Midterms to test Trump's value as endorser, ally for GOP candidates

President Donald Trumps gestures during a roundtable discussion on tax reform at Cleveland Public Auditorium and Conference Center in Cleveland, Ohio, Saturday, May 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Donald Trump’s approval rating is gradually climbing toward levels it has not reached since last spring, and along with it, Republican prospects for retaining control of Congress in November are rising, but doubts remain about the extent to which his presence on the campaign trail can offer an advantage for GOP candidates.

This has so far been a good week for Trump. Hours after welcoming three American hostages home from North Korea Thursday, the president announced his historic meeting with Kim Jong Un will be held in Singapore on June 12.

On Tuesday, Trump fulfilled a campaign promise by withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, which he long maintained was the worst deal ever negotiated. The New York Times reported Wednesday that a U.S./Iraqi intelligence operation has captured five top ISIS officials in the last three months.

Tuesday night’s primaries brought victories for candidates Trump endorsed and the defeat of one he urged voters to reject. On Thursday, he was set to travel to Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana to rally with the new Republican Senate nominee there.

The recent news has not all been positive. Trump’s personal legal team continues to be embroiled in controversy, with new revelations raising questions about attorney Michael Cohen’s business practices and new attorney Rudy Giuliani resigning from his law firm after a series of combative TV appearances.

Still, Trump’s average approval rating now sits at 43 percent, according to RealClearPolitics, continuing steady improvement since it fell to the mid-30s in December and better than at nearly any point in the last year. The improved poll numbers come as he turns his attention toward promoting Republican candidates for the midterm elections.

A new CNN/SSRS poll released this week found 41 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s performance and 53 percent disapprove. Among registered voters, that improves slightly to 44 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval.

In addition, voters’ opinion of Trump’s handling of several major issues is rising. On the economy, trade, foreign affairs, and immigration, his approval is up an average of 4 points since March.

The CNN poll also found Democrats’ one-time double-digit advantage in a generic ballot match-up with Republicans has slipped to only 3 points. Republican voter enthusiasm has ticked upward, with 44 percent saying they are “very enthusiastic” about voting in November.

“The challenge for the Republicans is that the president is an asset largely in safe congressional districts and may be a liability in contested congressional districts,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American Studies at Cornell University. “Therefore, vis-a-vis Congress, he may be an asset in the districts where his presence is not needed.”

Trump’s support is weak in many places where Democrats aim to pick up House seats—California, New York, suburban Pennsylvania. On the Senate side, his popularity aligns better with the GOP’s needs.

“That’s where the Republican Party will try to make the best use of him, in West Virginia, in Indiana, in Missouri, perhaps in Montana where he’s already been critical of Sen. [Jon] Tester,” Altschuler said.

Trump’s Indiana rally Thursday follows several others in states he won in 2016 where competitive Senate races are expected this fall. Republicans are hoping he can help jumpstart campaigns against Democratic incumbents like Sen. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Sen. Joe Manchin (W.V.), and Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio).

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Democratic strategist Scott Ferson doubts Trump’s slightly improved popularity will shake up key races. In 2017 special elections, several Trump-endorsed candidates either lost or barely eked out victories in historically Republican districts. Most notably, in Alabama, his preferred candidate lost the Senate primary to Roy Moore, and he then supported Moore in the general election despite several allegations of sexual misconduct.

“If Roy Moore had won, then I think that would give Donald Trump a special power we didn’t know was otherwise there,” Ferson said. “Voters in Indiana and West Virginia know Donnelly and Manchin. It’s going to be a referendum on them.”

David Payne, a Republican strategist, expects Republican candidates’ fates will be more closely intertwined with Trump because the president has so thoroughly commandeered the country’s political discourse.

“Trump is going to play large in this year’s congressional elections whether the candidates want him to or not…,” he said. “He owns the national political tone. He either created the tone or it’s a reaction to him on the part of Democrats.”

According to the CNN poll, Trump is now as popular as President Jimmy Carter was at this point in his term, but he has spent much of his first 16 months in office as the least popular president on record. Given his unpredictable behavior and the speed with which news cycles have moved during his presidency, Republican candidates who embrace him now run the risk of his numbers tanking again around the election.

“Could he become a lead balloon at rallies across the country?”