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Trump, stumping in Nevada, makes immigration a central midterms issue for GOP

  • Author: Philip Rucker, The Washington Post
  • Updated: June 23
  • Published June 23

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Nevada Republican Party Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., June 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

LAS VEGAS - President Donald Trump embraced hardline immigration policies as a centerpiece of the Republican Party's midterm campaign strategy here Saturday, a risky move as he stumped for an endangered GOP senator in this rapidly-diversifying swing state.

Defending the work of border patrol agents who have come under scrutiny for taking migrant children away from their families as part of his administration's family separation policy, Trump said Democrats "just want to use this issue - and I like the issue for [the] election, too."

"Our issue is strong borders, no crime," Trump said in an address to the Nevada Republican Party's state convention. "Their issue is open borders, get MS-13 all over our country. ... We need people to come in, but they have to be people that love this country, can love our country, and can really help us to make America great again."

The president went on to praise law enforcement for rounding up illegal immigrants suspected as being MS-13 gang members, putting them in "paddywagons" and "get 'em the hell out of our country."

Sitting just off stage as Trump touted his hard-line policies was Sen. Dean Heller, a relative moderate on immigration and the Senate's most vulnerable Republican facing reelection this fall. Simply appearing with the polarizing president carries political risks for Heller. Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by two percentage points, and his policies and incendiary rhetoric about immigration have been toxic with the growing Latino electorate and other groups of voters.

But Heller's willingness to wait on a sweltering 111-degree airport tarmac to greet Trump, to stump with him and to embrace him as "our president" underscores the optimism Republicans feel about their chances to retain their Senate majority.

Clearly comfortable making himself the centerpiece of the GOP's midterm strategy, Trump has begun ratcheting up his campaign activity this month, doling out endorsements and staging rallies and other events. The president is trying to use his star power to galvanize his base voters and stave off what history predicts should be losses for the president's party in off-year congressional elections.

Trump is centering his pitch on his anti-immigration policies, his contributions to the robust economy and what he touts as achievements on the world stage, including his rapprochement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump boasted on Friday about a pending "red wave" that he sees lifting Republicans in November, and mused about winning more Senate seats so the GOP can build on its slim 51-49 seat majority and get closer to the filibuster-proof threshold of 60 seats.

The president's advisers said his optimism is well founded.

"History tells us that the midterm elections for a newly elected president's party are not kind," said William Stepien, the White House political director. "That being said, the president is encouraged by the reception across the country among voters to his policies - a stronger economy, a stronger military, more respect abroad. Good policy results in good politics, and that results in the president's positive outlook."

The unique nature of this year's Senate map - because senators serve six-year terms, only one-third of them are up for reelection - gives Republicans clear opportunities.

Democrats are defending seats in 10 states Trump won in 2016, including in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia - five states where the Democratic incumbents are particularly endangered and where Trump is considered an asset. Trump is set to visit North Dakota early this week to campaign for Rep. Kevin Cramer, R, who is trying to unseat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D, in one of the year's top contests.

By contrast, there are only three states where Republicans hold seats and could face serious trouble: Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee. Arizona and Tennessee have open contests because Republican incumbents there - Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker respectively - are retiring.

"This map is custom-made for Republicans to take advantage of it, even while they have an environment that's unfavorable," said GOP strategist Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The outlook for Republicans in House contests is markedly different, with many of the closest races playing out in suburban districts, where the anti-Trump sentiment among affluent and highly-educated voters is pervasive.

Republican strategists conceded that the culturally divisive messages Trump uses to stoke enthusiasm among his supporters in red states end up hurting Republicans in these more purple districts, especially among college-educated women, a prized demographic in suburban districts.

Still, the president's midterm campaigning has an air of "let Trump be Trump," the mantra of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. His speech last week in Duluth, Minnesota, before a capacity arena crowd of 9,000 at times felt more like an airing of grievances - most especially at the media - than a scripted pitch about why voters should keep Republicans in power in Congress.

Indeed, Trump invited Lewandowski, now an outside adviser to the president who also works for Vice President Mike Pence's political action committee, as well as former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, along for the ride to Las Vegas. Moments before Trump took the stage, Lewandowski circulated in the ballroom and was swarmed by fans who sought selfies with one of the president's more prominent cable news warriors.

Trump's campaigning is not only defensive, as it was here for Heller. His Minnesota rally last week was for Pete Stauber, one of the few Republican prospects to pick up a Democratic seat. Trump also is keeping an eye on gubernatorial contests as well, with plans to campaign Monday in South Carolina with Gov. Henry McMaster, R, an early Trump backer who is in a competitive primary race.

Pence is intensifying his efforts as well, traveling Saturday to Pittsburgh to campaign with Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., and to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for an event with McMaster.

Here in the politically volatile state of Nevada, Heller faces a complicated reality. He probably cannot win reelection without Trump's help in uniting and motivating his core supporters. Although whites make up only about half of the state's electorate, many of them are fiercely loyal to Trump and are drawn to his blue-collar appeal and anti-establishment brand of leadership.

"The one great fear that every party has going into their first midterm is a depressed base," Holmes said. "In order for Dean Heller to win, he has to have Republicans turn out at a high level. The added boost of having the president campaign for him at this stage of the election likely consolidates the Republican electorate behind him and provides some additional intensity."

But Democrats believe they can tar Heller as too closely aligned with Trump, alienating voters who recoil from the president and are outraged by his rhetoric and tired of the turbulence in his administration.

Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Democratic challenger to Heller, said in a statement, "Dean Heller has been a rubber stamp for Donald Trump in Washington, caving to the president's divisive agenda at Nevada's expense. This was Senator Heller's reward for his loyalty."

Rosen is trying to tie Heller to the Trump administration's moves to separate migrant children from their parents once they illegally cross the border, although Heller has called it "terrible policy."

"I don't think President Trump could have picked a worse week to come to Nevada," Rosen campaign spokesman Stewart Boss said. "If Senator Heller had a backbone, he would talk to the president about this issue."

But if Heller raised the border crisis with Trump, he did not let on in his two-minute speech to the convention. He did not mention immigration and focused his remarks instead on the tax overhaul. The senator took credit for helping write the bill, said he was pleased the president signed it into law.

Heller stopped short of offering more universal praise of Trump, though he did acknowledge the president was the main attraction. "I'm the only thing standing between you and listening to the president - our president - speak, the most powerful man in the world," Heller said by way of explaining his brevity.

Sure enough, when Trump was later introduced by Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald as "the greatest president of America," the crowd of a few hundred activists chanted, "Trump! Trump! Trump!"

Once on stage, Trump repeatedly praised Heller and assailed Rosen. Teasing the crowd, he said he had a nickname for her, paused for dramatic effect as people in the audience shouted out guesses, and then said it: "Wacky Jacky." He then quipped, "Wacky Jacky is campaigning with Pocahontas," a reference to Rosen's event Saturday in Reno with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Heller has a boom-and-bust relationship with Trump. He sharply criticized Trump during the 2016 campaign, and renounced him as someone who "denigrates human beings." Though he has not recanted his criticisms, Heller has proven a foot soldier for the president in the Senate, voting for all of Trump's Cabinet nominees and shepherding through much of his legislative agenda.

"He's been with me all the way - once we got elected, I must tell you," Trump said, ribbing Heller. "A little bit shaky at the beginning...But once we got in there, he's been rock solid."

Trump did Heller a favor in March. The president maneuvered to avert a nasty intraparty duel that could have felled Heller by nudging Danny Tarkanian - a Republican running to Heller's right and attacking the senator as insufficiently loyal to Trump - to abandon his Senate bid and run for the House instead.

Heller's tango with Trump helped him avoid a bruising primary, but Democrats argue it could spell his defeat in the general election.

"Voters see him as flipping around on issues that matter to them," said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC allied with Senate Democratic leaders. "The notion of him being overly political and not reliable is going to be his undoing in November."

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The Washington Post's Michael Scherer in Washington contributed to this report.

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