“We are going to be ground zero for President Trump’s reelection, and we are ground zero to keep the Senate majority,” McSally said at the event, framing the November election as a “referendum on freedom” and comparing Trump to two Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The upcoming Trump rallies aren’t explicitly about the Senate map, but they do underscore the significant overlap between Trump’s path to a second term and Republicans’ Senate strategy. The GOP senators up for reelection have embraced the president, relying on his performance atop the ticket in their states.
That includes their recent handling of the impeachment trial: The most endangered GOP senators stood mostly in lockstep to guarantee Trump’s acquittal.
Part of the Trump campaign’s strategy is to dispatch the president to second-tier states that could reasonably be within his reach come November, hence his whirlwind western swing through Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. Despite persistent skepticism that Trump — with his restrictive immigration policies and incendiary rhetoric — could pick off booming Colorado and Latino-heavy Nevada this fall, campaign officials claim their massive war chest and expansive volunteer network have allowed them to easily target states that remain subject to scrutiny over their strategic relevance.
“Colorado is a state that’s actually coming closer to us,” insisted Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign. “If you look at McCain in ‘08, he lost it by 8 points, Romney lost it by 5 points in 2012 and Trump was within 4 points in 2016. So it’s a state that’s coming in our direction.”
Democrats roundly disagree, pointing to the party’s sweep of statewide races in 2018 and their increasing voter registration advantage in the state as evidence that it’s comfortably blue. GOP Sen. Cory Gardner will be attendance Thursday night in Colorado Springs, according to spokesperson Jerrod Dobkin, who said Gardner was “looking forward to joining President Trump to tout all the great accomplishments they have delivered to Colorado,” including moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, clean drinking water and low unemployment.
Gardner is seeking to repeat his narrow 2014 victory, and Republicans say there is little to be gained from running away from Trump — especially when Democrats plan to tie them together at every turn.
“There’s no way Cory can separate himself from the president, nor should he,” said Dick Wadhams, a former state party chairman. “But it is important to solidify that Republican base.”
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary to face Gardner, has sent out seven fundraising emails in the last two weeks highlighting Trump’s rally on Thursday, evidence of just how much the president revs up the Democratic base.
“Just like the president, these incumbents are underwater with voters in these battlegrounds and losing head-to-head match-ups with their Democratic challengers,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Whether it’s gutting pre-existing conditions coverage or attacking Medicare and Social Security or raiding millions of dollars from local military projects, Sens. McSally, Gardner and [North Carolina Sen. Thom] Tillis are saddled with both an unpopular president and their own damaging records.”
Still, as Democrats seek to yoke Republicans to Trump, GOP senators are increasingly doing the same with the potential top of the Democratic ticket after Sanders has surged to frontrunner status in the party’s presidential primary. McSally released a TV ad Tuesday tying her opponent, Democrat Mark Kelly, directly to Sanders. Tillis has increasingly been linking his potential opponents — who are squaring off in a March 3 primary — to the Vermont senator.
“While Sen. Tillis’ Democratic opponents have all vowed to support whichever candidate their party nominates for president, even those with socialist policies, Sen. Tillis wants to continue partnering with President Trump on the pro-growth initiatives that have our economy booming,” Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for Tillis, said in a statement.
Trump won’t exactly target hostile territories during his back-to-back rallies this week. With the exception of Clark County, Nev., which Hillary Clinton carried four years ago and where Trump will host a rally in Las Vegas on Friday, the president’s appearances in Arizona and Colorado will occur in counties he won in 2016 by 44,000 and 71,000 votes, respectively. Privately, White House allies acknowledge that Trump likely faces an uphill battle in his bid to win Nevada, where Democrats have won three straight presidential elections, control both Senate seats, three of four House seats, the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature.
“No one is under the impression that Nevada is an easy pickup. But we have the resources to put it in play, so why wouldn’t we?” said one outside adviser to the Trump campaign.
Beneath the surface, there is also an implicit understanding that the president’s massive campaign rallies — which often attract thousands of voters and have become fertile ground for the GOP’s voter registration efforts — provide a major boost for Republican candidates.
Asked whether the campaign’s calculus in Arizona and Colorado stemmed from concerns over either Senate race, Murtaugh suggested the success of Republican incumbents could hinge on Trump’s performance: “We are visiting states where we think the president will win or can win in 2020. If the president does well, every Republican in those states does well.”
Strategists focused on Senate races largely agree. In 2016 many Republican senators outpaced Trump. In some cases, Republicans won by keeping the then-nominee at arm’s length, especially after the widespread condemnation of Trump for his comments in the “Access Hollywood” tape.
But none of the vulnerable incumbents are running that way now.
“This isn’t 2016 anymore. You’re not going to walk the tightrope of running far enough ahead of the president that it makes sense to shun him,” said Liam Donovan, a veteran GOP strategist. “Particularly in states like Arizona and North Carolina that the president needs to win — and you need him to win if you want to keep your job — they’re inexorably tied, and you need to embrace that for all it’s worth.”
Trump’s unpopularity in each of the states he will visit this week also raises questions for Republican incumbents about the potential downsides of embracing him — especially in Colorado and Nevada, where the president’s net-approval is underwater by double digits, according to Morning Consult tracking polls. Recent polling also suggests the president’s campaign has its work cut out if they hope to keep Arizona in their column four years after Trump clung onto it with by a less-than-4-point margin, and two years after Democrat Kyrsten Sinema defeated McSally to win the party’s first Senate seat in three decades.
In each of these states, Trump and his allies are banking on their belief that the booming economy, wage growth and a reduction in undocumented immigration from Central America will convince voters to support the president’s reelection. Net migration to the U.S. dropped to 595,000 in 2019, according to government data, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that hourly wages rose 3.1 percent over the last year.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally, said he’s encouraged the president to do “as much as he possibly can” for Senate and swing House races, with a “pro-growth, strong economic message.”
“There’s no one that’s working harder to make sure that the economic prosperity message gets conveyed to voters across the country,” Meadows said.