Midterms: What if Democrats blow it again?

President Donald Trump looks to the crowd after speaking at a campaign rally at Pensacola International Airport, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pensacola, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

For Democrats, the midterm elections have been a beacon in the dark, a chance to re-emerge from the political wilderness and repudiate a president they view as a dangerous force.

But on the cusp of Tuesday’s vote, many Democrats are as anxious as they are hopeful.

Their memories from 2016, when they watched in disbelief as Donald Trump defied polls, expectations and political norms, are still fresh. And as Trump travels the country armed with a divisive and racially charged closing campaign message, the test for Democrats now feels at once similar and more urgent than it did two years ago: They failed to stop Trump then, what if they fall short again?

“Part of what’s at stake here is our ability to send a message that this is not who we are,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant who worked on Hillary Clinton’s losing 2016 campaign.

This year, history is on Democrats’ side. The sitting president’s party often losing ground in the first midterm after winning office, and for much of 2018, voter enthusiasm and polling has favored Democrats as well.

Primary contests filled the Democratic roster with a new generation of candidates, including several minority candidates who could make history in their races. While the fight to regain control of the Senate, largely playing out in conservative states, may prove out of reach for Democrats, the party has been buoyed by its ability to run competitively in Republican-leaning states such as Texas and Tennessee.

Democrats’ focus is largely on snatching back the House and picking up governors’ seats Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere. The party is also seeking redemption in the Midwest where Trump won over white, working-class voters who had backed Democrats for years. In Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Democrats appear poised to regain ground.

Such victories would build momentum behind the party’s shift toward a new generation of candidates who are younger, more diverse, with greater numbers of women and more liberal than Democratic leadership. They would also signal that Trump’s hard-line positions on immigration and his penchant for personal attacks turn off more voters than they energize.

A good night for Democrats on Tuesday would provide a blueprint for how the party can successfully run against Trump in the 2020 presidential race. At least two dozen Democrats are waiting in the wings, eager to take Trump.

But the president has proved once again to be a powerful political force late in a campaign.

Even with his daily airing of grievances on Twitter and an approval rate below the average for his recent predecessors at this point, he has almost single-handedly put Republicans in a stronger position this fall. He’s aggressively appealed to his loyal, core supporters with a sharply anti-immigrant, nationalist message and by casting Democrats as outside the mainstream.

“A vote for any Democrat this November is a vote to really put extreme far left politicians in charge of Congress and to destroy your jobs, slash your incomes, undermine your safety and put illegal aliens before American citizens,” Trump said during a rally Saturday in Pensacola, Florida.

If Republicans hang on to control of Congress, Trump will almost certainly be emboldened. Democrats would be left with difficult questions about a path forward.

For example, how can Democrats assemble a winning coalition in 2020 if they fail to appeal to the moderate suburban voters who hold sway in the congressional districts that decide which party holds a House majority? And how will Democrats, if they fall short, sustain the energy from young people and women who have marched in protest of Trump, registered to vote and volunteered for the first time this election season.

“I’m concerned that if the election is not what we hoped for that people will say, ‘it’s too hard’ and become disengaged,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who served as Clinton’s communications director during the 2016 campaign.

As Americans participated in early voting this weekend, that same anxiety was palpable among some voters.

In Southern California, lifelong Democrat Theresa Hunter said she didn’t take Trump seriously in 2016. But she’s sees a chance for Democrats to render their judgment on the president by pushing his party out of power in a different branch of government.

“To see his party jump on board and march in lockstep is what’s terrifying,” said Hunter, a 65-year-old retired salesperson from Lake Forest, California.

A few hours north, California voter Lawrence Roh was casting his ballot. Afterward, his voice quivered and he wiped back tears as he voiced frustrations about Trump and his worries about the direction of the country.

“If we don’t make any progress in this election, I don’t know where we’ll go from here,” Roh said.

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Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco and Amy Taxin in Lake Forest, California, contributed to this report.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Kavanaugh battle further divides a weakened America

President Donald Trump addresses the crowd during a campaign rally in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The bitter battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has exacerbated the nation’s political divide and left many Americans emotionally raw. It’s also given new definition to the high stakes of November’s election.

Until now, the fight for control of Congress has largely been viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office. But the turmoil surrounding Kavanaugh has transformed the midterms into something bigger than Trump, with implications that could endure long after his presidency. The election is suddenly layered with charged cultural questions about the scarcity of women in political power, the handling of sexual assault allegations, and shifting power dynamics that have left some white men uneasy about their place in American life.

Both parties contend the new contours of the race will energize their supporters in the election’s final stretch. And both may be right.

Republicans, however, may benefit most in the short term. Until now, party leaders — Trump included — have struggled to energize GOP voters, even with a strong economy to campaign on. The president’s middling job approval rating and independent voters’ disdain for his constant personal attacks have been a drag on GOP candidates, particularly in the more moderate suburban districts that will determine control of the House.

But Republican operatives say internal polling now shows Kavanaugh’s acrimonious confirmation has given the party a much-needed boost, with GOP voters viewing Democrats as overzealous partisans following the public testimony by Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused the judge of trying to rape her while they were both in high school. Ford said she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh was her attacker, while the judge steadfastly denied her allegations.

“Their strategy to capitalize on the ‘Me Too’ movement for the political purposes backfired on them,” Republican strategist Alice Stewart said of Democrats. “The fact that they were willing to use Dr. Ford’s story that was uncorroborated to launch character assassinations on Judge Kavanaugh did not sit well with voters. A lot of people looked at this as a bridge too far.”

The surge in GOP enthusiasm could recalibrate a political landscape that was tilting toward Democrats throughout the summer. Though Democrats still maintain an advantage in competitive House races, the past two weeks appear to have shifted momentum in the fight for the Senate majority back to the GOP.

In North Dakota, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer has pulled comfortably ahead of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who voted no on Kavanaugh. GOP operatives say they’re also seeing renewed Republican interest in states like Wisconsin, where Democratic candidates for both Senate and governor have been polling strong.

“It’s turned our base on fire,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday, moments after the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh.

To be sure, some tightening in the race was likely inevitable this fall. Wavering voters often move back toward their party’s candidates as Election Day nears, and most of the competitive Senate races are in states that voted for Trump by a significant margin.

With just over four weeks until Election Day, there is still time for the dynamics to shift again. And the political headwinds from the Kavanaugh confirmation are unlikely to blow in just one direction.

To Democrats, Kavanaugh’s assent to the Supreme Court in spite of decades-old sexual misconduct allegations will only deepen the party’s pull with female voters, including independents and moderates who may have previously voted for Republicans. Democrats point to the flood of women who have spoken out about their own assaults following Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Party operatives also believe the optics of the all-male GOP panel that presided over the hearing struck a chord with female voters.

“Kavanaugh’s confirmation will leave a lot of outraged and energized women in its wake,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.

Democrats argue that some of the same tactics that have helped energize Republican voters also motivate their base, particularly Trump’s attacks on Ford. During a campaign rally in Mississippi, the president mocked Ford for not remembering key details of the alleged attack, including the date and location of the party she says she and Kavanaugh attended 36 years ago.

“You’ve seen some shifts, but I still think that we’re in a strong place,” said New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I still think that it gives us a lot of enthusiasm on our side because there are a lot of people out there that are really upset, not just with the testimony that came from Judge Kavanaugh but the way the president was even mocking (Ford) days ago.”

Trump remains the fall campaign’s biggest wildcard. White House advisers and Republican senators are encouraging him to keep Kavanaugh in the spotlight in the campaign’s final weeks. But they’re well aware that the president often struggles to stay on message and can quickly overshadow his political victories with new controversies.

Given that, Stewart said Republicans can’t assume that this burst of momentum will sustain itself through Election Day.

“The question is whether this is the October surprise or the calm before the storm,” Stewart said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDCThe bitter battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has exacerbated the nation’s political divide and left many Americans emotionally raw. It’s also given new definition to the high stakes of November’s election.

Until now, the fight for control of Congress has largely been viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office. But the turmoil surrounding Kavanaugh has transformed the midterms into something bigger than Trump, with implications that could endure long after his presidency. The election is suddenly layered with charged cultural questions about the scarcity of women in political power, the handling of sexual assault allegations, and shifting power dynamics that have left some white men uneasy about their place in American life.

Both parties contend the new contours of the race will energize their supporters in the election’s final stretch. And both may be right.

Republicans, however, may benefit most in the short term. Until now, party leaders — Trump included — have struggled to energize GOP voters, even with a strong economy to campaign on. The president’s middling job approval rating and independent voters’ disdain for his constant personal attacks have been a drag on GOP candidates, particularly in the more moderate suburban districts that will determine control of the House.

But Republican operatives say internal polling now shows Kavanaugh’s acrimonious confirmation has given the party a much-needed boost, with GOP voters viewing Democrats as overzealous partisans following the public testimony by Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused the judge of trying to rape her while they were both in high school. Ford said she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh was her attacker, while the judge steadfastly denied her allegations.

“Their strategy to capitalize on the ‘Me Too’ movement for the political purposes backfired on them,” Republican strategist Alice Stewart said of Democrats. “The fact that they were willing to use Dr. Ford’s story that was uncorroborated to launch character assassinations on Judge Kavanaugh did not sit well with voters. A lot of people looked at this as a bridge too far.”

The surge in GOP enthusiasm could recalibrate a political landscape that was tilting toward Democrats throughout the summer. Though Democrats still maintain an advantage in competitive House races, the past two weeks appear to have shifted momentum in the fight for the Senate majority back to the GOP.

In North Dakota, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer has pulled comfortably ahead of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who voted no on Kavanaugh. GOP operatives say they’re also seeing renewed Republican interest in states like Wisconsin, where Democratic candidates for both Senate and governor have been polling strong.

“It’s turned our base on fire,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday, moments after the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh.

To be sure, some tightening in the race was likely inevitable this fall. Wavering voters often move back toward their party’s candidates as Election Day nears, and most of the competitive Senate races are in states that voted for Trump by a significant margin.

With just over four weeks until Election Day, there is still time for the dynamics to shift again. And the political headwinds from the Kavanaugh confirmation are unlikely to blow in just one direction.

To Democrats, Kavanaugh’s assent to the Supreme Court in spite of decades-old sexual misconduct allegations will only deepen the party’s pull with female voters, including independents and moderates who may have previously voted for Republicans. Democrats point to the flood of women who have spoken out about their own assaults following Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Party operatives also believe the optics of the all-male GOP panel that presided over the hearing struck a chord with female voters.

“Kavanaugh’s confirmation will leave a lot of outraged and energized women in its wake,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.

Democrats argue that some of the same tactics that have helped energize Republican voters also motivate their base, particularly Trump’s attacks on Ford. During a campaign rally in Mississippi, the president mocked Ford for not remembering key details of the alleged attack, including the date and location of the party she says she and Kavanaugh attended 36 years ago.

“You’ve seen some shifts, but I still think that we’re in a strong place,” said New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I still think that it gives us a lot of enthusiasm on our side because there are a lot of people out there that are really upset, not just with the testimony that came from Judge Kavanaugh but the way the president was even mocking (Ford) days ago.”

Trump remains the fall campaign’s biggest wildcard. White House advisers and Republican senators are encouraging him to keep Kavanaugh in the spotlight in the campaign’s final weeks. But they’re well aware that the president often struggles to stay on message and can quickly overshadow his political victories with new controversies.

Given that, Stewart said Republicans can’t assume that this burst of momentum will sustain itself through Election Day.

“The question is whether this is the October surprise or the calm before the storm,” Stewart said.

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Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Sprint starts to what could be a pivotal midterm election

the U.S. Capitol is seen at sunrise, in Washington. Control of Congress and the future of Donald Trump’s presidency are on the line as the 2018 primary season winds to a close this week, jumpstarting a two-month sprint to Election Day that will test Democrats’ ability to harness a wave of opposition to Trump and whether the president can motivate his staunch supporters when he’s not on the ballot. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Control of Congress and the future of Donald Trump’s presidency are on the line as the primary season closes this week, jump-starting a two-month sprint to Election Day that will test Democrats’ ability to harness opposition to Trump and determine whether the Republican president can get his supporters to the polls.

For both parties, the stakes are exceedingly high.

After crushing defeats in 2016, Democrats open the fall campaign brimming with confidence about their prospects for retaking the House, which would give them power to open a wide swath of investigations into Trump or even launch impeachment proceedings. The outcome of the election, which features a record number of Democratic female and minority candidates, will also help shape the party’s direction heading into the 2020 presidential race.

Republicans have spent the primary season anxiously watching suburban voters, particularly women, peel away because of their disdain for Trump. The shift seems likely to cost the party in several key congressional races. Still, party leaders are optimistic that Republicans can keep control of the Senate, which could help insulate Trump from a raft of Democratic investigations.

History is not on Trump’s side. The president’s party typically suffers big losses in the first midterm election after taking office. And despite a strong economy, Republicans must also contend with the president’s sagging approval rating and the constant swirl of controversy hanging over the White House, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice by Trump.

Despite those headwinds, Trump is betting on himself this fall. He’s thrust himself into the center of the campaign and believes he can ramp up turnout among his ardent supporters and offset a wave of Democratic enthusiasm. Aides say he’ll spend much of the fall holding rallies in swing states.

“The great unknown is whether the president can mobilize his base to meet the enthusiasm gap that is clearly presented at this point,” said Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Because the middle won’t be there for Republicans.”

Indeed, Trump’s turbulent summer appears to have put many moderates and independents out of reach for Republican candidates, according to GOP officials. One internal GOP poll obtained by The Associated Press showed Trump’s approval rating among independents in congressional battleground districts dropped 10 points between June and August.

A GOP official who oversaw the survey attributed the drop to negative views of Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the White House’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The official was not authorized to discuss the internal polling publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Those declines put several incumbent GOP lawmakers at risk, including Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a district in the Washington suburbs, and Rep. Erik Paulsen, whose suburban Minneapolis district has been in Republican hands since 1961.

Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take control of the House. Operatives in both parties believe at least 40 seats will be competitive in November.

Corry Bliss, who runs a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, acknowledged a “tough environment” for Republicans that could quickly become too difficult for some incumbents to overcome.

“Incumbents who wake up down in the beginning of October are not going to be able to fix it in this environment,” Bliss said. “But incumbents who go on the offense early can and will win.”

Democratic incumbents had a similar wakeup call during the primaries after New York Rep. Joe Crowley, who held a powerful leadership position in Congress, stunningly lost to 28-year-old first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s among several younger minority candidates who defeated older, more established opponents, signaling a desire among many Democratic voters for generational change.

The result is a Democratic field with more women and minorities on the general-election ballot than ever before, several of whom are poised to make history if elected. Ayanna Pressley, who defeated 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano in a primary last week and is unopposed in the general election, will be the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. Rashida Talib of Michigan is on track to become the first Muslim woman in Congress. And Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida would be their states’ first black governors if elected this fall.

“Incumbents who wake up down in the beginning of October are not going to be able to fix it in this environment. But incumbents who go on the offense early can and will win.”

Crowley said the wave that led to his own defeat will have long-term benefits for the Democratic Party if it motivates more young people and minorities to vote.

“Look at the positives for the country in terms of engagement and the activity that it’s causing and fervor that is forming,” Crowley said.

Indeed, turnout for Democrats has been high in a series of special elections that preceded the November contest. Nearly 60 Democratic challengers outraised House Republicans in the second quarter of 2018. And of the 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states Trump carried two years ago, only Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has been outraised by his Republican opponent.

“We’ve got real wind at our back,” said Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “The breadth and depth of the map is remarkable.”

Despite Democrats’ optimism heading into the fall, party officials concede that taking back control of the Senate may not be realistic. Unlike the competitive House races, which are being fought in territory that is increasingly favorable to Democrats, the most competitive Senate contests are in states Trump won — often decisively.

Democratic operatives are increasingly worried about Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s ability to hang on in North Dakota, a state Trump won by 36 points and visited on Friday. Democratic incumbents also face more conservative electorates in Missouri, Indiana and Montana.

Still, Democrats believe that if momentum builds through the fall and Trump’s approval rating sinks further, the party could not only hold onto its current Senate seats but also add wins in territory that has long been out of reach, including Tennessee and Texas, where Rep. Beto O’Rourke is giving Republican Sen. Ted Cruz a surprising re-election fight.

“There’s engagement and momentum like I haven’t seen since the Ann Richards days,” said Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, referring to the state’s Democratic governor in the early 1990s.

While most of the attention is on the battle for Congress, competition for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 is heating up. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is scheduled to headline the marquee fall banquet for Iowa Democrats next month.

For now, former President Barack Obama is emerging as the top Democrat making the case for the party this fall. He returned to the political fray last week imploring voters upset with Trump to show up in November.

“Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you this moment really is different,” Obama said in a speech Friday. “The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.”

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Associated Press writers Bill Barrow and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump fails as a symbolic, compassionate leader

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What’s lost when the president of the United States can’t — or won’t — show up?

As the remembrances for the late Sen. John McCain shift from Arizona to Washington the rest of this week, President Donald Trump will be glaringly missing. The McCain family asked him to stay away from the four-day tribute to the storied Republican lawmaker. And even if they hadn’t, it’s unlikely Trump would have been eager to eulogize one of his fiercest critics.

But Trump’s absence is about more than just a personal feud between two dramatically different politicians. His inability to seize the ceremonial, symbolic power of the presidency, both in times of sorrow and joy, threatens to change an important aspect of the office itself and remake Americans’ expectations of their commander in chief.

“There’s a loss,” says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. “A lot of the stuff (Trump) does become norms. That’s the power of a presidency. Now a president can be this way.”

The American presidency has always been tangled in partisan divisions. Most recent presidents have been elected by narrow margins after campaigns focused on party loyalists. Like Trump, his predecessors have frequently stuck to friendly environs, preferring the adulation of supporters to the criticism of detractors.

But most modern presidents also have recognized that the office comes with certain ceremonial expectations. Americans not only look to the president to run the government, but also to lead in times of tragedy or cheer in moments of national pride.

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Republican George W. Bush rallied Democrat-heavy New York, standing on a pile of rubble at the World Trade Center and throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees game. Democrat Barack Obama walked the streets of reliably red territory in Missouri, Alabama and elsewhere, hugging residents after natural disasters. He helped ease tensions in South Carolina when he broke into a rendition of “Amazing Grace” at a funeral for victims of a black church shooting.

McCain asked both Bush and Obama to speak at his funeral Saturday at Washington National Cathedral. Trump is expected to be at the White House, just a few miles away.

Trump’s absence in national moments of mourning or remembrance can open the way for others, including potential 2020 opponents, to fill that sort of role and offer a sharp counterpoint to the president. At a Phoenix memorial service on Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke of a “different code, an ancient, antiquated code” that McCain lived by, one in which “honor, courage, character, integrity, duty were what mattered.”

Trump stunned many members of his own party during the presidential campaign by mocking McCain’s capture during the Vietnam War. Their relationship never recovered, and McCain emerged as one of Trump’s sharpest GOP critics. In the days after McCain succumbed to brain cancer, Trump resisted aides’ efforts to pay tribute to the senator and only grudgingly put out a statement honoring him.

What’s striking is that Trump was elected despite few Americans believing he was well-suited to take on some of the traditional obligations of the presidency. A Pew Research Center survey in November 2016, just before the election, showed that 66 percent did not believe he would set a high moral standard for the office. A Pew poll this summer showed that 71 percent believe he has not.

Many Trump supporters argue that he was elected in part to defy convention and change expectations for the presidency. Indeed, the same Pew poll found that 60 percent of those who approve of Trump listed his personality or approach to politics among the things they like most about him.

But some of his supporters have suggested he’s missing an opportunity.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, both a close friend of McCain and a Trump ally, urged the president this week to be “a big man in a big office.”

“John McCain was a big man, worthy of a big country,” Graham said on CBS. “Mr. President, you need to be the big man that the presidency requires.”

At times, Trump has tried to unite or heal in moments of tragedy, with varying degrees of success. He traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island, but he feuded with the Democratic mayor of San Juan ahead of his arrival and the lasting image of his trip was his throwing rolls of paper towels into a crowd. He called the mother of an American soldier killed in Niger to offer condolences, but wound up tangling with a congresswoman who criticized him for telling the family that the soldier knew what he was signing up for.

Increasingly, Trump is simply absent in moments when a president would be expected to show up. He was reportedly asked to not attend funeral services earlier this year for Barbara Bush, the matriarch of one of the nation’s most prominent Republican families. And with athletes and celebrities often unwilling to be seen alongside Trump, he’s sometimes had to skip functions such as the Kennedy Center Honors and cancel sports teams’ championship celebrations at the White House.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who has been critical of the president, said the real concern is not whether Trump can reinstate some of those ceremonial functions, but whether he could bring the country together if he needed to.

“If we need a united national response, and we’re not united, that makes the job of president to do those good and right things harder,” Heye said. “That seems not possible right now.”

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AP polling editor Emily Swanson and AP writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.

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Julie Pace has covered the White House and national politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
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Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump’s actions keep GOP in serious political mess

President Donald Trump during a rally Tuesday in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Moments after Donald Trump’s former personal attorney implicated the president of the United States in a felony, Sen. John Cornyn declared “People who do bad things, who break the law need to be held accountable.”

Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, quickly made clear his statement wasn’t aimed at Trump.

For Republicans, Tuesday’s courtroom drama revived an uncomfortable and all-too-familiar predicament. On a seemingly weekly basis, party leaders and lawmakers have found themselves trying to explain away a slew of Trump-generated controversies, hoping that occasionally stern statements can carry them through until the latest round of chaos blows over. It’s a strategy the party has leaned on through Trump’s refusal to unequivocally blame Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, through his statements equally blaming white supremacists and counterprotesters for violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, and through his numerous insults aimed at women and minorities.

But Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen’s extraordinary plea deal — it came less than an hour after former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight financial crimes — ups the pressure on the GOP in a midterm election year.

Cohen’s plea marks the first time a Trump associate has been found guilty of a crime directly related to the 2016 election. And it’s a crime Cohen says Trump was not only aware of, but personally involved in carrying out.

“This is a huge threshold we just crossed today,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic operative who specializes in Trump opposition research.

Yet the initial response from Republicans offered little indication that the party planned to treat Cohen’s revelations any different than the numerous other controversies that have dogged Trump during his 17 months in office. Most GOP lawmakers simply said nothing about Cohen’s guilty plea. One of the few statements from Republican leaders came from an unnamed spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said the speaker was aware of Cohen’s plea to “these serious charges” and needed “more information than is currently available at this point.”

By now, the political calculus for Republicans is clear. Lawmakers see little incentive to distance themselves from Trump when even his most egregious statements do little to shake his support from Republican voters. The president’s command of the party faithful was on display Tuesday night when he delighted a friendly crowd at a West Virginia rally for more than an hour. At this point, the only GOP officials who have consistently spoken out against the president are those who aren’t running for re-election and don’t need Trump backers on their side in the midterms, such as retiring Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Democrats believe they can motivate independent voters and moderate Republicans this fall by casting GOP officials as willing enablers of the president. Party operatives quickly made clear Tuesday that they plan to pummel Republicans through the fall campaign if they stay silent on the mounting legal questions swirling around the president.

“There’s more weight on the scales every day,” said Paul Maslin, a Wisconsin-based Democratic pollster.

Charlie Kelly, who runs the House Majority PAC backed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, warned Republicans that the investigations are getting “closer and closer to the White House.”

Cohen didn’t directly name Trump in court, but said he and an “unnamed candidate” arranged hush money payments to two women. The amounts and the dates of the payments lined up with money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal to buy their silence in the closing weeks of the campaign about alleged affairs with Trump.

The president has repeatedly denied knowledge of the payments, and he avoided reporters’ questions about Cohen on Tuesday. He also notably avoided weighing in on both Cohen and Manafort during a free-wheeling rally Tuesday night in Trump-friendly West Virginia.

The moment presents some risk for Democrats, especially if they’re seen as overly eager to impeach the president if they regain control of the House. Some Trump supporters, including his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, are seizing on that prospect to encourage otherwise ambivalent Republicans to show up at the polls in November.

Still, at least one Republican suggested the legal fallout does create a vulnerability for Trump. Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a frequent Trump critic, predicted Tuesday’s developments would prompt a primary challenge to the president in the 2020 campaign.

“You can count on it now,” she said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

AP writers Kevin Freking, Bill Barrow and Steve Peoples contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2018 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved