Trump Tremors Go Down Ballot

If Donald Trump’s the nominee and goes down in flames, he’s apt to take a lot of lawmakers with him.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in the atrium of the Old Post Office Pavilion, soon to be a Trump International Hotel, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Washington.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 21, 2016, 8 p.m.

With a contested Republican National Convention as the most likely outcome this unlikely primary season, Republicans are trying to calculate what it would mean to have Donald Trump at the top of their ticket. Polling at this point shows Hillary Clinton trailing John Kasich by an average of 7.4 points, Marco Rubio by four points, and effectively tied with Ted Cruz. But Clinton beats Trump by 6.3 percentage points.  A good case can be made that Trump is possibly the only Republican who can’t beat Clinton.

Consider the effect on GOP Senate and House majorities. A Trump-led ticket would be disorienting for Republicans. Just as the Democratic Party has been trending more liberal since President Bill Clinton left office 15 years ago, the Republican Party has been moving to the right just since President George W. Bush left office just over seven years ago. Not long ago, many conservative Democrats in Congress were further to the right than many liberal Republicans. But that ideological overlap has disappeared. Each of the two parties has become completely ideologically cohesive.  

Given the steadily rightward movement in the GOP, taking a 90-degree turn toward Trump is hard to fathom. Trump-ism is based on anger, which is an emotion, not an ideology. If Trump has an underlying ideology, he’s keeping it to himself. Given conservative complaints that the last two GOP presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were not conservative enough, and similar fights over whether then-House Speaker John Boehner and current Speaker Paul Ryan were sufficiently hard-line, the presence of Trump at the top of the ticket would be a head-scratcher. At a time when ideology is becoming more important, Republicans would be putting their chips on anger. That’s a risky bet.

The Republican Senate majority is tenuous even if the GOP underperforms even a little on Election Day, even without a disruptive candidate at the top of the ticket. With the GOP majority at 54 to 46, Democrats need a four-seat net gain if they hold the White House (the new vice president would break the tie), five seats if they don’t.  

The Senate works on six-year cycles, so this would be the rebound election from the GOP’s banner year of 2010. Twenty-four Republican seats are in play, compared to only 10 for Democrats. More important, Republicans have seven seats being contested in states that President Obama carried in 2012, while there are no Democratic seats up in Romney states. One of those seven GOP-held seats in the Obama states is that of Sen. Chuck Grassley in Iowa, who just drew a credible opponent. But  even if Grassley holds on, Republicans have six seats at risk. Sens. Mark Kirk in Illinois and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin are both in extreme danger. They were able to float with the Republican tide in a midterm election, but now they’re running in a presidential year in very Democratic states. Hard fights loom for Sens. Rob Portman in Ohio, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio’s open seat in Florida. Conversely, there is only one Democratic seat that’s a toss-up—Minority Leader Harry Reid’s open seat in Nevada.

Of these seven competitive Senate races, four are in some of the very closest presidential states—Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Ohio. Loud footsteps upstairs in the presidential race could easily shake the Senate races below. If Republicans were to lose the presidency by a margin wider than McCain’s loss in 2008 and Romney’s defeat in 2012, hanging onto the Senate would be a long shot at best.

The House is no longer particularly sensitive to small-to-moderate shifts in the political winds. Incumbents are protected by natural population patterns—Democratic voters concentrated in urban areas, close-in suburbs, and college towns, and Republicans in small-town, rural America, and outer-ring suburbs—by the political gerrymandering pursued by both parties for generations. Democrats need a 30-seat net gain to capture a House majority, a particularly tall order given the current distribution of seats and the way district lines are drawn.

Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman has written in recent days that it is now possible that the GOP House majority could be in danger. A far more plausible scenario, assuming the GOP presidential ticket is weak, would be a loss of a dozen or more seats for Republicans, cutting their House margin in half. Given the GOP’s difficulty in pushing through legislation even with the largest House majority since 1928, Paul Ryan will have a devil of a time winning votes if he loses this cushion.

All of this is why it is so interesting to see so many congressional Republicans sitting on the sidelines of this potentially pivotal GOP nomination contest. If the hard-core conservatives in the Freedom Caucus members consider Ryan and Boehner squishy moderates, what will they think of Trump, whose ideological roots are so shallow that they don’t even add up to a political philosophy?

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