WASHINGTON — Taking the reins as party leader, President Donald Trump is returning to his campaign roots with big-stage events allowing him to target vulnerable Senate Democrats and mobilize his most fervent supporters on behalf of Republicans.
Trump was set to rally supporters in Elkhart, Indiana, on Thursday night, two days after state Republicans nominated former state lawmaker Mike Braun to challenge vulnerable Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly. Trump's political advisers view the event, which will also be attended by home-state Vice President Mike Pence, as a way to project party unity following a bruising primary.
Trump, who helped the Republican National Committee raise a record $132 million last year, has told advisers he is eager to ramp up his campaign travel on behalf of Republicans. The president carried 10 states in 2016 that have Democratic senators on the ballot this year and is expected to campaign heavily to help Republicans maintain Senate and House majorities and elect GOP governors.
“The president takes his role as leader of the Republican Party very seriously and after more than a year in office he understands too few Democrats are willing to join hands across party lines to support issues that the American people resoundingly called for,” said White House political director Bill Stepien. “The president's calendar is mapped out with his political priorities in mind.”
For Trump, who is preparing for a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un amid an ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling and daily developments about his personal attorney's payments to a porn actress, the travel will allow him to frame the campaign debate, specifically Donnelly's no vote on last year's tax overhaul.
Trump's political advisers chose to hold the rally in the heart of Donnelly's political base. Before his 2012 election, the senator represented a House district that included Elkhart.
The city, home to manufacturing jobs and the recreational vehicle industry, was also paid a visit by President Barack Obama in 2009 when the region was suffering from unemployment rates surpassing 19 percent. Obama returned to Elkhart in 2016 to point to economic progress, but Trump carried the county and much of the region overwhelmingly that year.
Ahead of the rally, Donnelly's campaign said the senator had voted with Trump 62 percent of the time “because he works for Hoosiers, not any politician or political party.”
The Indiana rally will be Trump's fourth political-style event in the past two weeks. Trump skipped the White House Correspondents’ Dinner late last month to rally supporters in Macomb County, Michigan.
His speech last week to the National Rifle Association in Dallas put him before thousands of gun-rights activists who actively backed his campaign. And last Saturday, Trump was in Ohio, long the key electoral piece for any GOP presidential hopeful.
During the event in Cleveland, Trump was joined by Rep. Jim Renacci, who won the Republican Senate nomination on Tuesday with the president's endorsement. Trump said Renacci's opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, “does not think the way we think ... when it comes to borders, when it comes to so much,” delivering a message that Republicans hope to hear frequently.
“If President Trump is willing to go out and define some of these opponents, it's extremely helpful to those campaigns,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide. “He'll deliver the negative messages, they can deliver the positive.”
Ahead of West Virginia's U.S. Senate primary, Trump tweeted that Republican candidate Don Blankenship couldn't win the November election against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a top GOP target.
Advisers said the president was pleased that Republicans nominated Attorney General Pat Morrissey, considered a stronger challenger against Manchin.
“In West Virginia, his one tweet single-handedly swung the dynamics of a race,” Stepien said.
Stepien said Trump would engage in a similar way in future races “if he feels particularly strongly about a race or feels a particular connection to a candidate” but added that would happen less often.
A key to Trump's message will be energizing low-propensity Republican voters in 2018, many of whom turned out for the first time in years to vote for him.
As he travels the country, Trump will face the question of whether his appeal is transferable to down-ballot candidates, much in the way that Obama struggled to rally core Democrats when he wasn't running himself.
Obama suffered broad losses in Congress and in statehouses during the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, an outcome Trump hopes to avoid.
Appearing at a Cabinet meeting, Trump said that Tuesday ended up being “a very big night for the Republican Party” in primaries in West Virginia, Ohio and elsewhere.
“Every candidate that we wanted won, and they did very well,” Trump said Wednesday. “There was tremendous enthusiasm.”