Soft-spoken and always dignified, Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey exists about as far away from a sold-out Make America Great Again rally as you can get in the Republican Party.

At town halls in tony bedroom communities a river-jump from Manhattan, he regularly finds himself trying to soothe voters who shout into microphones about President Trump’s latest antics. Lance voted against his party’s tax cut, opposed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and spent the past week steadily, repeatedly, pleading with the president to end the zero tolerance policy on the border that separated thousands of children from their parents.

“I would prefer civility in all aspects of public policy, and that includes President Trump,” he said in an interview last week, as his effort to force a vote that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants crumbled in Congress. “I believe the Republican Party is multifaceted.”

It is people like Lance, moderate Republicans fighting for their survival in suburban House districts, who are set to decide whether Republicans can avoid losing 23 seats and control of Congress this fall.

That is a contradiction with which Trump has not fully grappled, at least in public, where he has begun to declare that his brand of fire-and-brimstone politics is certain to expand Republican legislative ranks this November. With a tweet on Friday, he essentially killed off a monthslong effort by a dozen endangered Republican moderates, including Lance, to force a vote on immigration this summer. They had hoped to gain political cover in their own districts.

“Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” Trump wrote. “We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”

The base-first strategy could benefit some Republicans by juicing turnout in the midterms, especially in states Trump won in 2016 and where Democratic senators are running for re-election. But political handicappers say there is no realistic scenario in which Republicans win a filibuster-proof majority this fall in the Senate. In the House, only a handful of Democratic House seats are vulnerable this year.

That means that most of the midterm action is taking place in contested Republican-held House districts and a couple of swing states, such as Florida and Nevada, where Trump’s rhetoric has wedged members of his own party into a most uncomfortable position – between his own high popularity among Republicans on one hand and swing voters opposed to his bellicosity on trade and immigration on the other.

“It probably helps Republicans running against Senate incumbents in the deepest red states but makes life more challenging for Republicans incumbents in more diverse suburban districts,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.


The result is two different Republican realities. Trump is the star of one, which he showcases at arena rallies where confrontation is empowering. In this world, Trump’s approval is up, his promises have been kept, North Korea is turning over its nuclear stockpile and the spectacle never stops.

The other Republican world is riven with far more discomfort and anxiety, on the part of the congressional Republicans whose voters find Trump’s aggression off-putting, and where the president’s positions on trade and immigration do not match the local mood.

Rather than focus on preferred issues such as the economy and tax cuts, these vulnerable members spent a week distancing themselves from their own president, while he gave ammunition to Democratic challengers who are trying to nationalize the midterms as a referendum on Trump.

Republicans from states with export industries have found themselves opposing the Trump administration on the growing threat of trade wars.

Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr of Kentucky says he has been fighting for his local bourbon industry, which has been hit by tariffs imposed by the European Union and Mexico in retaliation for Trump trade policies. In Washington state, Dino Rossi, a Republican running to replace retiring Republican Rep. Dave Reichert in a district that includes major fruit exporters and Boeing employees, has also come out against Trump’s policies.

On immigration, Rep. Mia Love of Utah has denounced the Trump policy of forced separation as “horrible.” Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado called for the firing of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, who promoted the policy. Coffman expressed confusion when a reporter asked whether he thinks Trump understands the impact on his district of the failure to pass a broader immigration bill. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t understand where the administration is right now on this issue.”

Back in Colorado, his likely Democratic opponent, Jason Crow, has been hammering Coffman for not stopping Trump’s actions. “People in the district are fed up with it. It is all talk and no action,” Crow said.


Given Trump’s disruptive effect on politics, the divide between these two separate Republican worlds has become a defining feature of the political landscape.

Pollsters on both ends of the political spectrum say it is too early to predict clearly how events will play out in November, as Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that they do not fully understand the new dynamics at play.

“He is certainly playing with fire on this stuff, but he has played with fire a lot since he announced for president,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. “And he doesn’t tend to get burned very often.”

Democrats, however, are counting on Trump’s motivating swing voters and liberals – especially college-educated women – to throw out Republican incumbents, as has happened in several special elections over the past year.

Some Republicans have argued that Trump’s strategy might have unexpected benefits, by forcing moderate candidates to distinguish themselves.

That is clearly the strategy for Lance. He stood among House members at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday as Trump mocked Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican critic of the president’s who recently lost his primary.

“I think that was inappropriate,” Lance said. “I think he should stop doing things like that.”