A senior White House official told donors Saturday that Republicans could win the midterm election despite President Donald Trump's unpopularity and that a lot would depend on the likability of individual candidates, implying this could cause Sen. Ted Cruz to lose his re-election bid in Texas.
"You may hate the president, and there are a lot of people who do, but they certainly like the way the country is going," White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told a Republican National Committee conference in Manhattan, according to audio of his remarks obtained by The Washington Post. "If you figure out a way to subtract from that equation how they feel about the president, the numbers go up dramatically."
Mulvaney told donors at the private gathering that he faced constant questions about whether Republicans are going to lose the House. Polling data shows Democrats ahead of Republicans by significant margins in generic ballots, and many GOP strategists fear Trump will motivate Democrats more than Republicans to vote this fall.
The president has launched a national barnstorming tour for midterm candidates and is seeking to make the 2018 midterm elections a referendum on him — telling voters if Democrats win, he could face impeachment. He told reporters this week that candidates will win because of his endorsements and he has been listing out a four-page list of his accomplishments to crowds.
Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, said he came to give a more positive message than donors were hearing in the news media — and struck a different tone from Trump. He said the midterm elections will come down to good candidates and local politics and seemed to indicate that Cruz could be in jeopardy because he was not likable.
"Do people like you? It's a really important question. It's a very important question. There is a very real possibility we will win a race for Senate in Florida and lose a race in Texas for Senate. I don't think it's likely, but it's a possibility," he said. "How likable is the candidate? That still counts. When you're voting for president, you're voting for ... the big issues. When you're voting for your member of Congress, you want to have looked that person in the eye and decide whether you like that person or not."
He added: "The president asks me all the time, why did Roy Moore lose? That's easy. Because he was a terrible candidate."
A spokesman for Mulvaney did not respond to request for comment about his remarks at the private event. The RNC declined to comment.
Trump said last week that he would visit Texas to stage a large rally for Cruz, who is facing a challenge from Democrat Rep. Beto O'Rourke. Recent polls show Cruz in the lead but in a tighter than expected race in a deep red state.
Mulvaney said Republicans won in 2010 — a wave election that brought him to Congress — because they had a signature piece of legislation to run against — President Obama's Affordable Care Act. "This is us, this is them, and it was easy for us to make that distinction between the two parties."
He said Democrats are not going to run against the GOP tax cut bill enacted last year. Republicans have still not repealed the Affordable Care Act as they promised.
"How many Democrats have you heard say that on the trail, elect me, and we'll undo the tax bill," he said.
Mulvaney dismissed energy on the left, where Democratic strategists say they expect ramped up turnout because of widespread opposition to Trump.
"When I see the rallies now on the left ... they're not drawing people in," he said. "It's harder to bring people into a movement of hate. Anger doesn't really attract people. I don't think I have seen yet people who used to be Republican or people who have never voted or haven't voted in a long time."
He did not mention any of the recent criticisms of how the president is running the administration, like those included in the forthcoming Bob Woodward book "Fear" or the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times from an administration official depicting Trump as incompetent and mercurial.
Mulvaney also did not mention the overwhelming opposition to some of Trump's policies, like separating migrant children from their parents at the border or the special counsel investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
"The stuff we see on the news, it's lofty stuff, it's palace intrigue," he said.
He instead said voters will focus on issues not getting media attention — like new religious liberty regulations that have been put in place by the Trump administration.
Mulvaney said he was at a conference in Rome last week telling Catholic lawmakers from around the world about the administration's stance on religious liberties. "I ran down the list of things that we have done in this administration. Not a single one of these things have ever received an inch of news print," he said.
Mulvaney added that every U.S. attorneys office now has 20 different bullet points to "watch for on religious freedom cases" and that every U.S. attorney's office now has a person handling such issues.
"Really, really boring stuff," he said. "But when you're speaking to a group of bureaucrats and elected officials like I was, they know that's the type of thing that counts."
He added: "There are thousands of examples like that that have gotten better in the government since Donald Trump was elected."