Is the White House political shop ready for the midterms?
By: Scott Jennings
Someone you’ve probably never heard of has been in the news lately.
Bill Stepien, director of The White House Office of Political Affairs, finds himself and his operation under attack in the wake of Republican losses in Virginia and Alabama, and a series of polls showing Democrats with a wide generic ballot advantageahead of the 2018 midterm. Media reports put Stepien arguing with Corey Lewandowski , President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, in the hallway outside the Oval Office after an airing of grievances in front of the president.
As they are wont to do, anonymous sources have savaged Stepien’s office, questioning whether it has the stature to help the president stave off a Democratic wave. Don’t mistake a low profile for a lack of skill. Stepien is a smart political operator, fully capable of synthesizing data and making solid recommendations to Chief of Staff John Kelly and President Trump (as he did when he advised Trump to distance himself from Roy Moore in Alabama). The nattering nabobs, jealous types always, are likely people who want to be on the inside but aren’t.
If someone warns that Republicans will lose the midterm because they don’t think the White House political office is hefty enough, disregard their commentary. Anyone with actual knowledge of how this works would never say something so amateurish.
Because of the name of the office, many people believe that the Office of Political Affairs runs campaigns. It does not. Stepien’s job is an official, taxpayer-funded slot designed to serve the president and his agenda, and facilitate the president’s role as titular head of his party. While Stepien’s outfit keeps close tabs on campaigns, the information collected is used to advise the president on how the political environment is impacting the Trump agenda, and to decide how Trump can best help.
We faced a similarly challenging dynamic in 2006 when I worked in Political Affairs for the George W. Bush White House. Our president had a low job approval, Democrats were motivated after losing a presidential election they thought they were going to win, Congress was unpopular, and the generic ballot stunk.
I hope this midterm ends better for Trump than it did for Bush 43, who saw Republican majorities wiped out in both chambers. The ensuing investigatory and policy paralysis was painful, a ridiculous circus inflicted upon a Republican president by unhinged, bloodthirsty liberal hacks. No matter what they say, Democratic congressional leaders won’t be able to stop their rank-and-file members from impeaching Trump if they take over the House.
I’d put both congressional chambers in the tossup column regarding control, with the Senate slightly more secure for Republicans than the House. This ought to scare the bejesus out of the president’s top advisors, as a loss in either chamber would grind the Trump presidency to a halt.
President Trump has reportedly said he wants to actively campaign in the midterm, but the cold political reality is that public engagement won’t be helpful in some places. Where a president can make a significant difference is in candidate recruitment and fundraising. In 2006, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, along with their political staff, met with and encouraged numerous candidates, and then appeared at fundraisers worth $127 million. Public rallies were limited, an acceptance of the political reality of a mid-30s approval rating.
The White House political staff is already meeting with candidates and coordinating activities with the relevant political committees. And Stepien, who served on the Trump campaign, knows all too well the power of Trump’s digital assets that can be brought to bear. Expect that to be a major part of Trumpworld’s midterm engagement for candidates who support the president’s agenda.
There’s no sugarcoating it – Republicans are in for a rough election cycle, but the White House political director is prepared to play the hand he’s been dealt. The hand-wringers ought to give Stepien the chance to see it through.