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'Trump has hijacked the election': House Republicans in panic mode

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© Evan Vucci/AP Photo Republicans are profoundly worried that President Donald Trump's obsession with all things immigration will exacerbate their losses.

By Elana Schor, Carla Marinucci and Rachael Bade, POLITICO

House Speaker Paul Ryan got President Donald Trump on the phone Sunday for one final plea on behalf of anxious Republicans: Please, please talk up the booming economy in the final hours before Election Day.

But Trump, unsurprisingly, had another issue on his mind. He boasted to Ryan that his focus on immigration has fired up the base, according to a source familiar with the call.

Two days out from an expected Democratic takeover of the House, Republicans focused on the chamber are profoundly worried that Trump’s obsession with all things immigration will exacerbate their losses. Many of these same Republicans welcomed Trump’s initial talk about the migrant caravan and border security two weeks ago, hoping it would gin up the GOP base in some at-risk, Republican-held districts.

But they now fear Trump went overboard — and that it could cost them dearly in key suburban districts, from Illinois to Texas. Many of them have cringed at Trump’s threats to unilaterally end birthright citizenship, as well as his recent racially-tinged ad suggesting that immigrants are police killers. The president's drumbeat, they say, is drowning out news any incumbent president would be negligent not to dwell on: that the economy added a quarter-million jobs last quarter, and unemployment is below 4 percent.

“Trump has hijacked the election,” said one senior House Republican aide of Trump's focus on immigration. “This is not what we expected the final weeks of the election to focus on.”

The disagreement highlights the tug-of-war over strategy that’s been dogging the GOP all year: Should Republicans prioritize turning out Trump backers, or appeal to suburban swing voters? The party has diverged according to the chamber: Senate Republicans seeking to grow their majorities in rural, red states by toppling incumbent Democrats have mostly welcomed Trump's red-meat approach; House Republicans whose survival hinges on the suburbs have privately griped and tried to change the subject.

The different landscapes have created dual GOP campaign messages. Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Whip Steve Scalise and the National Republican Congressional Committee have made their closing argument about the economy, while the man with the bully pulpit suggested a few days ago that the military might shoot migrants who throw rocks.

Trump has even publicly scoffed at GOP suggestions that he focus on the economy in the final days, though he did talk about the latest jobs report at rallies this weekend.

“We can talk about the economy, but the fact is, we know how well we're doing with the economy and we have to solve problems,” Trump said at an event in Florida on Friday, hitting back at criticism that he’s ignoring his party’s biggest asset.

He promptly latched onto his topic du jour: “Democrats are openly encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our sovereignty, overrun our borders and destroy our nation. In so many ways. We can't let it happen."

The heightened concerns foreshadow the blame game that will undoubtedly commence if Republicans lose the House on Tuesday. Trump has made clear he’ll take little to no responsibility, insisting in recent days that he “can’t go everywhere” to save House candidates.

Indeed, some House Republicans say privately that they feel abandoned, as if Trump has given up on them — the likely losers — in order to focus on the Senate. Rubbing salt in the wound, they feel Trump's message to help Senate Republicans in rural, red states is a direct threat to the House GOP's cause in suburban areas.

“His honing in on this message is going to cost us seats,” said one senior House GOP campaign source. “The people we need to win in these swing districts that will determine the majority, it’s not the Trump base; it’s suburban women, or people who voted for [Hillary] Clinton or people who are not hard Trump voters.”

In Orange County, California, a former conservative bastion once known as Reagan Country, Democratic candidate Harley Rouda said Trump’s heated immigration rhetoric has turned off moderate voters. Rouda, who’s now in a neck-and-neck battle to defeat GOP incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, said “we are seeing these people coming into our campaign.”

“What we’ve seen with moderate Republicans and independents is an increasing frustration with the president of the United States, pitting Americans against Americans — trying to divide us instead of uniting us,’’ he said at his Costa Mesa campaign headquarters on Sunday.

Southern California is far from an outlier, according to several Republicans involved in House campaigns. Trump’s immigration rhetoric could be costly for a pair of suburban Texas Republicans who’d seen improvements in their polling numbers two weeks ago, but who are once again struggling: Reps. Pete Sessions and John Culberson. It’s also hurt Rep. Peter Roskam in Illinois, these sources said, whose Chicago-area campaign message has focused on the economy in the final days of the election.

Republicans in districts with large Hispanic populations are also on high alert: Republican Rep. David Valadao of California’s Central Valley has long been favored to win reelection. But there’s a newfound fear that Trump’s rhetoric toward immigrants will motivate more Latino voters to turn out against the incumbent.

Ditto for for Rep. Jeff Denham, whose neighboring California district also has a large Hispanic population.

“Talking about immigration and birthright citizenship and the caravan — that doesn’t help Jeff Denham," the senior GOP campaign source said.

Not all Republicans feel this way. Some conservatives and more moderate members hope immigration will motivate their base. Trump's approval rating remains in the 40s, they note, higher than it had been over the summer. And the Democrats' 7-point lead in the generic congressional ballot, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll Sunday, was notably smaller than the double-digit lead the party previously held.

Most Senate Republican candidates aren't backing away from Trump’s immigration messaging. In Arizona, a border state where Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema's more centrist record on immigration could help her snag a GOP-held seat on Tuesday, Republicans are reading from Trump’s playbook.

Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.), who's poised to cruise to reelection, said Trump's rhetoric is ramping up "the intensity of getting people out to vote."

"The other side is angry, they’re energized, and they’re actually showing some signs of being organized," Ducey said after joining Sinema's opponent, Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), for a rally at a pancake breakfast in rural Prescott. McSally said her closing message includes a major pitch on border security, though she has stopped short of fully endorsing Trump's call to limit the constitutional guarantee of citizenship.

In a few rare cases, House Republicans have felt the need to publicly rebuke Trump’s hard-line talk. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a vulnerable Miami Republican, has taken to TV and Twitter in recent days to push back on Trump’s immigration comments.

“Birthright citizenship is protected by the Constitution, so no @realDonaldTrump you can’t end it by executive order,” Curbelo tweeted right after Trump floated the idea.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel defended Trump’s controversial immigration ad on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.

“The ad is highlighting the fact that one individual got through the cracks and killed cops. That should make every American upset and we need to fix our immigration system. And the president's leading the way,” she said when pressed about GOP concerns over Trump’s immigration rhetoric.

Notably, however, it was the job numbers that McDaniel listed first in her opening pitch for why Republicans might keep the House.

“It's about the results and we just saw on Friday," she said. "The great job numbers."

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