AUGUST 23: U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday evening he had instructed secretary of state Mike Pompeo to "closely study" land expropriation in South Africa, a talking point of white-supremacists and the far right.
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By Brian Bennett and Abby Vesoulis
August 25, 2018

President Donald Trump’s speech to the GOP party faithful in Columbus, Ohio, Friday night may have been most notable for what he didn’t say.

He didn’t bring up the mounting number of criminal convictions of his close associates. He didn’t hammer — or even mention — the state’s outgoing governor John Kasich, whom he’s feuded with since the 2016 Republican primary. He didn’t even veer too far off script, as he often does in such forums.

Instead, taking the stage at the state GOP’s annual dinner, Trump did his best to boost the mood of the Republicans in the room.

Ohio was a crucial state for Trump in 2016, but one where his policies and style have split the party. His brash persona has chafed some Ohio Republicans and, as the midterms approach, the state represents his central challenge as the leader of the GOP. In the face of the scandals and investigations swirling around him, he needs to keep Republicans motivated and the party’s voter turnout high. Nationally, Trump’s maintained durable support from Republicans, averaging 87% approval from GOP voters, according to Gallup, but the November midterms will be the first test of how that plays out at the ballot box.

Despite Trump’s tumultuous week in Washington — in which his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was convicted of bank and tax fraud, and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations — his base remains fervent, said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University with expertise in political parties and voting behavior.

“The amount of loyalty they have shown so far to Trump has been astounding,” he said, noting it will likely be Ohio’s independent voters who weight the midterm scales one way or the other.

Independents and moderate voters tended to lean towards Trump in 2016. Now, Trump “seems to have lost many of them,” Beck said. “Their votes, and turnout differentials between the partisans, will determine the outcome.”

Jaret Bishop, who owns landscape and real estate companies in Ohio and Florida, came to see Trump speak. Bishop said business has been “excellent” over the past year and he attributes “a lot” of that to Trump. The widening criminal probes surrounding Trump don’t concern Bishop. “They don’t concern at all. That’s his personal life,” Bishop said. “Let him be. Everybody has a black side, a dark side to himself.” In Ohio. Trump has “stirred up” Kasich “quite a bit,” Bishop said. “But so be it. Donald Trump’s our president and we need to respect him.”

Matt Dole, a political consultant in Columbus, predicts a “competitive” midterm election. He believes that Trump’s conservative approach to government has resonated with working-class voters in the state. “With our governor and the president there are disagreements as to style and substance but I think the Republican party is solidly behind” Trump.

The midterms will be a test of “turnout and enthusiasm,” Dole said. In most years in Ohio, Republicans would have an advantage in a midterm year because GOP voters are more likely than Democrats there to vote in Congressional races, Dole said. “The question is whether that advantage holds up because the other side is somewhat motivated.”

“I like Trump, what he does, hate what he says,” said Bill Diffenderffer, a senior lecturer at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Diffenderffer said he came to the dinner with his wife, a passionate Trump supporter. Diffenderffer said he’s a not registered Democrat or Republican and described himself as a foreign policy and economic conservative and a social liberal. “But since the parties don’t let us be that, I refuse to belong to either party,” he said.

Trump came to the stage a few minutes early and received a standing ovation from the attendees who each paid at least $250 to attend the dinner in a large exhibit hall. Earlier in the afternoon, Republican Troy Balderson was named the official winner of Ohio’s District 12 special election, which took place more than two weeks ago, but was initially too close to call. The seat has been filled by a Republican for more than 35 years, and Friday, it was announced that it would stay that way — by a margin of less than 1%.

“A very big congratulations for Troy Balderson,” Trump said as the crowd applauded. Trump also praised Sen. Rob Portman, who notably has shied away from supporting Trump in the past. Portman did not vote for Trump in the 2016 election because of Trump’s comments about groping women caught on the “Access Hollywood” tape, Portman told “Meet the Press” in November of 2016. But Trump praised Portman on Friday, describing him as a “very special, very special person.” Portman greeted Trump at the bottom of the stairs to Air Force One and joined Trump as he and First Lady Melania Trump toured a children’s hospital in Columbus.

“I don’t think I see that blue wave,” Trump told the crowd, referring to the possibility of Democrats gaining congressional seats in the midterms. “In my opinion, there won’t be a blue wave, there will be a red wave.”

Despite all the scandals, Trump’s staff has blocked out an aggressive campaign schedule and used Trump as a bludgeon, slamming any Democrat the GOP fears could come close to winning a coveted seat in the midterms. Richard Cordray was Trump’s latest target Friday night. The President grouped Cordray, a Democrat vying to become Ohio’s next governor, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“He was groomed by Pocahontas,” Trump said, a slur he typically uses to describe Warren. “[Cordray] will destroy your state.”

His condemnation didn’t stop at Democratic candidates, but included the Democratic Party as a whole. “The platform of the Democrat Party is to raise your taxes, increase your regulations, shut down your energy and release violent criminals,” he said.

But Trump also spent time singing praise to GOP hopefuls. At times, he sounded like a motivational speaker trying to harness the power of positive thinking.

“Jim Renacci, you’re going to win,” he said to Renacci in the audience. Renacci is challenging Sen. Sherrod Brown, who was elected to the Senate in 2006. Renacci faces a difficult road ahead. With less than 75 days until the midterms, Brown is ahead by more than 15 points according to three averaged polls. “The people of Ohio have known you for a long time. You’re a champion. You’re a winner.”

Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com.

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