In normal political times, a glowing report on the nation’s economy just before Election Day would be a gift to the party in power and a uniform talking point for its candidates. But entering the final weekend before Tuesday’s midterm vote, President Donald Trump’s blistering message of nativist fear has become the dominant theme of the campaign’s last days, threatening to overshadow the good economic news.
This is a political bind Republicans did not envision. They spent the final months of 2017 working on a package of sweeping tax cuts they hoped could be the centerpiece of their 2018 campaign message, buttressed by a soaring stock market and a low unemployment rate. And they got what they wanted, passing a $1.5 trillion tax bill last December.
A new jobs report released Friday highlighted the continued strength of the economy, as employers added about 250,000 jobs in October while the unemployment rate remained at 3.7 percent, a nearly 50-year low.
But Trump, again, has upended the traditional political playbook. Candidates are frequently forced to answer for his inflammatory and baseless tweets. And at political rallies that are becoming a daily event as the election draws closer, the president has waded into racially fraught waters, using a broad brush to paint immigrants as villainous and dangerous.
“They all say, ‘Speak about the economy, speak about the economy,’ ” Trump said Friday, during a rally in West Virginia. “Well, we have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”
On the campaign trail, Republican candidates have taken a split-screen approach to Trump’s nationalist message; many, recognizing its political potency with the conservative base, are continuing to embrace it.
Democrats have “open-borders psychosis,” Kris Kobach, the hard-right Republican candidate for governor in Kansas, told a crowd in Kansas City, Mo., during a rally Friday with Vice President Mike Pence. Earlier in the day, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, began a stump speech by boasting about the economy, but quickly shifted to a more foreboding theme closely aligned to Trump’s warnings about a migrant “invasion.”
“You mean the people of Texas want to stop the caravan?” bellowed Cruz, who is in a competitive, closely watched race against Beto O’Rourke, the fiery, youthful Democrat. The crowd responded with chants of “build the wall.”
Other Republicans, however, are straining to avoid the president’s language and focusing instead on an economy-first message.
In Winterset, Iowa, Rep. David Young, a Republican in a very close race, spent the bulk of a speech discussing the economy and job creation.
“Right now we’re seeing a real economy renaissance going on in the country,” he said. “Here in rural Iowa, the incredible things going on with our economy are quite spectacular. I just want to keep the federal government out of your way so people can work, small businesses can grow, larger businesses can hire more people, we can keep the economy growing like today.”
A top aide to Paul Ryan, the retiring House speaker, also pleaded with Republicans to tout the jobs report. “We’re going to spend all day and weekend talking about the strong economy, right?” the aide, Brendan Buck, tweeted.
One problem for Republicans trying to tout the economy is that the tax cuts did not turn out to be the political windfall they envisioned. Polls showed they enjoyed only middling popularity as many Americans came to see them as a gift to the richest Americans that did little to raise wages. Some Democrats have actually weaponized the tax package against their opponents.
Traditional Republican pollsters and strategists said hewing too closely to Trump’s incendiary strategy could contain more risk than reward for candidates in the campaign’s final days. They warn of possible backlash among minority voters and college-educated whites, two groups that could be especially crucial in deciding congressional control.
Polling suggests that the same suburban independents who broke for Trump in the final days of the 2016 election could shift back to Democrats this time around. And Republican campaign veterans said that while Trump’s fearmongering is firing up his base, it could energize other voters who were previously apathetic to vote for a Democrat next Tuesday.
“The problem is Republicans have a good story to tell in the economy,” said Michael Murphy, a former adviser to Jeb Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. “But the Republican with the largest microphone only wants to go on these rants about immigration.”
Trump, he said, is “managing to offend every swing voter in the country.”
Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said he did not think Trump’s closing message was harmful, even if it was not aligned with the economic arguments the state’s Republican candidates were offering.
“As long as the noneconomic issues that he is talking about do not run counter to the core of what defines us as a state, I don’t think he is a distraction,” Kaufmann said. “I almost think his presence and his energy at this point in our midterms is more important than specifically what he is saying.”