The striking split screen as this week wound down – former President Barack Obama made his campaign-trail debut mourning the departure of decency and lawfulness from the White House just as President Donald Trump called on the Justice Department to hunt down a nameless personal enemy – neatly framed the midterm dynamic.
For Democrats and Republicans, and especially for the 45th president himself, it is all about Trump.
Midterm campaign cycles traditionally have centered on the party in power. Opposition to former President George W. Bush’s Iraq War powered the 2006 Democratic wave, while a backlash to Obama’s health-care law fueled the 2010 Republican takeover.
But this year is shaping up differently. The Nov. 6 election that will determine control of Congress is likely to hinge on the president - the man and his rash actions, more so than his policies - to a remarkable degree.
The spike in Democratic enthusiasm that has Republicans fearful of losing their House majority is driven largely by opposition to Trump personally - his attacks on civic institutions, his impetuousness and the chaos that tornadoes around him - strategists on both sides say.
“Ever since he came down the escalator to announce his presidential campaign, he’s been the only thing that matters in politics,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP consultant and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “His presidency is everywhere and your ability to nuance and message what doesn’t directly involve him is drowned out entirely by a complete avalanche of news and punditry and analysis of what the president is doing.”
Labor Day unofficially kicks off the fall campaign season, and this past week brought into sharp relief just how much Trump colors the autumn landscape, like so many changing leaves.
The funeral for John McCain was as much a commemoration of the Vietnam War hero and senator-statesman as it was a rumination by official Washington on the existential threat of Trump.
The Trump stories were all consuming. Congressional candidates who may have preferred to peddle their own messages were forced to weigh in and gasped for oxygen in the Trumpian news cycle.
“Everything that’s going on is Donald Trump, first, last and always,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart said.
This is partly by the president’s own design.
“Trump has demonstrated his mastery of winning the news every day,” Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said. “No matter what it is that’s going on in our country or the world, he wants to be the subject of the news, and he has taken at times dramatic, sometimes alarming, often unsettling steps to ensure that he is what we’re talking about, for better or worse, almost every day.”
The one-two punch of the Woodward book and anonymous Times column inspired Trump to take the extraordinary step of publicly defending his very mental capacity.
“I can’t get up and talk in front of a crowd, many times without notes, for an hour and 25 minutes and get the biggest crowds in the history of politics ... you don’t get up and do that because you don’t know how to think or talk,” Trump told reporters Friday aboard Air Force One. “You can only do that if you’re at a very, very high level. I’m highly educated and always did well - always did well - no matter what I did.”
The night before, at a campaign rally in Billings, Montana, Trump boiled the Democratic campaign agenda down to a single word: Impeach. The president’s oversimplification placed himself at the heart of the campaign, with Trump offering up his political future as a central reason to vote Republican.
“They like to use the impeach word. ‘Impeach Trump,’ ” he said. “I say, ‘How do you impeach somebody that’s doing a great job that hasn’t done anything wrong?’ ... If it does happen, it’s your fault, because you didn’t go out to vote.”
Even Obama, who until now had pulled his punches and studiously avoided mentioning Trump by name, found himself addressing his successor directly and forcefully. He called Trump a “symptom” of a dark turn in the nation’s politics toward bigotry, fearmongering, corruption, dishonesty and an erosion of institutions.
“This is not normal,” Obama said at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times. But here’s the good news. In two months we have the chance - not the certainty, but the chance - to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”
Obama again urged his audience to get involved in electoral politics during a rally Saturday in California for seven candidates running for House seats in Republican-held districts. “During these times of uncertainty it is always tempting for politicians for their own gain and people in power to see if they can divide people, scapegoat folks, turn them on each other,” he said. “The biggest threat to our democracy, as I said yesterday, is not one individual. It is not one super PAC billionaire. It’s apathy.”
Two months ahead of the election, Democrats hold a clear advantage over Republicans. A Washington Post-ABC News poll late last month found that registered voters favor the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate in their congressional district by 52 percent to 38 percent. The survey also pointed to broad disapproval of Trump’s job performance and unrest with the political system generally.
Sixty-five percent of registered voters said they consider voting in the Nov. 6 election more important than voting in past midterm elections, and 59 percent said voting for a candidate who shares their opinions on Trump is important.
“As long as the Democrats continue to have the intensity and the fire to turn out, this election is going to turn solidly blue,” Hart said.
David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report, said the GOP is finding it difficult to motivate Trump’s supporters to vote in the midterms. “The reason is that Trump voters never loved congressional Republicans,” he said. “They don’t feel that strongly about candidates not named Trump.”
Some Trump advisers are hoping that even if the president’s popularity numbers are low, his policies and the strong economy will be enough to help Republicans hold off Democrats.
“You may hate the president, and there are a lot of people who do, but they certainly like the way the country is going,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told a Republican National Committee conference in Manhattan, according to audio of his remarks obtained by The Washington Post. “If you figure out a way to subtract from that equation how they feel about the president, the numbers go up dramatically.”
The omnipresent president exerted outsized influence over Republican primaries earlier this year. In Florida, Trump’s endorsement of gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis over Adam Putnam, who for years was the state GOP’s heir apparent, transformed the contest. In the closing weeks, DeSantis ran a television advertisement casting himself as a Trump acolyte, complete with images of him and his toddler building a wall with colorful play bricks and his reading “Trump: The Art of the Deal” to his infant. DeSantis defeated Putnam, the early favorite, by 20 percentage points.
And in Arizona, Trump did not endorse a Senate candidate but nonetheless loomed large over the primary field of three. Rep. Martha McSally entered the race stressing her compelling personal story of military service, but by the home stretch was scrambling to prove her Trump bona fides. The tactic helped lift her to victory over conservative activist Kelly Ward and former sheriff Joe Arpaio, both of whom were seen as more authentic Trump allies.
An early test of whether a Republican candidate could run independently from Trump came last year in the governor’s race in Virginia, where the president wound up being a magnetic force. Ed Gillespie tried to run as a “big tent” Republican with broad appeal to moderate voters, but by the end he became Trumpified, complete with a hard line immigration pitch. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northam, 45 percent to 54 percent.
Trump is hemmed in by the political reality that he is not welcome everywhere. In many of the suburban House districts poised to swing the election, embattled Republican incumbents fear their association with Trump could hurt their chances and have made clear they do not welcome a presidential visit.
So Trump has been traveling mostly to states he carried in the 2016 election. He visited Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota last week, and will head to Mississippi and Missouri this week. But his raucous rallies are broadcast live on cable television, and his freewheeling remarks often drive the next day’s national news cycle, consumed by the very swing voters that his itinerary is crafted to avoid.
Although some policies are galvanizing voters - such as health care or the economy or immigration - strategists in both parties say the overwhelming motivator this fall will be Trump.
“The three Democratic pillars are raising wages, fixing health care and cleaning up corruption,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist. “But I just don’t think you can sugarcoat the fact that people are fearful of Trump, and if that makes them turn out to vote in record numbers for the midterms, then that is fantastic.”
Holmes said Trump “hasn’t handed the same policy cudgel to the opposition that President Obama did with Obamacare or President Bush did with the Iraq War. For example, family separation was a significant problem that was remedied within a week. The significant political liability doesn’t exist in this election cycle.”
Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said the House candidates in some of the suburban districts that he is advising are focused on conventional policy issues. But he said college-educated women and other targeted voters in those districts are moving to the Democratic side largely because of “absolute frustration and disgust” with Trump and the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to hold him accountable.
“In the vast majority of swing districts, our advertising doesn’t talk about Donald Trump at all – because we don’t have to,” Belcher said. “Almost every week, Donald Trump does something that makes these suburban women clutch their pearls.”
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Michael Scherer and Gabriel Pogrund contributed to this report.