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Trump Strategy, Attacking 4 Congresswomen Of Color, Could Pay Off


President Trump's nearly week-long attack on four Democratic lawmakers of color has brought his re-election strategy into focus. He is counting on overwhelming support among working-class white voters. This is a gamble in a very diverse country. Not so many years ago, it seemed an almost-impossible task. But NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports it could work.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole was part of a small group of Republicans who broke ranks this week to criticize President Trump. He was personally offended by the president's racist tweets telling minority lawmakers to go back where they came from.

TOM COLE: The point is that's not an appropriate sentiment, and I hope it doesn't spread. And I hope it's discouraged by any responsible Republican.

DAVIS: That doesn't mean he thinks it's going to hurt the party down the ballot next year.

COLE: But do I think that we're going to lose ground in the House because of it? Probably not.

DAVIS: Republicans have been warning each other for years, most famously in a 2013 autopsy ordered by the Republican National Committee, that if they don't do more to expand the GOP's appeal to women, young people and minorities, they're headed for ruin. Indiana University professor Bernard Fraga studies racial politics. And he says that might come true one day - but not right now.

BERNARD FRAGA: I think we're talking about, frankly, a generation or more before the current configuration of support for different parties by race starts hurting Republicans. Even small gains among white voters by Republicans in future elections can more than compensate for the demographic shift we're seeing among eligible voters.

DAVIS: Fraga says Trump's politics further polarize the country and tears at the sense of any linked fate among Americans. But it can still be a path to win.

FRAGA: White voters are still crucial to election outcomes and will be for many election cycles to come.

DAVIS: Democrats like New Mexico congressman Ben Ray Lujan say Republicans are taking a huge risk with this strategy.

BEN RAY LUJAN: If we saw the numbers that we did in 2018 in a midterm, I can't imagine the increase that we're going to see in a presidential year in 2020, especially when the president is making race such an important issue.

DAVIS: Lujan was the architect of the 2018 House Democratic takeover. Their majority was delivered by record turnout in the most racially diverse electorate ever. Even after that, Lujan concedes Trump's racial politics could work in 2020 battlegrounds. And he says Democrats can't assume otherwise.

LUJAN: I make no mistake in believing that Donald Trump could be reelected.

DAVIS: Ohio Republican Steve Stivers was in charge of the House Republican campaign operation last year. He also condemned Trump's tweets this week, but he downplayed the president's potential for long-term damage to the party's appeal beyond white Americans.

STEVE STIVERS: Presidents become dominating figures inside their party for a period of time, but that period of time is limited. And when that period of time is over, there is a new defining personality in the party.

DAVIS: Republican strategist Brian Walsh represents the wing of the party that is concerned about Trump's legacy, not just with minorities but also college-educated white voters, who are leaving the party in the Trump era exactly because of things like what happened this week.

BRIAN WALSH: To me, it's the longer-term message we're sending to immigrants and people of color that you're not welcome in our party. That should be very troubling because, like I said, it's going to be whites who are the minority. I mean, maybe not in five - you know, not in five years or in 10 years, but like, the math is what it is. The country is changing.

DAVIS: In other words, that 2013 RNC autopsy wasn't wrong. It's just not right - yet.

Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "JEALOUS HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.