In the afterglow of Donald Trump’s election, it looked as if the incoming president’s abiding popularity with his base would coopt intransigent House conservatives, once and for all. In November, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy predicted a brand-new dynamic for House Republicans, saying “it would be hard” for House Freedom Caucus members to stand up to the new GOP administration. In my postelection interview with Heritage Action chief Michael Needham, the antiestablishment ringleader signaled that his group was eager to work with the Trump administration in order to secure political victories. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s confidence about passing a health care overhaul rested on the assumption that Trump’s support from the base would convince enough Freedom Caucus members to vote for a legislative compromise.
Now, those dreams of Republican unity are shattered. Predictably, swing-district Republicans have kept their distance, thanks to Trump’s sagging approval ratings. Less predictably, a growing number of Senate Republicans are raising questions about the president’s ties to Russia. Most consequentially, the Freedom Caucus members who represent many loyal Trump voters in their districts have openly undermined the leader of their party. Not even the lobbying of a former stalwart member like Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney could persuade any of them to compromise their principles.
The Republican Party is now split into three factions—pragmatists, Trumpian populists, and hard-right maximalists unwilling to make the compromises necessary to govern effectively. As president, Trump could have been the glue holding the party’s warring groups together, by embracing elements of conservative orthodoxy while forcing concessions on other issues important to him. But Trump has little interest in the art of governing; he craves personally-fulfilling political victories. Perhaps if the president had focused more on selling health care reform or better understood the details of the legislation, the conservative members would have felt more pressure to play team ball. Instead, they now hold outsized leverage after scuttling a long-standing party priority.
What’s surprising is that Trump publicly turned on his onetime allies on Twitter. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them… in 2018,” he wrote. Even as many of his supporters were inclined to lay blame for the bill’s failure on Ryan, Trump picked a fight with his base—and he’s losing. His threat to negotiate with Democrats also fell on deaf ears. Several Caucus Group members responded by using his campaign rhetoric against him, arguing the president is sinking in the very swamp he vowed to drain. New national polls show Trump losing a little support from the GOP base, which is a problem given his rock-bottom ratings with persuadable voters. Trump now needs the Freedom Caucus more than it needs him.
This is what happens when a president faces sagging approval ratings, low staff morale, and the shadow of scandal only two months into his administration. When a president can’t even pressure his core supporters, it’s a clear sign that his presidency is shrinking in the public’s eyes.
1. With this month’s Georgia special election looking unexpectedly close, it’s worth setting a marker for the type of seats House Democrats would need to win to have a shot at gaining the majority. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s old district was (until recently) solidly Republican. It’s demographically diverse and more affluent than average. Its Cook Political Report partisan voting index was R+14 before last year’s election; Trump won it by only 2 points in 2016. This is the kind of seat Democrats need to win in 2018.
Other Republicans who represent similar seats: Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, John Culberson of Texas, Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher of California, Peter Roskam of Illinois, and Kevin Yoder of Kansas. These members routinely coast to reelection, but they are running in districts that swung toward Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. If House Democrats can improve their recruiting in these districts—and a Democratic upset in Georgia would be a powerful incentive for their candidates to run—it will be another sign the House is very much in play for 2018.
2. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas announced his Senate candidacy this week, a long-shot bid against Sen. Ted Cruz. Even though Cruz’s popularity is down, it’s hard to see him seriously threatened by a little known Democratic congressman who will need tens of millions of dollars to compete. This, in a cycle when his party will be squarely focused on defending the many red-state Democrats up for reelection—and not eager to invest a fortune on a long-shot race in a safely Republican state.
O’Rourke has forged a low-key profile since upsetting former Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes in a 2012 primary. He’s sworn off consultants for this campaign, represents only a small slice of the Lone Star State (El Paso), and doesn’t have the big-money connections to raise the funds necessary for a statewide race. Texas may be becoming more politically competitive—Trump carried it by only 9 points—but it would take an epic Cruz collapse for Democrats to make the race interesting.