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Trump's high-risk strategy puts him on the midterm ballot like no one else

Trump's high-risk strategy puts him on the midterm ballot like no one else
President Trump arrives to speak at a Make America Great Again rally in Cleveland on Monday. (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump held the stage last month in Mississippi and, amid his usual attacks on Democrats and immigrants, told the crowd why he was really there.

“I'm not on the ballot, but in a certain way, I'm on the ballot,” he said.

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“I want you to vote,” he added. “Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

Since that declaration, by Monday on the eve of the midterm election, Trump has held two dozen rallies in nearly as many states. He has fired off dozens of endorsements on Twitter, flooded Fox News with his allies and aides, and stood onstage with candidates whose names he’d just learned to pronounce. He has implausibly promised a tax cut before the election, ordered troops to the border and released a campaign ad that drew such widespread criticism for its naked appeals to the racial resentment undergirding his political strategy that even Fox stopped running it.

In short, Trump has made the midterm election about himself — and his rhetoric to stoke fear and resentment of immigrants — more than any predecessors in memory.

Presidents historically have realized that the midterm elections are referendums, at least in part, on their performance. Trump, as he so often does, has said the unspoken part out loud: He is on the ballot.

"Whether we consider it or not, the press is very much considering it a referendum on me, and us as a movement," Trump reportedly told supporters during a phone call Monday. Later, when a reporter asked whether the election is more about his style than anything else, he replied: “I don’t think so, but I mean, I am willing to accept that.”

It’s a high-risk strategy for Trump. If Republicans emerge better than projected in Tuesday’s results, he can claim another unexpected victory, demoralizing Democrats and striking fear into a party already worried about defeating him in 2020.

If Republicans do poorly, losing one or both chambers of Congress, Trump will bear much of the blame and have to contend with a description he hates more than any other: loser.

Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, Trump’s immersion in the campaign has tethered the Republican Party to its outsider president more fully than ever. Two years ago, disclosure of the “Access Hollywood” tape — which revealed Trump boasting of sexual assault years ago — forced Republicans to decide whether to stick with Trump. Now the midterm election — replete with the president’s appeals to racial resentment — has forced them to decide whether to embrace him as well as all he stands for.

“He owns the Republican Party even more than Reagan,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and close ally to Trump. “He has polarized the election on the issues he believes in, on his terms, despite the news media. You can argue whether or not it’s the right gamble. But it’s his gamble.”

Trump’s allies say his decision was relatively easy: He’s essentially on the ballot anyway; he might as well own it. Democrats have chosen not to overtly frame the election around Trump, emphasizing issues such as healthcare instead, in part because they know that he is omnipresent in voters’ minds.

“Of course it’s a referendum on him,” said Matt Schlapp, a Trump loyalist who is chairman of the American Conservative Union and whose wife is a top White House communications aide. “He’s dominating politics. He’s dominating every news cycle. If the Republicans have a halfway decent night, he’s going to deserve a lot of credit.”

And if they don’t? “The same,” Schlapp acknowledged.

In recent days, Trump has tried to diminish expectations some, stepping back from his predictions of a “red wave” that would carry Republicans into Congress, statehouses and governors’ mansions.

On Monday, Trump first said Republicans would do “very well” in the House and Senate races. Then he pointed to the tough history of presidents’ parties in midterm elections — only three times in the last century has the president’s party gained House seats in a midterm election — before settling on a prediction that Republicans would do “pretty well.”

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Privately, allies inside and outside the administration say they believe Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, perhaps winning another seat or two, but they expect Democrats to win control of the House. By most accounts, that would count as a loss for Trump, especially given his personalization of the election and his talk of red waves.

Yet members of both parties expect Trump will accept little in the way of blame, no matter what happens.

“He doesn’t operate by the usual rules,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic consultant who was a senior advisor to the former Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. “I don’t expect any sort of introspection from this president.”

Manley worked in the Senate in 2010, when Democrats lost control of the House in that year’s midterm election and came away with a narrower majority in the Senate. Then, President Obama grappled publicly with what he labeled a “shellacking,” just as President Bush lamented his “thumping” in 2006 when Republicans lost their majorities in both the Senate and House.

Like other presidents following defeat, Obama and Bush were forced to rethink their agendas and their strategies, and at least make overtures to the opposing party.

No one expects that sort of language from Trump, should Republicans endure big losses. If they lose the House, the casualties are likely to be most, if not all, of the party’s remaining moderates, the Republicans willing to be occasional Trump critics, leaving the most conservative lawmakers in his own mold.

“Based on the last year, I can’t possibly think of anything that would get them to challenge Trump,” Manley said of those lawmakers.

Gingrich said he is confident that Sen. Mitch McConnell, assuming the Kentucky Republican is back as the majority leader, would continue to help Trump stock the courts with conservatives and thwart attempts by House Democrats to pass their agenda. That would leave Trump’s legal team to fight off House investigations.

Gingrich, who led the House after President Clinton and Democrats forfeited control of the House and Senate in 1994, predicted Trump might split Democrats in the House by proposing bipartisan infrastructure legislation.

But Trump talked of doing that after his election in 2016, then failed to follow through. And most observers say, don’t bet on Democrats cutting a deal with him.

Especially after the last few months of campaigning, Democrats know their voters are enraged by Trump, so rather than compromise, they are expected to pursue investigations that would further polarize the parties.

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“His rhetoric has become so unhinged, I think it’s going to be much more difficult for him to do stuff,” said Manley.

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