The GOP’s Damage Done

How the Homeland Security stalemate is hurting the Republican brand.

Lafayette Park is seen in front of the White House in Washington, DC, February 17, 2015, following an overnight snow storm. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 2, 2015, 3 p.m.

I confess to feeling terribly conflicted about the impact of last week’s debacle over funding of the Homeland Security Department. There is no question that it was yet another example of Washington appearing dysfunctional and raising questions about what Republicans will be able to do with the House and Senate majorities that they so badly wanted.

Here’s the dilemma: On the one hand, one would be hard-pressed to find a single objective expert on congressional elections who believes there is any realistic chance that Republicans could lose their majority in the House of Representatives in 2016. Indeed, a pretty credible case can be made that the next decent shot Democrats will have would be in 2022, after the next census and redistricting, if then. It is also true that the October 2013 shutdown of the government seemed to have little effect on the 2014 midterm elections, when Republicans picked up 13 seats and reached their highest number of seats in the House since the 1928 election.

In the Senate, Republicans have 24 seats up in 2016, compared with just 10 for Democrats; and seven of the GOP seats up are in Obama states while none of the 10 Democratic seats up are in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012. The threat to the GOP Senate majority would seem great, but the reality is considerably less than the 24-to-10 and 7-to-0 numbers suggest. On a race-by-race basis, it would be a pretty heavy lift for the Democrats to net four seats if they hold the White House or five seats if they don’t. So the immediate threat of calamity to the Republican Party seems minimal.

But I can’t help but think that what happened last week is terribly corrosive of the Republican brand and not something that any thinking Republican would like to see happen. So can something look horrible and yet be politically inconsequential?

The answer might be that just because Republicans aren’t in immediate danger of losing their House majority and that losing their Senate majority is — at the moment — a bit of a stretch, doesn’t mean that they can’t do themselves a lot of damage. Republicans now see the limitations of just having House and Senate majorities without holding the White House as well. What matters is not just a president’s ability to veto, but also the ability to use executive authority and dare the opposition to go to court. Even a president with sub-50 percent job-approval ratings in the last half of a second term has an ability to drive public policy, even if he can’t get anything through Congress. If you are a Republican, if you want to truly affect national public policy, you really need to win the White House.

Arguably the more likely effect of all this could be to make swing voters a bit more leery of giving Republicans unrestrained power. Do the events of the last week make independent and moderate voters any more likely to trust Republicans with all of the levers of power in Washington? While Mitt Romney won the independent vote in 2012 by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent, he lost the 41 percent of voters who self-identified as moderates by a whopping 15 percent, 56 percent to 41 percent. In 2012, 35 percent of the electorate called itself conservative, 25 percent liberal, and the balance was moderate. So did the roughly two-thirds of presidential-election-year voters who do not call themselves conservatives see something last week that would make them more likely to trust Republicans?

Of course, the 2016 presidential election is not this week, this month, or this year. It is 20 months away — a long time for any scar tissue from this event to heal. But that healing requires time and no further injury. Winning back the presidency will not be easy for Republicans, particularly when you consider that Democrats have won 18 states plus the District of Columbia in six consecutive elections, a total of 242 electoral votes — 90 percent of the 270 needed to win.

Conversely, Republicans have won just 13 states with 102 electoral votes six times in a row — only 38 percent of the needed 270. That’s why even GOP members securely ensconced in strongly conservative and Republican states and congressional districts should be concerned about the fallout from this. There is no question that Republican congressional leaders, in the Senate and the House, understand this. It’s the followership that is causing the GOP heartburn.

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