OFF TO THE RACES

Comey’s Firing Shakes Up Jittery Republicans

GOP candidates were already worried about Trump’s drag on their midterm prospects, and now they have to deal with another mess.

Demonstrators outside the offices of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in San Francisco on Wednesday protesting President Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

It’s time for con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans and their strategists to start pop­ping their blood-pres­sure meds. Even be­fore Pres­id­ent Trump fired FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey, the po­ten­tial for GOP prob­lems in next year’s midterm elec­tions were real. Ob­vi­ously no one knows what will hap­pen in an elec­tion al­most 18 months away. But now is when in­cum­bents start de­cid­ing wheth­er they will run again. From a party per­spect­ive, it’s al­ways easi­er to de­fend an in­cum­bent’s seat than win an open one.

It’s also the time when chal­lengers and open-seat can­did­ates start mak­ing de­cisions. Sev­er­al of the strongest po­ten­tial Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers to vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors ex­pressed con­cerns to me about the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment next year—and that was be­fore Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial dis­missal of Comey.

The Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate is not much in danger be­cause Demo­crats are de­fend­ing 25 seats in 2018, 10 of which are in states that Trump car­ried last year, to just nine for the GOP. Even so, the dif­fer­ence between a level play­ing field for Re­pub­lic­ans and one with stiff head­winds is the dif­fer­ence between gain­ing three to five seats versus just break­ing even or per­haps suf­fer­ing the loss of a seat. So it’s a big deal wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans come out of 2018 with as many as 57 Sen­ate seats, or just stay at 52, or even drop to 51.

But it’s the House that’s on the knife’s edge. Midterm-elec­tion his­tory, com­bined with Trump’s dis­mal job-ap­prov­al rat­ings, already put the House in play. The Comey fir­ing ad­ded to Re­pub­lic­an miser­ies, and but­tressed the Demo­crat­ic Party’s ar­gu­ment that at least one cham­ber of Con­gress should be taken out of Re­pub­lic­an hands in or­der to keep Trump in check. But more than that, the fir­ing is enough to make quite a few Re­pub­lic­ans wince—not a good thing when the mood in the GOP already seemed down­beat. The fir­ing also lif­ted the already high en­thu­si­asm of Demo­crats.

Many polit­ic­al ana­lysts were fo­cused on the spe­cial-elec­tion run­off on June 20 in Geor­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, to fill the seat pre­vi­ously held by Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Tom Price. Han­di­cap­pers were call­ing that con­test a toss-up be­fore the Comey mess.

An earli­er spe­cial elec­tion, on May 25, to re­place In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Ry­an Zinke in Montana’s at-large seat, is in­creas­ingly be­ing seen as an­oth­er ca­nary in the coal mine. While Trump car­ried the Big Sky State by 21 points last year, Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Greg Gi­an­forte was lead­ing Demo­crat Rob Quist by just 8 points, 45 to 37 per­cent, in an in­de­pend­ent sur­vey by Grav­is Mar­ket­ing and by 6 points in a sur­vey by one of the top Demo­crat­ic polling firms, Gar­in-Hart-Yang Re­search. The Grav­is poll was taken in the first week of May, and the Gar­in-Hart-Yang poll was con­duc­ted April 25-27. The Demo­crat­ic poll’s re­spond­ents said they voted for Trump by 22 points, mar­gin­ally bet­ter than the ac­tu­al vote in Montana last year. Among re­spond­ents most in­ter­ested in the race, Gi­an­forte’s lead was just 1 point, 48 to 47 per­cent.

I re­main some­what skep­tic­al about the Demo­crats’ chances in Montana. The path to a Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity is more likely to go through up­scale, urb­an, and sub­urb­an dis­tricts than rur­al dis­tricts with large white pop­u­la­tions. But if the Montana vote is close, it will send tremors through a lot of Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers who may not have felt vul­ner­able.

It is cer­tainly a pres­id­en­tial prerog­at­ive to fire an FBI dir­ect­or, but this is more com­plic­ated than that. My view is that at every point in the FBI’s in­vest­ig­a­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s email use, Comey did what he thought was right. He ac­ted with the best of in­ten­tions, and did what he thought was in the best in­terest of pre­serving the in­teg­rity of his agency, even though in hind­sight these de­cisions turned out to be mis­takes.

His ac­tions in the clos­ing weeks of the cam­paign made the elec­tion al­most ex­clus­ively about Clin­ton and ul­ti­mately helped de­term­ine the out­come of the elec­tion, though there were cer­tainly plenty of oth­er factors that were im­port­ant as well. Ar­gu­ably an FBI or Justice De­part­ment in­spect­or gen­er­al might have re­com­men­ded that Comey be dis­missed, but giv­en the ex­pand­ing nature of the bur­eau’s in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to Rus­sia’s med­dling in last year’s elec­tion, Trump’s fir­ing of Comey was a huge mis­take, both in terms of policy and polit­ics. It was a rash act en­tirely con­sist­ent with the worst fears that many had about a Trump pres­id­ency, and it cer­tainly will not help his party next year.

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