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Republicans still have hopes of a turnaround, but after another bad week, time is running short

Republicans still have hopes of a turnaround, but after another bad week, time is running short
  (LAT)

No getting around it, this was a bad week at the ballot box for President Trump and his party, one that forecasts significant defeats ahead.

Republicans still have hopes of turning around the trend. But the reality remains that they’ve been looking for a turnaround since December, and none has developed. At some point, both money and time — especially time — begin to run out.

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The president, once he wraps up a brief vacation at his golf resort in New Jersey, plans to hit the campaign trail heavily for the final 10 weeks before voting wraps up. For Republicans, he’s a mixed blessing: He motivates core supporters and ardent foes alike. How many candidates will welcome his help remains to be seen.

A GROWING LIST OF VULNERABILITIES

The GOP faces several overlapping problems — a large number of incumbents who have decided this is the year to call it quits; a trend, which pre-dated Trump, of college-educated suburbanites moving toward the Democrats; and the natural, cyclical nature of politics in which the president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterm election.

All that adds up to a list of vulnerable seats that has kept growing.

Democrats need to pick up a net of at least 23 seats to regain the House majority. The Cook Political Report, one of several nonpartisan groups that tracks congressional races, lists 61 Republican-held seats as vulnerable and only 5 Democratic ones.

In the special congressional election in Ohio, the Republican, Troy Balderson, appears on track to win, barring a major surprise among the several thousand absentee and provisional ballots yet to count.

But Balderson’s victory margin, currently less than 1%, contrasts sharply with what the GOP used to get in a district the party has represented since 1983. In 2016, for example, incumbent Rep. Pat Tiberi took two-thirds of the vote.

Balderson’s weak showing came despite millions the party spent on TV ads, many of which targeted Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, whose image, Republican strategists know, powerfully motivates their voters.

Results elsewhere were, if anything, worse for the GOP.

In Washington state, for example, Republican incumbents showed unexpectedly weak results in the state’s top-two primary. In the southwestern corner of the state, Republican Rep. Jaime Beutler currently has just 42% of the vote against two Democrats. In the Spokane-area district in the east, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the congressional GOP leadership, was just one point ahead of her Democratic opponent, Lisa Brown. And in the 8th District, south and east of Seattle, Republican Dino Rossi was pulling just 43% of the vote against several opponents.

In Kansas, Trump waded into the primary between the incumbent Republican governor, Jeff Colyer, and his challenger, Kris Kobach, a leading advocate of restricting immigration and an early Trump supporter. The president’s endorsement almost certainly helped Kobach in the GOP primary, but not enough for a clean win.

Kobach currently leads by 121 votes out of more than 310,000 cast. A potentially divisive recount could keep tensions within the GOP high for weeks. Thursday night, Kobach, the Kansas secretary of State, announced he would step aside from any role overseeing the recount.

Whoever wins the primary, Republicans likely will still have a slight edge in the race for governor — Kansas is very Republican, after all, and a wealthy independent candidate could hurt the Democrats. But a divided GOP has put two of the state’s congressional districts into toss-up status: the 2nd and 3rd Districts, which cover most of the eastern part of the state.

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TRUMP’S STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS

Trump’s core support remains solid, as a new study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed. About 80% of people who voted for him in 2016 continue to report warm feelings toward the president.

At the same time, however, a significant minority of Republicans have soured on Trump, Pew’s study found. Women make up a disproportionate share of the voters who sided with Trump in 2016 but who now report cold feelings toward him. College-educated women, a particularly tough audience for Trump, provide the swing vote in many of the congressional districts up for grabs this year.

FEW VICTORIES FOR THE SANDERS WING

The week’s results reinforced another of this year’s trends: For all the energy on the Democratic left, candidates with ties to the Democratic establishment have won most of the primaries.

The most prominent example came this week in Michigan. Sen. Bernie Sanders flew to Detroit the weekend before the voting for a rally with his chosen candidate, Abdul El-Sayed, the 33-year-old former head of Detroit’s health department.

El-Sayed attracted a lot of national attention for his youth, his Muslim faith and his endorsement of Sanders’ call for a government-run, single-payer healthcare system.

In the end, however, his national press far outstripped his Michigan support. Gretchen Whitmer, a former state legislator with strong backing from labor unions and women’s political groups, won handily, taking 52% of the vote in a three-candidate field.

Whitmer has an unquestionably liberal record — her biggest legislative accomplishment was a bill to expand Medicaid in Michigan under the Affordable Care Act, thereby providing health coverage to more than 600,000 people. The fact that she was seen as the establishment candidate illustrates how much the center of the Democratic party has moved left.

But her sweeping victory — she won every county in the state — also speaks to the limits of the progressive insurgency in the party. Democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have won in some urban, Democratic strongholds, but the party’s big victories in the past year have gone to relative moderates, including Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama and Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania.

Whitmer’s victory reflected another trend, as well: Women have won a lot of Democratic primaries this year. So far, in 121 Democratic primary races that included at least one woman, one man and no incumbent, the female candidate has won 70% of the time, according to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, who has tracked that trend.

Next test: The Florida Democratic primary on Aug. 28, where former Rep. Gwen Graham faces four men in a race for the party’s nomination for governor.

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Another woman and political moderate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, continues to cruise toward reelection with minimum public exposure. As Sarah Wire wrote, Feinstein is in no hurry to campaign during the Senate’s August recess.

A LEGAL SHIELD FOR TRUMP

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court gives Feinstein plenty of opportunities to keep her name in front of California voters without campaigning.

She and other leading Democrats have been demanding extensive records from Kavanaugh’s tenure as a White House aide under President George W. Bush. Senate Republican leaders, however, seem determined to press ahead with a quick vote and appear to have the support to do so.

One reason why the Trump administration is keen to see Kavanaugh on the high court: In his legal writings, he’s argued that presidents should be shielded from all criminal probes — even questioning, as David Savage wrote.

RUNNING OUT THE CLOCK ON QUESTIONING

Trump’s lawyers continued to stall on whether he’d sit for questioning by investigators for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Chris Megerian wrote.

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s chief lawyer, once again said that Mueller’s team should “conclude its inquiry without further delay.” But the sparring over whether Trump will agree to be questioned has been a major source of delay.

Trump, meantime, shifted his ground on a key event — the meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 that his son Donald Trump Jr. held with Russians who promised derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. The president now concedes the meeting was intended to get dirt on Clinton, as Laura King wrote. That’s something the White House had strenuously denied last year.

And at a fundraising dinner, Rep. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told Republican donors that the party needs to keep its House majority to protect Trump, as Wire reported. His remarks were recorded by a Democrat who bought a ticket to the event and provided the recording to MSNBC.

GATES UNDER FIRE AT MANAFORT TRIAL

For years, Richard Gates was at Paul Manafort’s side. On Monday, he began testifying against him, and as Megerian and Eliza Fawcett reported, Gates’ own lies and larceny took the spotlight.

Manafort’s legal team has targeted Gates in hopes of convincing the jury that he, not Manafort, is to blame for the widespread fraud, tax cheating and money laundering that the trial testimony has revealed.

In cross-examination, the defense lawyers tried to undermine the prosecution case by bringing out evidence of Gates’ marital infidelities and other flaws.

Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their side of the case Friday.

While Gates was in the spotlight this week, Judge T.S. Ellis III has been the center of attention for much of the trial. Voluble and cantankerous, the judge has repeatedly clashed with prosecutors, Megerian and Fawcett wrote.

NEW SANCTIONS ON IRAN, RUSSIA

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo opened this week with a speech denouncing Iran’s leaders as “bad actors.” As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, the speech provided the prelude to reviving tough sanctions on Iran that had been suspended by the Obama administration.

Revival of the sanctions will put the U.S. once again at odds with its European allies, who want to maintain commerce with Iran.

Also this week, the U.S. ordered new sanctions against Russia over its suspected role in an attack in Britain that used a chemical nerve agent. As Sabra Ayres wrote from Moscow, the Kremlin attacked the new sanctions as “absolutely unacceptable.”

The Russia sanctions provide another example of the huge gulf between Trump’s foreign policy, which favors warmer ties with Russia, and that of the administration he heads, which is deeply suspicious of Moscow.

Administration officials worked behind the scenes with Republican members of Congress on legislation requiring the new sanctions, which gave Trump little choice but to approve them.

SPACE FORCE

Another gap between Trump and his administration involves the president’s insistence on setting up a Space Force as the sixth branch of the military.

As David Cloud wrote, the Pentagon has resisted the idea of a separate space force, alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. So have key Republican members of Congress, who would have to approve the idea.

Vice President Mike Pence pushed the idea in a speech this week, saying a space force was needed to “defeat a new generation of threats.”

Opponents say it would just add new bureaucracy and additional cost. The Pentagon, however, will go ahead and set up a separate Space Command to centralize certain activities.

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DON’T SAY GUN CONTROL

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Fla., Trump ordered a commission to examine school safety.

As Fawcett wrote, the commission hasn’t made its findings public yet, but it has adopted one pretty clear policy: Don’t talk about gun control. Witnesses have been asked to leave the subject out of their testimony, and gun-control advocates have been largely omitted from public hearings.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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