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FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during a joint news conference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By James Oliphant
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Republicans at a conference in Texas this week had reason to feel downcast, even panicky as President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin provoked broad outrage and revived talk of a Democratic wave in November's congressional elections.
Instead, party officials voiced optimism about maintaining control of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives this autumn, saying the Democratic Party's messaging and internal struggles were helping boost Republican prospects.
“They’re their own worst enemy, and I’m very comfortable with that,” said Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party.
In interviews with Reuters, attendees at the Republican National Committee meeting in Austin said pressure from progressives challenging the Democratic old guard following Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 presidential election had forced many Democrats to adopt more left-leaning positions.
Republicans hope to exploit such differences. They believe voters will be turned off by calls for Trump’s impeachment and cries of “treason” after the Putin meeting, as well the push among some liberals to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and efforts by Democratic leaders to block Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
Democrats need to pick up a net total of two seats to assume control of the Senate and 23 seats to take the House. Wresting control of a chamber would allow them to derail or stall much of Trump’s policy agenda, while ushering in more aggressive congressional oversight and investigation of Trump's administration.
Republicans have long believed their party was more likely to lose the House than the Senate because it must defend several moderate, suburban House districts where a majority of voters disapprove of Trump.
But they are feeling more upbeat about keeping control of that chamber and are increasingly confident that they will add several seats in the Senate.
“The Democrats absolutely ought to be able to win the majority in the House this time, but they may well blow it,” said Henry Barbour, a longtime Republican operative from Mississippi.
Democrats insist they have the edge in voter enthusiasm and organisation. Democratic turnout has surged in primary races across the country this year, largely in opposition to Trump.
"Everywhere I go, I see the troops in action," Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on Wednesday during a speech in San Antonio.
"We have a leader who is trying to divide us," Perez said of Trump. "We will not allow that to happen.”
Early in the week, there was some trepidation among Republicans over Trump’s conduct in Helsinki, where the president stunned the world on Monday by failing to criticise the Russian leader for Moscow's alleged actions to undermine the 2016 presidential election.
Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the local Republican Party in Austin, said Trump had “walked into a trap.”
But Republicans at the meeting expressed relief that Trump later tried to clarify his remarks and said they believed the controversy would soon fade, as tempests surrounding the president tend to do.
Many Republicans felt the president's critics had overreacted and said Democrats were losing credibility with undecided voters by objecting to almost everything Trump does.
“If you cry wolf too many times, nobody will listen,” said Solomon Yue, a Republican committee member from Oregon.
In Texas, Republican Senator Ted Cruz has been facing a spirited challenge from liberal Representative Beto O’Rourke. After Trump was roundly criticized for appearing to side with Putin on the issue of election interference, Cruz, who ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, may have felt pressure to criticise the president.
But once O’Rourke called for Trump to be impeached over his remarks in Helsinki, Cruz was able to turn the tables and accuse O’Rourke of being a “radical” who is “unfit” to serve in the Senate.
The same dynamic, Republicans said, played out in the controversy over the Trump administration’s since-abandoned policy to separate the families of migrants illegally crossing the nation’s southwest border.
Initially, Democrats found traction criticizing Trump over the policy by focussing on children being kept from their parents. But after the surprise primary win in New York last month by progressive Democratic House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the debate shifted to abolishing ICE, the agency that enforces immigration laws.
“Democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when they transitioned from defending kids in detention centres to support for abolishing ICE,” said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster who consults in several key Senate races.
Republicans conceded that Democrats remained highly motivated by their dislike of Trump and that history tended to favour the opposition party in midterm elections. They spent their sessions in Austin focussing on strategies for maximizing voter turnout in November.
The lack of unity within the Democratic Party is a "blessing," Barbour said. But he added: "We have to make sure we capitalise on that.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)