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House GOP Leaders Step Up Efforts To Stay In The Majority


President Trump has been leaning into the immigration debate in the closing days of the midterm campaign. But a lot of Republicans would have preferred that the president stick to talking about the strong economy and record-low unemployment, especially those House Republicans running in more moderate districts. So House GOP leaders have been stepping in to try to refocus the conversation. Here's NPR's Kelsey Snell.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: It's hardly a secret that House Republicans are campaigning in the face of some pretty powerful headwinds. Democrats have a money advantage. President Trump, also a Republican, is unpopular. And even in a year when the president is popular, the party in charge usually loses an average of 29 seats. So House Republican leaders are on an all-out blitz.

STEVE SCALISE: Once we get re-elected and get this new House majority in place - and it'll be a Republican majority, I'm confident - we need to keep building on the success we have with the economy.

SNELL: That's Steve Scalise. He's the No. 3 Republican in the House, and that's a message that he's been saying a lot lately as he tries to get voters excited to vote Republican. The message is equal parts excitement about the economy and warnings about what Democrats would do if they were in charge. Here is how House Speaker Paul Ryan puts it.


PAUL RYAN: Nancy Pelosi and her clones running for Congress are going hard left. They want to get rid of just controlling our border. They want to have socialized medicine and takeover and bankrupt Medicare. They want to undo all the tax cuts and raise all of our taxes.

SNELL: That's from a recent rally in a battleground district in New Jersey, but the message has been the same across the country. Ryan was just on a 12-state swing to win back some momentum on issues like health care and the economy. GOP leaders have spent the closing weeks of the election trying to fill in the gaps that even Trump himself admits he left.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The only problem is, with the House, there's so many people. I'd like to stop for every one of them, but there's so many people.

SNELL: The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that Democrats and their supporters will spend more than $2.5 billion this cycle. They're working to convince voters that Republicans want to take away their healthcare. Scalise says his party is trying to reframe that message to their advantage.

SCALISE: Something had to be done to fix the broken health care system in our country. And so we took it on.

SNELL: Scalise seems to be fighting a two-front war this campaign. Not only is he trying to keep the majority. He's also widely considered to be running to be the next Republican leader, no matter who wins the election. That's why he recently traveled to nine districts in just two days, spreading a message that sounds pretty familiar.

SCALISE: It's an exciting time. It's only happened because of the work that we've done with the president. And Nancy Pelosi wants to reverse the tax cuts. She wants to make our border less secure. I mean, there's a big difference in this election.

SNELL: Another person up for the top leadership job is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy has largely avoided interviews in recent weeks. Instead, he's spending nearly all of his time raising cash and campaigning. His idea is that you can't become speaker if you lose the House. And amid the frenzied push, leaders are also playing a background role, trying to keep the campaigns on track. Patrick McHenry, another GOP leader, says his last few days before the election are all about tax calls and keeping the candidates calm.

PATRICK MCHENRY: It's just staying in contact with people, following their races, following what - the advertisements, the spending and all the other issues that - they go into big races. It's just time.

SNELL: Most Republicans admit the best-case scenario is keeping the losses to a minimum. And at the core, the goal they're pitching is two more years of moving Trump's agenda. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "FEBRUARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.