AGAINST THE GRAIN

How To Measure Trump’s Performance

Pay close attention to the number of House Republicans looking for promotions to the Senate. If they stay put, it’s a sign the president is losing political clout.

In this Nov. 10, 2016, photo, President-elect Donald Trump, accompanied by his wife Melania, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gestures while walking on Capitol Hill in Washington. Washington’s new power trio consists of a bombastic billionaire, a telegenic policy wonk, and a taciturn political tactician. How well they can get along will help determine what gets done over the next four years, and whether the new president’s agenda founders or succeeds.
AP Photo/Molly Riley
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 17, 2017, 8 p.m.

For Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, these are heady times. Against ex­pect­a­tions, they main­tained con­trol of their ma­jor­ity and are vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed of keep­ing con­trol of the up­per cham­ber after the 2018 midterms, thanks to a fa­vor­able map. With at least 11 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors in their sights—and only one or two Re­pub­lic­ans to de­fend—they have dreams of a su­per­ma­jor­ity.

But the op­tim­ism of the trans­ition peri­od is soon go­ing to col­lide with the real­ity of Trump’s po­lar­iz­ing pres­id­ency. The in­com­ing pres­id­ent is alarm­ingly un­pop­u­lar even be­fore be­ing sworn in, with just 40 per­cent of voters view­ing him fa­vor­ably in two new polls. Midterms tra­di­tion­ally run against the party in power, which would make it easi­er for vul­ner­able Demo­crats to ar­gue that they provide a ne­ces­sary check on his ad­min­is­tra­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans are fa­cing re­newed op­pos­i­tion to re­peal­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law, a messy un­der­tak­ing that is fraught with polit­ic­al risk.

One in­dic­at­or is worth watch­ing closely for a sign of the GOP’s health in the Trump era: Will am­bi­tious House Re­pub­lic­ans, many of whom are in safe seats, look for a pro­mo­tion to the Sen­ate? Will they bet on voters look­ing to re­ward Trump’s first two years with more al­lies in the Sen­ate, or will they hunker down in the House, fear­ing a back­lash against the pres­id­ent? Any back­lash would be fierce, and these mem­bers would stand to bear the brunt of it. But in the red states where Trump won big, up-and-com­ing rep­res­ent­at­ives are apt to run for the Sen­ate whatever the polls say about the pres­id­ent.

“There are three types of [Re­pub­lic­an] con­gress­men: The largest group gets ex­cited to head­line a Rotary break­fast in their dis­trict; the second group, which is a bit smal­ler, want to be on Fox News; and the smal­lest but most im­port­ant group are the ones who want to be a sen­at­or,” said one seni­or GOP strategist. “They may say they love the House, but the real­ity is it’s a lot bet­ter to be a sen­at­or.”

In sev­en of the 11 states where Demo­crats are de­fend­ing Sen­ate seats, GOP rep­res­ent­at­ives would be ob­vi­ous choices to mount chal­lenges. Rep. Kev­in Cramer of North Dakota has already met with Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell to dis­cuss a cam­paign against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. In Wis­con­sin, Rep. Sean Duffy is con­sid­er­ing a bid; he would provide a pop­u­list con­trast to lib­er­al Sen. Tammy Bald­win. Demo­crats are already cir­cu­lat­ing op­pos­i­tion ma­ter­i­al against Rep. Pat Mee­han, con­cerned that the sub­urb­an Phil­adelphia con­gress­man could chal­lenge Sen. Bob Ca­sey. Flush with over $2 mil­lion in her cam­paign ac­count, Rep. Ann Wag­n­er of Mis­souri is as pre­pared as any Re­pub­lic­an to chal­lenge Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill. Her in­ten­tions seemed clear when she stepped down from two House lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions after last year’s elec­tion.

The list of pro­spect­ive re­cruits goes on: Rep. Bar­bara Com­stock, fresh off a hard-fought reelec­tion, would be a com­pel­ling op­pon­ent against Sen. Tim Kaine in Vir­gin­ia. Rep. Evan Jen­kins is one of sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans mulling a chal­lenge to Sen. Joe Manchin, who rep­res­ents West Vir­gin­ia, the most Trump-friendly state in the coun­try. And sev­er­al House Re­pub­lic­ans from In­di­ana are eye­ing a race against Sen. Joe Don­nelly, con­sidered one of the most vul­ner­able Demo­crats.

These mem­bers’ de­cisions will tell us a lot about the emer­ging polit­ic­al land­scape. Re­pub­lic­ans were able to ex­ceed ex­pect­a­tions in 2016 be­cause their co­ali­tion of busi­ness-friendly con­ser­vat­ives and pop­u­list Trump sup­port­ers held. In swing Sen­ate races, the GOP can­did­ates ran ex­cep­tion­ally well in the tra­di­tion­ally friendly sub­urbs while Trump ran up the score in work­ing-class small towns. To the Demo­crats’ dis­may, swing voters didn’t hold con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans re­spons­ible for Trump’s cam­paign be­ha­vi­or. But that dy­nam­ic is bound to change once Trump be­comes pres­id­ent.

Next year, Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers have the be­ne­fit of a fa­vor­able map, but the bur­den of de­fend­ing Trump’s re­cord. Ty­ing red-state Demo­crats to Obama will be tough­er now that he’ll have passed from the scene. Re­peal­ing Obama’s health care law, as pop­u­lar as it sounds in red states, could run afoul with enough work­ing-class whites who could end up los­ing be­ne­fits. Mean­while, Heitkamp and Manchin are strong re­tail politi­cians with a long re­cord of win­ning over voters across the aisle in their small states.

Just look at Montana GOP Rep. Ry­an Zinke, viewed as the lo­gic­al op­pon­ent against Sen. Jon Test­er in 2018. Des­pite per­son­al lob­by­ing from Mc­Con­nell to run for the Sen­ate, he de­cided to ac­cept Trump’s of­fer to be­come sec­ret­ary of the In­teri­or in­stead.

For swing-dis­trict House Re­pub­lic­ans (such as Com­stock and Mee­han), there will also be cross-pres­sures from with­in their party. Their de­par­tures would risk ced­ing their seats to Demo­crats at a time when the House is more ripe for turnover than the Sen­ate. They’d be run­ning in states that have tra­di­tion­ally backed Demo­crats, against in­cum­bents who are per­son­ally pop­u­lar. They’d have to be aw­fully con­fid­ent that the polit­ic­al mood is still against Demo­crats, with Trump in charge.

There’s one way for Re­pub­lic­ans to hedge their bets on Trump’s polit­ic­al im­pact. At a time when politi­cians are viewed so neg­at­ively, maybe the tried-and-tested route from the House to the Sen­ate isn’t the smartest strategy. Run­ning as an out­sider would be the best way to dodge scru­tiny on con­tro­ver­sial votes and the taint from Wash­ing­ton.

After all, such a strategy would be con­sist­ent with Trump’s own cam­paign mes­sage of drain­ing the swamp.

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