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Love Trump or hate Trump but sitting on the fence spells doom

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By Robert Donachie, Washington Examiner

For many Republican candidates, the strategy for surviving the midterm elections has been to simultaneously decry President Trump's tone and behavior while embracing policy successes in an attempt to woo swing voters without alienating the GOP base.

But party strategists are increasingly concluding that to have it both ways might be the worst of both worlds and equal electoral disatser — the only way to win, they argue, is to either reject or embrace Trump and be as full-throated about it as possible.

"It’s hard to sell dry water. It’s hard to be a Washington Redskins fan that roots for the Cowboys," Alex Castellanos, a veteran GOP strategist, told the Washington Examiner. "Politics now, more than ever, is a team sport. People are wearing one jerseys or the other. The people that try to wear both jerseys end up with none …no identity at all."

With the president out on the campaign trail four nights a week and his recent onslaught of media interviews, Trump is ensuring he is the focal point of the 2018 midterm elections. There are signs it is working. Polling shows that Trump is more of a factor in voters' calculus — for better or worse — than previous presidents.

Trump is a polarizing figure and a cursory look at his presidential approval rating tells just that story. Among Republican voters, Trump's approval remains above 90 percent. Democrats and independents are on the polar opposite end of the spectrum, disapproving of Trump's handling of the presidency, 92 percent and 61 percent, respectively.

The binary response Trump evokes puts some Republicans in states he lost decidedly in 2016, like incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., in a tough position.

Comstock is an example of the conundrum Trump presents for Republican candidates this cycle. Comstock, whose state went for Clinton by 10 percentage points, has spent much her time and political capital avoiding attacks from her opponent, Jennfier Wexton, that she is a pro-Trump Republican that votes with his agenda 97.8 percent of the time. Wexton is currently running an ad against Comstock smearing the congresswoman as "Barbara Trump-stock."

The two-term incumbent is trying to signal she isn't a completely Trump-aligned candidate, pointing to her vote against repealing and replacing Obamacare in 2017.

"I'm my own woman, and I focus on the priorities of my constituents," Comstock told CNN in October. "I have worked with a Republican governor and a Democrat governor."

Despite her efforts to convince voters otherwise, Comstock finds herself down 13 points against Wexton in the final weeks leading up to the election. Political strategists look at races like Comstock's as proof that voters are astute and keenly aware of when candidates are trying to " pull the wool over their eyes."

"Without speaking about Comstock’s race in particular, because I haven't followed it closely, I can just say that the coin of the realm is authenticity. Voters are better now than they ever have been at spotting political talk. It is pretty easy for people to sound like a politician when they are trying to have it both ways," said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "People are consuming a high level of political discourse these days and they can spot bullshit when they see it."

Candidates trying to redefine themselves in the age of Trump are in for trouble, Castellanos said. "The loss of identity is the biggest threat to any product, person, or politician in this world where we have a million friends who mean nothing to us as opposed to three or four that do. It is easy to become nothing," Castellanos said. "I think we are seeing that happen to politicians that are trying to thread the needle and do all things to all people. Build a base and build upon it, but don’t try to please everybody."

Several strategists told the Washington Examiner that the "tenable position" for candidates unsure about the president is to tell voters that you can agree with him sometimes. That tactic has worked for McConnell and other high-profile Republicans in congressional leadership positions.

"This is not a world that tolerates nuance. I think a lot of Rs have said, 'I agree with Trump when he is right' and the rest of the time [they] pretend he does not exist," Castellanos said.

The Trump dilemma isn't going to vanish for Republicans such as Comstock in the final weeks leading up to Election day.

Trump is planning on doing at least 10 more rallies, which often run well over an hour and attract thousands of supporters, before the midterm elections. The campaign is planning on an even more intense campaign schedule that could include putting the president on stage twice in one day.

Polling indicates Democrats taking control of the House in November, but Republican candidates and strategists are looking at local polls that show many races are still within the margin of error. For Republicans to maintain control of the House, they will need many of those races to sway in their favor. The party currently holds a 23-seat majority in the House.

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: Love Trump or hate Trump but sitting on the fence spells doom
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