy fights on key issues, a new round of high-level departures and ongoing probes into alleged ties between Trump's election campaign team and Russia.

"We’re in a re-freak-out right now," said Doug Heye, a former top official at the RNC. "If the conversation is on Russia, or White House discord, or Trump’s tweets, we’re clearly not doing what we doing what we need to do."

Republicans have watched with deepening alarm as highly motivated Democratic voters came out in force in state special elections in Kentucky and Wisconsin, and in Texas primaries last week.

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High-profile Congressional Republicans
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Senator John McCain (R-AZ)
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
House of Representatives Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)
Senator Lindsey Graham
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC)
Senator Richard Burr (R-NC)
U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AL)
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
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"We should take seriously the fact that when you feel as though you are out of power and out of control of your government, you are going to respond with a higher level of engagement than you would otherwise,” said Dennis Revell, a board member of the California Republican Party.

The polling firm at the meeting in Sacramento warned that presidents who have an overall approving rating of under 50 percent — as Trump does - typically lose an average of 40 seats in midterm elections.

Democrats need to gain a net total of 2 Senate seats and 24 House seats to take control of those chambers.

'FEEL THE HEAT NOW'

To counteract the enthusiasm gap, Republican strategists say, candidates will need to run smart and well-funded campaigns.

The polling firm urged Republican incumbents in California to focus on fundraising and to hold town halls without delay in order to draw out criticism as early as possible and energize voters.

One slide in its presentation urged Republican candidates to: “Feel the heat NOW, not in November.” Another counseled candidates to “prepare for a negative campaign" and not shy away from giving opponents "name ID, especially if that name ID is of the negative kind.”

In Washington, one Republican operative said, the party’s House incumbents were given a set of tips: Don't take supposedly safe districts for granted. Raise money. Introduce legislation to help constituents.

One advantage Republicans do hold over Democrats is financial. At the end of January, according to a Reuters analysis of each of the parties' three main political action committees, the RNC had a sizable financial advantage over Democrats at the end of January.

Filings with the Federal Election Commission show the RNC had nearly $107 million on hand at the end of January, the last full reporting period, compared to the DNC's $74 million.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by the Koch brothers, says it will be active in Senate races and spend much of its money early in the campaign in the belief that is its best opportunity to shape the narrative of individual contests.

In the last three congressional elections, Republicans held the enthusiasm advantage, animated by their opposition to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and galvanized by hot-button issues such as immigration, guns, and healthcare.

Navigating those issues may be trickier now. Republicans must defend 23 House districts won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and dominated by more moderate, college-educated voters.

The party also needs conservatives to vote heavily in rural states such as Montana, North Dakota, and Missouri, where Republicans hope to oust five moderate Democrats.

Wilson, the pollster involved in U.S. Senate races, warned that if bipartisan deals are reached in Congress on gun control and immigration in coming months, Republican turnout could be depressed.

“It’s a complete recipe for a demoralized base,” Wilson said.

Still, conservative activists say some cultural issues will retain a punch.

Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women of America, said the failure in February of a Senate bill that would have outlawed abortion after the 20th week of a pregnancy could be used against Democratic senators who opposed it, including North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp.

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, suggested that Trump’s ongoing attacks on the media are popular with his base of voters and could be an effective rallying cry.

But the most effective way for the party to have a unified message rests on the economy, operatives said,

“You have to show people what you are doing to improve their lives,” said Tim Phillips, Americans for Prosperity’s president, although he conceded it is harder to motivate voters to come out when Republicans are the party in power.

"It’s fair to say it's easier to vote against something than for it," he said. (Reporting by Susan Cornwell and James Oliphant in Washington and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Additional reporting by Grant Smith; Editing by Kieran Murray and Sue Horton)

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