U.S. President Donald Trump knows he’s on the line.
The president spent election night watching returns with family and friends at the White House, after concluding a six-day rally blitz in Missouri late Monday. Trump packed his closing argument with hard-line immigration rhetoric and harsh attacks on Democrats as he stared down the prospect of Republican losses that could shadow his presidency.
“Everything we have achieved is at stake,” he said. “Because they can take it apart just as fast as we built it.”
Faced with the possibility of keeping the Senate but losing the House, aides have begun laying out the political reality to Trump, who could face an onslaught of Democratic-run investigations and paralysis of his policy agenda. In turn, Trump has already been trying out defensive arguments, noting that midterm losses are typical for the party in the White House, pointing out a high number of GOP retirements and stressing that he had kept his focus on the Senate.
In the hours after the first polls closed Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the administration was cautiously optimistic and downplayed the possibility of a Democratic rout, saying “maybe you get a ripple, but I certainly don’t think that there’s a blue wave.”
Aides set up televisions in the White House residence for Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their guests to watch election results come in, with the sets tuned to different cable news channels. Among those expected were Trump’s adult children, White House aides, Republican officials and presidential friends.
The election also likely served as a referendum on Trump’s racially charged appeals and the strength of the coalition that powered him to the White House – a group he will need again in just two years. His party flipped one Senate seat, in Indiana, early in the night, while holding its own among the first wave of hotly contested House seats.
“Frankly, the candidates who have embraced the president and who the president has gone into campaign for over the last several weeks are candidates that we see doing very well tonight,” Sanders told Fox News.
Nearly 40 per cent of voters cast their ballots to express opposition to the president, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate, while about 25 per cent said they voted to express support for Trump.
Trump’s scorched-earth campaigning came to define the 2018 campaign. In the final days, he sought to motivate supporters with the battle over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – at one point mocking a woman who claimed the judge had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.
Ahead of the election, both parties claimed that the emotionally charged debate over Kavanaugh’s confirmation would motivate their supporters to turn out. According to VoteCast, half of voters said the tumultuous process was very important to their vote and they broke for the Democratic House candidate.
Returning to his immigration-heavy 2016 playbook, Trump went on to unleash his full fury on a caravan of migrants slowly making their way to the southern border. His take-no-prisoners approach troubled many Republicans seeking to appeal to moderate voters in suburban House districts, but Trump prioritized base voters in the deep red states that could determine the fate of the Senate. At times he even appeared at odds with his own campaign, which in the election’s final days released a gauzy ad aimed at suburban women.
Trump did not care for the soft-focus ad, which notably did not mention him, according to a person familiar with the president’s thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly. Instead he promoted a shocking, expletive-loaded video featuring a Latino man convicted of murdering two police officers, which was widely decried as being racist.
But while Trump’s plays to his most loyal supporters help rev up the crowds in small towns and rural areas in red states, they were viewed as a turnoff to moderates, independents and women in the suburban districts needed to keep the House in GOP hands. Still, Trump brushed off criticism that he was alienating moderate voters as he continued his massive rallies and overheated rhetoric.
“These rallies are the best thing we’ve done. I think that the rallies have really been the thing that’s caused this whole big fervour to start and to continue,” he told reporters on Sunday.
Opposition to Trump proved to be more a motivating factor for Democrats than support for the president a factor for Republicans. Still, Republican voters tended to be overwhelmingly supportive of the president.
More voters disapproved of Trump’s job performance than approved – a finding that is largely consistent with recent polling. Voters scored Trump positively on the economy and for standing up “for what he believes in.” But the president received negative marks from voters on temperament and trustworthiness.
Still, about one-third of voters said Trump was not a factor in their votes.
During the final stretch of the race, Trump tore across the country, holding 11 rallies over six days. On Monday, he blitzed through a trio of Midwest states he won in 2016 – Ohio, Indiana and Missouri – exhorting his supporters to help send Republicans to Capitol Hill to help safeguard his administration’s accomplishments and a booming economy.
“It’s all fragile. Everything I told you, it can be undone and changed by Democrats if they get in,” Trump told supporters during a telephone town-hall organized by his campaign before Air Force One took off for Cleveland. “You see how they’ve behaved. You see what’s happening with them. They’ve really become radicalized.”
Trump pointed to his boisterous rally crowds as proof that Republicans were surging at the right time, rejecting suggestions that Democrats entered Election Day with an edge in enthusiasm. He frequently invoked his upset win in 2016 and tried to recapture that energy in his final rallies, at times relegating the candidates he had travelled to endorse to supporting actors in the theatre of a Trump rally.
And he plowed forward despite a spate of election-season violence that gripped the nation. He continued to hold events amid a mail bomb scare that targeted his political opponents and went forward with a rally hours after a gunman massacred 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.