Republicans were bracing for a massive surge in minority turnout in this fall's midterm elections. They were worried that voters didn't understand their tax reform law or give the GOP credit for a strong economy.
And that was before President Donald Trump ignited yet another controversy that Republicans lawmakers and strategists say will worsen both problems.
After telling lawmakers at a White House meeting last week that he wanted immigrants from largely white Norway -- not Africa or Haiti -- Trump once again faces charges of racism from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, this time over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.
Republicans working on 2018 House and Senate races say they've accepted that there's no way to convince voters -- particularly those who make up an energized Democratic base -- that Trump isn't racist. After a response to white supremacists' rally last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, they said, it's too late.
More worrying for the GOP now is that Trump's remarks hijacked several days' worth of opportunities to tell an economic story the party views as its central argument in this year's midterms: The stock market is booming. Newly passed tax cuts are just about to take effect. And businesses have responded to the tax measure by announcing bonus checks.
"From an outcome basis, the President has a lot to take credit for," said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who chaired the House GOP's campaign arm. "But to do that, you have to stay on message."
"It's like this tax bill: Nobody's read the damn thing. Most people benefit from it, yet they don't like it," he said. "Why? Because of who's saying what, in the messaging."
"There are just so many distractions away from the positive stories this administration could be talking about. And that's not the media's fault -- that's the president's fault," said Republican strategist Alex Conant, a veteran of Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign.
With 10 months before the midterms, there's ample time for Republicans -- particularly well-funded candidates -- to sell voters on a strong economy and distance themselves from Trump.
But 2017's elections offered worrying signs for the GOP.
Strong turnout from minority voters -- a key element of the Democratic base -- played a crucial role in the party's wins in the Virginia governor's race and the Alabama US Senate special election in December.
If that trend extends into 2018, it would damage the GOP in states with Latino-heavy electorates, like Arizona and Nevada, where two Republican-held Senate seats are up for grabs, and California, where Democrats are targeting seven GOP-held House seats.
In generic Democrat vs. Republican match-ups, Quinnipiac University found in a poll released last week that voters favor Democrats by a 17-point margin. Other pollsters have found a similarly massive gap -- which is tied in part to Trump's approval rating.
Headlines over his characterization of largely black countries won't help reverse those figures, Republicans said.
"The President's comments are problematic because they're unsympathetic and reinforces what 65% of the country already believes about him," said Reed Galen, a Republican strategist who was the deputy campaign manager of Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.
"That it happened over the course of MLK weekend is important because it pulls in all of the cumulative statements and acts," Galen said, "since his campaign began two and a half years ago."
Davis said the Virginia elections, which wiped out 15 Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates, showed that "there is no escaping" Trump.
"They were messengers," he said. "People wanted to send a message to Trump."
This news has been published by title Can Republicans In Tough Races Survive Trump\'s Racial Provocations?
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