Craig Hudson / Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP
Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018 | 6:56 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Heading into the midterm elections, the most volatile candidate this year isn't on the ballot.
But President Donald Trump still loves to take his freewheeling political stylings on the road on behalf of his fellow Republicans and he's raring to go for the sprint to Nov. 6.
His eagerness to campaign for candidates — and protect his political flank — has led Republican officials and Trump's political team to devise a strategy for managing the president's time. It's designed to keep him in places where he can be helpful.
They're also determined to try to manage his unpredictability so the party's strongest asset in turning out core GOP voters doesn't end up doing damage instead.
There's a constant effort to keep him on best behavior.
This past week, Trump heeded pleas from advisers and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, head of the GOP Senate campaign committee, to refrain from picking a favorite in the fractious Arizona primary, waiting until after the results were in to back the winner. Later, at a rally in Indiana for Senate candidate Mike Braun, the president largely stuck to his script, promoting his agenda and criticizing Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.
"Senate Republicans will not get to where they need to go without the president this fall. That means doing exactly what he's been doing," said Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The great danger in a midterm is an enthusiasm gap and there is nobody who can close the enthusiasm gap quite like the president."
Aides believe Trump's drawing power is critical to a strong turnout among the most loyal GOP voters, which is helpful in many statewide contests. But his presence could be counterproductive in many House districts where incumbents are struggling to hold onto voters in the center.
But this is a celebrity-turned-president who hardly is a selfless leader of his adoptive party. He launched his own re-election campaign weeks after his swearing-in last year, rather than waiting until after the midterm elections, as did his predecessors. With Democrats increasingly optimistic about retaking the House, Trump is motivated by self-protection. He's keenly aware of the threats and investigations that could come his way if Democratic hold a majority in either the House or Senate.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing, and Trump created an unnecessary political firestorm with his delayed and muted response to the death of Sen. John McCain. Still, aides think he generally has grown more focused and disciplined entering the final push to the fall elections.
At his Indiana rally Thursday night, Trump stuck to familiar themes, talking about tax cuts and trade tariffs, slamming high-tech companies, railing against the Justice Department and calling MS-13 gang members animals. But he did not mention McCain, avoiding recounting the well-worn tale about the senator's pivotal vote against the president's health care bill.
After a week in which aides pushed Trump to rise above his personal grudges against McCain, the mere fact that Trump kept the senator out of his remarks was notable.
While Trump's White House remains marked by turbulence, insiders said the political shop has managed to impose some discipline. On potential endorsements, for example, political director Bill Stepien and adviser John DeStefano bring Trump detailed binders on candidates' voting records, including their past comments on Trump, where they have broken with the president and other details.
While Stepien and DeStefeno have gained influence, they must compete with other power centers. Vice President Mike Pence and the White House office of legislative affairs weigh in at times, and Donald Trump Jr. has proved a powerful influence.
Some races have proved complicated, as in the Arizona Senate race, where Kelly Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio both promoted their ties to Trump, as did establishment favorite Rep. Martha McSally. Trump stayed out of the race and McSally handily defeated the two more controversial candidates, averting what GOP operatives believed could have been a disaster for the party this fall.
In the Tennessee governor's race, Rep. Diane Black also pushed for an endorsement. Trump stayed out of that race, which she lost, on the advice of staff.
But the president could not be persuaded to stay silent in other cases.
He supported Foster Friess in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Wyoming. Friess, who lost, was strongly backed by Trump Jr. Aides also had pushed Trump not to endorse Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in his bid to be governor, but Trump did at the last minute, helping put Kobach over the top in the primary but making the race in November more competitive for Democrats.
Aides said they pick their battles with the president, prioritizing races that could swing the balance of congressional control.
For political travel, White House staffers, who are coordinating with party aides, have divided the electoral map into places Trump can be helpful and places where it's better to send in others such as Pence, Cabinet secretaries or members of the first family.
"He's prioritizing places where he's performed well and where there's a strong network of grassroots support," said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
When Trump makes a political trip, aides try to make sure the candidate meets the president at the airport, has time with him in the car and gets the right sound bites on stage. That script was followed Thursday with Braun; Trump called him a "special guy" and promised that Braun would "be a truly great senator."
On Friday, as he praised a pair of North Carolina Republican candidates at both an official and political event, Trump was effusive in his praise before turning the spotlight on his own accomplishments.
Trump's rallies also have served as a boost to the GOP's massive email and voter contact database. Attendees are entered into the party's system within 48 hours.
Republican National Committee staffers gather signatures on petitions from people waiting in line and register voters at the event. Within five days, those that have expressed an interest in volunteering are contacted to schedule their first session.