At a local Republican Party dinner here in the lead-up to South Carolina’s special election, GOP candidate Ralph Norman stood next to a Donald Trump campaign poster double the size of his own and heaped praise on the president.
About 230 miles away, Karen Handel—the Republican candidate in Georgia’s special election—stood next to trays of sweet-smelling barbecue and avoided even mentioning Trump’s name under a barrage of questions from reporters.
Those different approaches to Trump from the GOP candidates running in Tuesday’s two special elections illustrate the broader challenge unfolding for Republicans nationally. Conservative base voters, often among the most engaged and reliable voters, still adore Trump even as he faces mounting disapproval from the more centrist voters who are now putting places like the Sixth District of Georgia into play.
That reality, on display in this week’s campaigns, threatens to make it that much tougher to hold together an already-fractious GOP coalition elsewhere in the country as 2018 contests take shape.
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“Every Republican running is going to have to deal with that dynamic. I don’t see any way around it,” said Chip Lake, a veteran Georgia Republican strategist. “Donald Trump is a very powerful figure. He elicits very powerful opinions, very strong opinions and emotions, not only on both sides of the political spectrum, meaning R versus D, but he elicits very strong emotions and opinions on the Republican side.”
Handel hasn’t always shied away from Trump. She welcomed his support in April, after finishing second in the first round of voting in the special election to replace now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and her spokeswoman said in a statement Monday that she continues to appreciate the White House’s backing. Trump later held a fundraiser for her and has frequently praised her candidacy against Democrat Jon Ossoff.
But the upscale Atlanta-area district, which Trump barely won last year despite its traditional Republican lean, is not enamored with the new president. Republicans familiar with polling there say Trump’s approval ratings are now underwater after suffering a slight drop since April.
Meanwhile, Handel has found herself walking a tightrope, willing to appear with Trump but also lobbing the occasional criticism at him, saying during a June debate with Ossoff that she would “recommend some Twitter policy changes.”
“We learned last fall from Joe Heck and Kelly Ayotte you can’t sound like a politician when talking about Donald Trump,” said one Republican watching the race. “Karen Handel has done a great job of showing her support for the president and disagreeing with him in a genuine way at times. During the first debate, I think she said what a lot of folks in the district believe regarding his Twitter behavior.”
In contrast, Norman has so effusively embraced Trump here in South Carolina that in an interview with McClatchy, he didn’t even take issue with Trump’s Twitter habit—a practice that frequently throws the entire Republican Party’s message and agenda off course.
“People can read a tweet or they can’t read a tweet,” Norman, a deeply conservative former state representative, told McClatchy in an interview late last week. “If they don’t want to receive it, they don’t have to. He’s got millions of followers. I see no problem with it.”
Norman’s strong defense of the president reflects a conservative base that is still staunchly in the president’s corner despite a barrage of bad headlines over everything from a possible obstruction of justice investigation to a paucity, so far, of significant legislative achievements.
In competitive districts, those dynamics—growing frustration with Trump from moderates and near-unshakeable support for him on the right—present a risk for candidates trying to hold on to their base without alienating independents, or further inflaming their highly energized rivals on the left.
“All the news coverage that’s bad for the president—it doesn’t help, but it has not affected his supporters,” said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I don’t see people bailing out, saying they’re sorry they voted for him. But you can’t win elections just counting on a certain base. You’ve got to win elections, no matter what party you are, with persuadable voters.”
The imperative to win over persuadable voters is much stronger in Georgia, where a seat that has been Republican since the 1970s is suddenly competitive, an environment that many GOP strategists attribute in part to anti-Trump atmospherics.
“Make no mistake, if any other Republican was president, I don’t think Jon Ossoff would have a chance to win this race,” said Lake of the Democratic candidate in Georgia. “This race is in play for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s Donald Trump.”
Meanwhile, South Carolina will offer a clearer picture of how energized the Republican base is, about the Republican brand and about the president. Here, at every turn during a two-day campaign swing, Norman described his interest in wanting to go to Washington to help Trump. The president has recorded robocalls to boost Norman, and even the Democratic candidate, Archie Parnell, made a point to note in his campaign introduction video that he would work with Trump on areas of consensus.
But South Carolina Republicans will be watching the margins of the race in a district Trump won by 18 percentage points, noting that in other deep-red districts, including one in Kansas, special elections in the Trump era have been considerably closer for Republicans than they should be—something they see as linked to a perceived lack of progress in Republican-controlled Washington.
“If [Norman] doesn’t win by 15 points, I think people at least need to scratch their heads a bit,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina Republican strategist. “If Norman doesn’t win handily, you have to look at other districts around the country and be prepared to defend them in what’s going to be a full-born assault.”