The defeat of the Republicans’ health care overhaul was a painful reminder that the GOP remains badly divided, even on an issue that was the rallying cry for the party for the past seven years. Republicans, with control of the White House and Congress, look embarrassingly incapable of governing. The political consequences are severe: GOP voters are likely to be demoralized in the run-up to next year’s midterm elections, especially if President Trump is unable to achieve any other legislative victories. This, at a time when Democratic political engagement is surging—fueled by their off-the-charts animosity towards Trump.
Democrats now have a realistic shot at retaking the House in 2018. Each of the past three midterm elections have swung wildly against the party in power—reflective of the longstanding dissatisfaction of voters towards political leadership, no matter who’s in charge. Trump’s job approval rating is hovering around 40 percent, a toxic level for the dozens of Republicans running for reelection in swing districts. Republicans would be foolish to assume that President Obama’s coalition of millennials and nonwhite voters—many of whom stayed home in past midterm elections—remains disengaged given their aversion to Trump.
Politically speaking, the health care bill couldn’t have been more damaging for Republicans. In a disciplined Congress, safe-seat Republicans would be more willing to take risky votes so those in competitive seats could maintain some independence from the party. But this time, hard-line conservatives in the Freedom Caucus declared their unstinting opposition early on, forcing some vulnerable Republicans to go on record in support of the unpopular legislation—which didn’t even come to a vote. Adding insult to injury, Trump bragged on Twitter that the health care exchanges would collapse as a result of his inaction—the worst possible message to send to anyone who viewed Trump as a can-do executive.
The end result is the worst of all worlds: a party that can’t get things done, a president with declining job-approval numbers, swing-district members flushed out, and the base disillusioned.
“The midterm elections are all about who shows up. Democrats are already upset and angry; you’re already seeing this dynamic at the protests and town halls. Now the Republican base becomes dispirited after this,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who twice chaired the GOP’s House campaign committee. “You might be able to hold the House with just your base, but this is bad.”
There are already signs that Trump’s sagging approval rating is raising the possibility of a stunning upset in an upcoming congressional election in suburban Atlanta. The race, to fill the vacant seat held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, couldn’t be more relevant to the health care debate. One public poll shows the Democratic front-runner, Jon Ossoff, narrowly leading several of his GOP opponents in a runoff—this in a conservative district that has elected Republicans to Congress for over four decades. Fearing an embarrassing defeat, the party’s leading House super PAC is spending over $2 million on attack ads connecting Ossoff with Nancy Pelosi.
Of the 36 at-risk House Republicans, according to The Cook Political Report’s ratings, 28 represent urban or suburban districts where Trump isn’t particularly popular. In last year’s election, most of these GOP representatives significantly outperformed Trump as voters distinguished between the presidential nominee and the record of their own member of Congress. But with Trump as president, that distinction is harder to make.
There aren’t any obvious paths forward for Republicans. The Trump administration’s decision to focus first on base-ginning moves such as Obamacare repeal, proposed spending cuts, and immigration crackdowns have made it nearly impossible for Republicans to work with Democrats on any issue with bipartisan appeal, like infrastructure spending. Tax reform is far more politically complicated than health care, and intraparty splits are already emerging over a border-adjustment tax that Speaker Paul Ryan has championed. Trump’s disengagement from the details of policy, as demonstrated in his health care salesmanship, won’t make it easier to paper over internal divisions.
Democrats need to net 24 seats to win back the House majority, which sounds a lot more imposing than it actually is. As political analyst Nathan Gonzales noted in a recent column, the president’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterms, with an average loss of 33 seats in those 18 losing cycles. Two of the most important big-picture factors—presidential approval and partisan enthusiasm—are now pointing against the GOP.
Under normal circumstances, Republicans would experience some early governing successes and rally behind their president. With Trump, Republicans have come up empty-handed so far. We’re more than a year away from the next big elections, but there are already signs that a Category 5 hurricane is building.