Senior members of President Trump’s 2016 campaign are sounding the alarm, warning that Democratic enthusiasm for impeachment and Republican weakness in the suburbs could spell trouble for the president as he embarks on his reelection campaign.
Democrats won back the House majority in 2018, in part due to their success in the suburbs, and those trends held firm in the off-cycle elections on Tuesday.
Democrats took control of both chambers of the legislature in Virginia. The Republican governor of Kentucky appears to have lost in a state Trump carried by 30 points in 2016, though he has yet to concede. And Democrats made gains in the “collar counties” around Philadelphia that will be at the center of the 2020 reelection fight.
In an interview from his home behind the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon broke with Republicans who have argued that those elections shouldn’t be viewed as a referendum on Trump.
“Trump has nationalized politics, he’s now popular culture, these are votes on Trump, you have to face that fact,” said Bannon, who has launched an impeachment-focused radio broadcast in defense of Trump called “War Room: Impeachment.”
“There’s time to turn that around but this is the reelect right here. What happens [with impeachment] in the next six weeks is the reelect and it has to be treated like that and everybody’s got to get to the f—– ramparts.”
Virginia has been trending blue for some time, but GOP weakness in the suburbs helped Democrats cement their grip on power at every level of government in the state for the first time in 26 years.
“The warning signs are suburban Richmond, Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach,” said former Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller. “There’s a concern that as of right now, Democratic turnout is a 10 out of 10 and Republican turnout is not there yet. But having Trump on the ballot will be big in 2020.”
In Kentucky, Trump campaigned for Gov. Matt Bevin (R) ahead of his election loss, including a rally in the state the evening before voters went to the polls.
Trump and his allies have argued that Bevin was one of the most unpopular governors in the country and that the five statewide Republicans on the ballot below him all won their races.
But the GOP performance in the suburbs of Louisville and Lexington are seen as potential problem spots. Trump is almost certain to win Kentucky in 2020, but the fear is that the party’s suburban weakness in the deep-red state will extend to the suburbs around major metro areas in key battleground states.
The latest Grinnell College national poll found Trump’s job approval rating in the suburbs at 36 percent positive and 53 percent negative. Among suburban women, Trump is at 26 percent positive and 66 percent negative.
“We just lost again,” Bannon said on his show. “We got smoked in the suburbs and have to face the reality of [the Democratic] mobilization efforts.”
The Democrats this week also made historic gains in three counties around Philadelphia that were once key battlegrounds. Turnout in those districts in 2020 may determine whether Trump is able to hold on in Pennsylvania, which he carried by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016.
“Philly is very difficult. Philadelphia has been trending Democratic for years, this isn’t something Donald Trump created,” said David Urban, a longtime Pennsylvania political operative and senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Urban said that in Pennsylvania, the suburban move toward Democrats “is a cultural thing, not necessarily an electoral thing.”
“There’s less gun ownership … There’s less faith, fewer people going to church … There’s less belief in the institutions the Republican Party believes in, in terms of limited government, the Second Amendment and pro-life,” he said on Thursday’s broadcast.
Still, Urban predicted Trump would be able to overcome those challenges in suburban Philadelphia to win Pennsylvania by relying again on the strength of his support in the rural parts of the state.
“We’ll win the state,” Urban said in an interview with The Hill. “We’ll definitely win the state.”
Trump’s allies believe this week’s election results were driven in part by Democrats routing Republicans in the messaging war over impeachment.
Trump’s defense efforts have been scattershot so far, largely driven by his Twitter feed and a few key GOP allies in the House.
Trump’s supporters have been urging him for weeks to launch an internal “war room” as House Democrats continue to investigate the president’s interactions with Ukraine.
This week, the White House hired former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh to coordinate the president’s impeachment defense with congressional Republicans.
“Impeachment is a get-out-the-vote motivational tool for Democrats right now,” said Miller.
“Now by the time we get to next year, I’m fully confident Trump voters will be fired up. The reason we call them Trump voters is because they vote for Trump… So we’re expecting massive turnout in 2020 and both sides will be highly mobilized. But right now, the Democratic side is more mobilized because they’ve had this two-month run of unfettered negative news against Trump.”
All of the former Trump campaign officials still remain bullish on his prospects in 2020, believing the Democratic White House hopefuls are facing a long and brutal slog through the primary and have run too far to the left.
“The lineup in Iowa is so unimpressive,” said Bannon.
Urban noted that the Democratic gains in 2018 were largely driven by their commitment to running on health care.
In the 2020 Democratic primary, debate over health care and whether to stick with ObamaCare or to go all in on Medicare for all has exposed deep divisions within the field.
“In 2018, they ran successfully on health care, an issue that really resonated with Americans…this is what moved the needle,” Urban said.
“Unbelievably, they’re not doing that now…they can’t run on health care, because their candidates are trying to sell something that consumers don’t want to buy.”