Analysis: Pelosi, Clinton Factor Big in Trump’s Midterm Strategy

President tries to lend a hand in Senate race that Democrat leads over GOP’s Blackburn

President Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium on May 29. He was in South Carolina on Monday evening. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium on May 29. He was in South Carolina on Monday evening. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:53am

President Donald Trump showed a few cards in his midterm election hand Tuesday night, trying to attach a competitive Democratic Senate candidate to Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton in a state he easily won.

The Republican president did call his party’s candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by GOP Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, “a great woman.” And he brought her on stage to say a few words, during which she opted to praise him. But for the most part, Trump’s message in Nashville was all about Trump, in a preview of the rallies he plans across the country where close races will decide which party controls the House and Senate for the rest of his current term.

Blackburn used her brief remarks to thank Trump for “everything you are doing” — both in Washington and on the midterms campaign trail to help the GOP’s incumbents and other congressional candidates. She credited him for putting Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court, filling many other federal court seats, slashing taxes and “standing up to China and North Korea.” The latter got one of the night’s loudest rounds of applause.

“Let me tell you that is what you call getting the job done,” Blackburn said. “Tennessee needs a senator who is going to support President Donald Trump, and I am going to be there to stand with President Donald Trump and take your Tennessee values to Washington, D.C.”

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A moment later, the president told the crowd that Republicans “need Marsha in the Senate to continue the great progress and work we’ve done in the last year and a half,” adding: “There has never been an administration — and even some of our enemies are begrudgingly admitting this — that has done what we’ve done in the first year and a half.”

From there, Trump described the Democratic candidate for Corker’s Senate seat as a nobody. At one point, he pretended not to know former two-term Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s last name.

“Who is he?” Trump asked in a mocking tone. He went on to label Bredesen a “total, absolute tool” of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Pelosi.

The president’s campaign strategy is taking shape, and it resembles the one he ran in 2016 to take the GOP presidential nomination and then the general election. One part is to use the plainspoken and racy rhetoric most Americans use in private. Another is to cast his foes in terms as scary as possible, using voters’ fears to his — and Republicans’ — potential advantage.

For instance, in casting Bredesen as a “tool” of Pelosi, he told the crowd she “loves MS-13, can you imagine? … MS-13 lover. She loves MS-13.” (But Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee official, wrote this on Twitter: “As one of the #FirePelosi originators, I can’t believe I’m going to defend her here but she does not, in fact, love gangs.”)

It wasn’t long before the president pivoted to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his words, “getting screwed” out of his party’s nomination. He then brought up Clinton. The crowd soon was chanting “lock her up,” a regular occurrence during the 2016 general election — and, based on Trump reveling in hearing it again, likely a base-exciting tactic he will employ on the 2018 campaign trail.

Despite his use of off-color language as a candidate, he criticized Clinton for allowing musician Jay-Z to use curse words during performances at her campaign events. The Tennessee crowd booed. Trump nodded his approval. He then tried to tie Bredesen to Clinton, whom he easily defeated in the Volunteer State by 26 percentage points.

Phil Bredesen “supported her, and her ideas,” he said of Clinton, and then fired up the conservative crowd by telling them the former governor opposes his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Trump’s attempts to link Blackburn’s opponent to Pelosi and Clinton, two Democratic power players who are unpopular in the South and red states with close congressional races, come as polls show Bredesen leading Blackburn. Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales puts the race at Leans Republican, and RealClearPolitics calls it a Toss-up. The latter’s average of three polls shows Bredesen with a 5 percentage point lead.

The former governor’s campaign responded to Trump’s speech with a statement saying: “Governor Bredesen has made it clear that if President Trump proposes something that’s good for Tennessee, then he’ll support it. Likewise, if the president suggests something that’s bad for Tennesseans, then he’ll oppose it. That’s what senators ought to do.”

“Bottom line: Phil Bredesen is an independent thinker with a proven record of working with Democrats and Republicans. In Washington, he’ll vote in the best interests of Tennessee and Tennesseans,” said Alyssa Hansen, Bredesen’s press secretary.

Trump repeatedly delivered this message: His first months in office have been good for those in the Nashville Municipal Auditorium and voters watching on television. They should send more Republicans to Congress to make the next two years even better.

He called Democrats “lousy on policy,” playing on his supporters’ fears by labeling that party as in favor of “open borders.”

“We’re not going to be a stupid country anymore,” he said, implying the Obama era made the country just that. It was a big theme of his successful presidential bid, and he appears ready to bring it back this year.

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“We need Republicans. And we need to get out and vote for Marsha,” he said. “If you want your schools … and country to be safe, you need to vote to get the Democrats the hell out of office because there’s no common sense. … We’re going to defend our border and fight on crime.”

To be sure, President Trump morphed back into Candidate Trump on Tuesday night. He even touted the size of his “big, beautiful hands” — one of the more salacious themes of the 2016 presidential race.

The rally was not all about Trump’s midterms message. The president did provide some tidbits of news.

Less than a week after cancelling his planned nuclear disarmament summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, President Trump advised his national security adviser to “get some rest” because “we have some important negotiations coming up.” John Bolton responded with a thumbs-up for his boss.

He said his Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta are working on a new health care plan that will be rolled out in a few weeks. (He did not provide specifics, but in typical fashion, predicted it will be a great plan. He also promised that plan within four weeks earlier this month.)

Trump told the friendly crowd in Tennessee, without explaining how or why, that the Mexican government will pay for his proposed southern border wall.

“Mexico, I don’t want to cause a problem,” he said. “But in the end, Mexico is … paying for the wall.”