Republicans are running in 2018. Running from Trump

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  • Democrats hope to ride a wave of anti-Trump feeling to big wins in November
  • Many top-tier potential GOP candidates are bowing out of 2018 contests

Washington (CNN)Politicians -- good ones, at least -- make their bones by knowing which way the wind is blowing. And right now, it's a gale force gust right in the faces of Republicans.

Facing such perilous conditions, lots and lots of Republicans are steering toward calmer shores.
    In the House, senior Republicans -- including eight committee chairs -- are choosing to retire rather than running for re-election in November's midterm elections. In Senate battleground states, the top GOP prospects -- most recently former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- are declining pleas from President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take on vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
    Taken together, the developments on both sides of Capitol Hill suggest that Republicans view the coming midterm election as a sort of stay-away endeavor at best. The combination of historical trends for a president's party in his first midterm (not good), the relative apathy of the GOP base (even worse) and Trump's approval rating (historically low) has created an environment in which sitting on the sidelines looks much more appealing to ambitious Republicans than running and losing.
    The signs of trouble for Republicans are coming directly from Trump country.
    Democrat Patty Schactner won a western Wisconsin state Senate special election on Tuesday in a district where Trump bested Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 16 percentage points.
    "You cannot be openly and intentionally mean and not expect a little pushback," said Schachtner of the political environment. "We all know when enough is enough."
    Even Republicans acknowledged the obvious. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who won three contentious elections there, including a labor union-fueled recall, went on a tweetstorm Wednesday, calling the result a "wake up call."
    It's not just Wisconsin. In Virginia, Democrats flipped 15 Republican seats in the November 2017 election. A 16th seat ended tied but Republicans retained control after their candidate won a drawing of lots. In Oklahoma -- not exactly a Democrat-friendly state -- Democrats nonetheless picked up three GOP-held state legislative seats last year. In New Hampshire, two GOP seats flipped in September.
    The trend exists statewide as well. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, won by a larger-than-expected margin thanks to sky-high Democratic turnout last November. In Alabama, Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since 1992 -- buoyed by massive African-American turnout.

    Trump making it difficult for the GOP

    GOP operatives involved in 2018 races say that as Trump's self-made controversies siphon attention away from the economy, they are increasingly concerned they won't be able to sell their own message in a way that convinces voters to see the midterm election as anything but a referendum on Trump.
    Though 2018 is shaping up as a referendum on Trump, the President's own ability to form the 2018 battleground map has proven limited despite the fact that Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats -- including 10 in states Trump won in 2016.
    Republicans involved in midterm races said that early in Trump's presidency -- a key period for 2018 recruiting -- the White House political operation was a disaster, missing important opportunities to court candidates and reassure those skeptical about the political environment.
    The operation, those Republicans said, has improved in the last three months or so -- but it's been too little, too late.
    In recent weeks, Trump courted Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, urging the 84-year-old to run for another term. Instead, Hatch opted for retirement, opening the door for a Senate run by one of Trump's fiercest intra-party critics, Mitt Romney. Romney is expected to run and would begin the race as a heavy favorite to come to Washington.
    Trump also met with Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota in a bid to woo him into a race against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Days later, Cramer declined.
    A senior House Republican acknowledged the obvious -- that things are difficult -- but said the picture isn't as dire as Democrats would hope for the GOP.
    "The challenging political environment undoubtedly makes recruitment and retention a tough chore for Republicans in 2018," the lawmaker said. "However it can be overstated. The vast majority of Republican retirements are in safe seats and many are due to members running for higher office or being termed out of their committee chairmanships. Retirements are a bigger problem if you lose the majority than they are while you retain it."

    Trump states where Republicans are having problems

    In addition to North Dakota, Republicans have faced less-than-ideal circumstances in seven of the nine Trump-won states where Democrats are up for re-election:
    -- Montana: Rep. Greg Gianforte's political future was clouded by his bodyslam of a journalist. Gianforte was expected to run for governor in 2020 -- but with him seemingly out of the picture, other Republicans who might have run for the Senate in 2018, particularly Attorney General Tim Fox, changed their calculations.
    -- Ohio: Rep. Pat Tiberi passed on a Senate run not once but twice -- the second time after state Treasurer Josh Mandel bowed out suddenly this month, leaving Republicans scrambling for a candidate. Retiring Rep. Jim Renacci eventually stepped into the void, switching from the governor's race to the Senate contest.
    -- Wisconsin: Rep. Sean Duffy passed, as did several other higher-profile potential GOP recruits, leading to a big primary field of lesser-known candidates.
    -- Missouri: Rep. Ann Wagner declined what had long been expected would be a matchup with Sen. Claire McCaskill. The GOP is high on Attorney General Josh Hawley -- many operatives believe he's a better candidate than Wagner would have been -- but he was just elected to statewide office for the first time in 2016.
    -- Pennsylvania: Rep. Pat Meehan passed on the Senate race, leaving Republicans with Rep. Lou Barletta, a Trump ally in a year where that's a politically damaging label.
    -- Michigan: Statewide elected officials like Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette are angling for the governor's office, and Rep. Fred Upton passed on a Senate run.
    -- Indiana: Rep. Susan Brooks passed on a Senate run, though the GOP isn't really hurting there with Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer in.
    West Virginia, where Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morissey are running, is the only state where Republicans haven't struggled to recruit their first choice. But they will have a very costly -- and likely nasty -- primary fight.
    The next state to watch is Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott remains undecided on whether he'll challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
    If Scott says "no" -- and there is some muttering he might be less gung ho on the race than he was a few months ago -- it would be a massive blow to Republicans' hopes of expanding their Senate majority.