Politics

Midterm Barnstorming: Trump Channels Reagan

In 1986 and now in 2018, presidential coattails will be tested in focus on Senate contests

President Ronald Reagan speaks at a Republican campaign rally in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 1986. (Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration)

Picture this: a Republican president, just days before voters decide whether his party would lose one chamber of Congress, warning that Democrats had “weakened our nation and nearly brought our economy to its knees.”

Only it wasn’t Donald Trump at one of his recent homestretch midterm rallies. It was Ronald Reagan at an October 1986 campaign stop in Springfield, Missouri.

Reagan hit 13 states on his second midterm barnstorming tour. Trump will travel to eight states with 11 campaign rallies in the final six days of the midterm election cycle with the House and Senate — and most of his domestic agenda — up for grabs.

At the time, Reagan’s aides described his stumping schedule as a “go for broke” strategy aimed at keeping the Senate in Republican hands. Thirty-two years later, senior administration officials describe Trump’s orders to his staff as directions to set an “unprecedented” and “ambitious” pace, not just in the final days but in the midterm cycle’s final months.

Like the 40th chief executive, the 45th is trying to keep the Senate red. Both hit the trail enthusiastically and energetically.

Journalist Eleanor Clift, then a Los Angeles Time reporter, described Reagan in 1986 as a “hardy campaigner,” writing back then that he had “taken to the hustings with gusto.”

Trump told a crowd Saturday night in Murphysboro, Illinois, that “we are all fighting to defend these values in this election,” adding, “I’ve heard it, and they have spoken it many times, this is our most important midterm election — perhaps ever.”

By the time Trump returns to the White House on Nov. 5, he will have hit some of the same states Reagan did: Florida, Georgia and Indiana.

But his predecessor made a swing out West, visiting California, Idaho, Nevada and Washington. Trump is focusing his final-days push on Midwestern and Midsouth states.

Trump will begin his final tour Wednesday night in Fort Myers, Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is trying to oust incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and where former GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis is trying to defeat Tallahassee Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum in that state’s gubernatorial fight.

On Thursday, he will stump in Columbia, Missouri, for Republican state Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is seeking to oust Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.

On Friday, his first stop will be West Virginia for a rally in Huntington for state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III. That night, he will be in Indianapolis, supporting Republican Mike Braun, a former state representative, in his bid against Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly.

He will be in Florida again Saturday, as well as stopping in Montana to try to put state Auditor Matt Rosendale over the top in his race to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

On Sunday he will start in Macon, Georgia, to try to help GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp win the governor’s race. From there he will take Air Force One to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Rep. Marsha Blackburn is running for the seat her fellow Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, is vacating, against former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. 

Then comes the closing sprint, with three rallies squeezed in on Monday. In Ohio he’ll campaign for Republican Attorney General (and former senator) Mike DeWine, who’s locked in a close race for governor with Democrat Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Buckeye State is also home to a Senate contest this year, with GOP Rep. James B. Renacci running against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

To wrap up the day, it’s Indiana again — Fort Wayne, this time — and a stop in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Trump at times seems resigned to losing the House. Reagan didn’t have much choice in keeping his final midterms swing to fighting for Senate seats: Democrats had solid control of the House already.

“If Trump loses both chambers, then the comparison will be more comparable,” said Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Iran-Contra had not really gained steam, other than some beginning conversations. So that is one similarity, because even though the Russia investigation has been talked about more, it really hasn’t come to fruition yet.”

But Perry noted there are also many differences between the 1986 and 2018 midterms for the two presidents. It was Reagan’s second and is Trump’s first, for instance.

“For second-term presidents like Reagan, the question is — because people seem to get tired of them — do they have any coattails at all left?” she said. “As a first-term president, Trump’s coattails should never be stronger — we’re going to find out soon if that’s true of President Trump.”

The differences don’t stop there.

As he boarded Air Force One for his final midterms tour, Reagan’s approval rating was 63 percent, according to Gallup. Three decades later, the incumbent president will leave the White House on Wednesday afternoon with an approval rating hovering around 40 percent.

“The difference between Ronald Reagan’s pre-election tour in 1986 and Donald Trump’s this year is the difference between a Girl Scout coming to your front door to sell you tasty cookies and an IRS agent showing up to do a painful audit,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

“The Gipper” was unable to translate that into maintaining a GOP Senate, but this year’s electoral dynamics — with considerably more Democrats running than Republicans, and most of the action in GOP-friendly states — show “The Donald” could help Republicans pick up seats in that chamber even while likely losing the House. (A lone bright spot for Reagan was the election of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who died earlier this year.)

“If Reagan couldn’t help the GOP with 63 percent approval, Republicans shouldn't count on much aid from a president at 40 percent,” Bannon said. “If the past is prelude, the GOP is hurtling toward a big hurt.”

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