The Price of Silence on Trump

If he’s the GOP nominee, the Senate would likely flip and the House would be in play.

Donald Trump talks to reporters at the site of his new hotel project at the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington.
Chet Susslin
March 22, 2016, 8 p.m.

The main goal of the Republican National Committee is to ensure that Republicans get elected to office. So it’s remarkable how immobilized that party leadership has become at the prospect of a hostile takeover by Donald Trump, whose nomination would likely cost Republicans control of the Senate and put the party’s sizable House majority in play.   

That’s the political reality of the moment. The GOP’s rank-and-file is spending more time rationalizing how a Trump nomination wouldn’t be such a political disaster than it is working to prevent a Trump tornado from pulverizing the party’s sizable congressional majorities.  

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is at risk of losing his speakership with Trump at the top of the ticket, merely expressed his respect for GOP primary voters when offered the chance to criticize the GOP front-runner in a recent CNBC interview. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has remained assiduously neutral, pledging to support the GOP nominee no matter who emerges. Republican campaign committees, which often spend resources to undermine unelectable candidates for the Senate and House in primaries, are privately alarmed but publicly silent at the prospect of Trump making life miserable for swing-state senators such as Ohio’s Rob Portman and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

Make no mistake: The preponderance of polling suggests that Trump would lose in a rout against Hillary Clinton. A CBS/New York Times poll this week shows Trump trailing Clinton by 10 points (50-40 percent), even though the Democrat’s own favorability ratings are in dismal territory. Trump is viewed favorably by fewer than one-quarter of voters, even though he’s well-known by nearly everyone. Even if he proves successful in turning out blue-collar voters, surveys show that he turns off around one-quarter of the GOP electorate and will be a mobilizing force for Democrats who have been lukewarm toward Clinton.

Trump’s biggest fans often stay home on Election Day, leaving him “in the uncharted territory of being hated by the most important members of the GOP coalition,” said Republican strategist Brad Todd.

When it comes to Senate and House races, a combination of depressed Republican turnout and an energized Democratic base would make a toxic brew in November. Benefiting from a favorable map, Senate Democrats have recruited solid candidates to run in 12 of 13 targeted GOP seats, only missing out in North Carolina. They even landed a respected lieutenant governor to run against entrenched Sen. Chuck Grassley in Iowa. If there’s a wave election, Democrats won’t just barely take back control of the Senate, but could come close to double-digit gains.

The Missouri race between GOP Sen. Roy Blunt and Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander, an Afghanistan war veteran, will be a key bellwether to see if Trump has negative coattails. In theory, Trump would be a decent fit in red-state Missouri, with its high-concentration of working-class and rural voters. But Blunt is keeping his distance from the presidential race, apparently fearing that any boost he might get from Trump’s turnout would be more than offset by disenchanted St. Louis suburbanites and angry African-American voters in the cities.

In the House, Democrats would need to net 30 seats to win back a majority, but in a wave election, underdogs often prevail. The Cook Political Report rates 31 GOP-held seats as competitive (either as toss-ups or lean Republican). Of those 31 districts, 23 are based in urban or suburban areas where Trump’s brand of populism is unlikely to be a selling point.  

There are two main arguments that Republicans are relying on to persuade themselves that Trump’s nomination wouldn’t be catastrophic. One is that even presidential candidates who lose in landslides don’t usually bring their party down with them. Democrats picked up Senate seats in George McGovern’s and Walter Mondale’s embarrassing elections. And Republicans only lost one Senate seat in Barry Goldwater’s epic 1964 defeat. But the party of all three losing candidates suffered significant House losses, and it’s hard to see in today’s polarized political environment how Trump’s divisive candidacy wouldn’t ripple down-ballot.

Second, some GOP strategists believe that Trump’s ability to attract new voters could give a populist boost to established senators. In Ohio, as the theory goes, the establishment-friendly Portman has already locked down college-educated Republicans and could benefit from Trump’s reorienting of blue-collar voters in the GOP’s corner. But this theory ignores Trump’s damage to the GOP brand, which could make college-educated swing voters less comfortable voting for Portman or any Republican.  

The reality is that Trump’s nomination has the potential to reverse the gains that Republicans have spent the past six years building up—with President Obama out of the picture after 2016. You’d think that party leaders would be raising holy hell to protect their hard-earned gains. Instead, they’re whistling past the graveyard.

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