Republicans Have a Humming Economy to Tout, but Trump Rhetoric Muddies the Message

In normal political times, a glowing report on the nation’s economy just before Election Day would be a gift to the party in power and a uniform talking point for its candidates. But entering the final weekend before Tuesday’s midterm vote, President Trump’s blistering message of nativist fear has become the dominant theme of the campaign’s last days, threatening to overshadow the good economic news.

This is a political bind Republicans did not envision. They spent the final months of 2017 working on a package of sweeping tax cuts they hoped could be the centerpiece of their 2018 campaign message, buttressed by a soaring stock market and a low unemployment rate. And they got what they wanted, passing a $1.5 trillion tax bill last December.

A new jobs report released Friday highlighted the continued strength of the economy, as employers added about 250,000 jobs in October while the unemployment rate remained at 3.7 percent, a nearly 50-year low.

But Mr. Trump, again, has upended the traditional political playbook. Candidates are frequently forced to answer for his inflammatory and baseless tweets. And at the political rallies that are becoming a daily event as the election draws closer, the president has waded into racially fraught waters, using a broad brush to paint immigrants as villainous and dangerous.

“They all say, ‘Speak about the economy, speak about the economy,” Mr. Trump said Friday, during a rally in West Virginia. “Well, we have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”

On the campaign trail, Republican candidates have taken a split-screen approach to Mr. Trump’s nationalist message; many, recognizing its political potency with the conservative base, are continuing to embrace it.

Democrats have “open borders psychosis,” Kris Kobach, the hard-right Republican candidate for governor in Kansas, told a crowd in Kansas City, Mo., during a rally on Friday with Vice President Mike Pence. Earlier in the day, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas began a stump speech by boasting about the economy, but quickly shifted to a more foreboding theme closely aligned to Mr. Trump’s warnings about a migrant “invasion.”

“You mean the people of Texas want to stop the caravan?” bellowed Mr. Cruz, who is in a competitive, closely watched race against Beto O’Rourke, the fiery, youthful Democrat. The crowd responded with chants of “build the wall.”

Other Republicans, however, are straining to avoid the president’s language and focusing instead on an economy-first message.

In Winterset, Iowa, Representative David Young, a Republican in a very close race, spent the bulk of an address to voters on the strong economy and Republican job creation.

“Right now we’re seeing a real economy renaissance going on in the country,” he said. “Here in rural Iowa, the incredible things going on with our economy are quite spectacular. I just want to keep the federal government out of your way so people can work, small businesses can grow, larger businesses can hire more people, we can keep the economy growing like today.”

In campaign appearances this week, two Illinois Republicans locked in tough races in Chicago’s suburbs, downplayed the immigration issue. Randy Hultgren, the incumbent in the 14th Congressional District, did not mention Mr. Trump’s immigration speech at the White House on Thursday during a stop the following day at a metal forging plant.

Peter Roskam, a Republican who is facing his own tough challenge, told McClatchy the immigration rhetoric was not important to his district.

That message “skips right past this district,” Mr. Roskam said. “This district hears that and kind of shrugs.”

A top aide to Paul D. Ryan, the retiring House Speaker, also pleaded with Republicans to tout the jobs report. “Were going to spend all day and weekend talking about the strong economy, right?” the aide, Brendan Buck, tweeted.

Some Democrats have actually weaponized the tax package against their opponents, including Danny O’Connor, a Democrat running in a tight race against a Republican incumbent, Troy Balderson, in Ohio. In the run-up to a special election in August — they are squaring off again in Tuesday’s general election — Mr. O’Connor and his backers spent more money attacking the tax cuts than Mr. Balderson and his allies spent defending it.

Traditional Republican pollsters and strategists said hewing too closely to Mr. Trump’s incendiary strategy could contain more risk than reward for candidates in the campaign’s final days. They warn of possible backlash among minority voters and college-educated whites, two groups that could be especially crucial in deciding congressional control.

Polling suggests that the same suburban independents who broke for Mr. Trump in the final days of the 2016 election could shift back to Democrats this time around. And Republican campaign veterans said that while Mr. Trump’s fear-mongering is firing up his base, it could energize other voters who were previously apathetic to vote for a Democrat next Tuesday.

“The problem is Republicans have a good story to tell in the economy,” said Mike Murphy, a former adviser to Jeb Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. “But the Republican with the largest microphone only wants to go on these rants about immigration.”

Mr. Trump, he said, is “managing to offend every swing voter in the country.”

That could prove particularly risky in competitive races for the House of Representatives. Republicans are defending many seats in diverse metropolitan regions where the president’s heated language could prove a hindrance.

Mr. Trump acknowledged at his rally Friday that Republicans could lose the House, saying, “it could happen, could happen.”

Both parties have clung to nervous optimism about the half-dozen most competitive races in the Senate. But in Missouri, which has one of the most closely watched Senate races, officials in both parties said internal polling indicated Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, had gained ground in her race against her Republican challenger, Josh Hawley, the state’s attorney general.

Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said he did not think Mr. Trump’s closing message was harmful, even if it was not aligned with the economic arguments the state’s Republican candidates were offering.

“As long as the noneconomic issues that he is talking about do not run counter to the core of what defines us as a state, I don’t think he is a distraction,” Mr. Kaufmann said. “I almost think his presence and his energy at this point in our midterms is more important than specifically what he is saying.”

Still, some Republicans have faced criticism from even members of their own party for offering an inflammatory closing argument.

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican who is retiring at the end of his term, called the tone from his own party “unseemly.” Representative Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, who is also retiring, said Mr. Trump’s immigration stances have distracted from the party’s best midterm message.

“We all know challenges of suburban” Republicans,” he tweeted. “So now POTUS, out of nowhere, brings birthright citizenship up. Besides being basic tenet of America, it’s political malpractice.”

But some Republicans — and the voters who support them — have said Mr. Trump’s explicit language mirrors their own beliefs.

“The radical left is on the move,” said Representative Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican facing a tough re-election campaign in a suburban swing district, who also appeared at the rally with Mr. Pence. “They’re on the march. And this radical left is based on socialism.”

At Mr. Cruz’s rally in Fort Worth, Bill Ranelle, 75, said that on a scale of one to 10, he rated his concerns about immigration an eight, and gave voice to some unfounded characterizations of migrants.

“My grandparents came through Ellis Island and their purpose was to live the American dream and become part of the American culture,” he said. “I don’t see the illegals wishing to do that.”