OFF TO THE RACES

The Unfolding Republican Nightmare

Once upon a time, the GOP looked to expand its majorities in the House and Senate. But now, dragged down by Trump, the party is scrambling to keep a narrow advantage in both chambers.

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 18, 2017, 8 p.m.

If a Demo­crat had a night­mare a year ago, it might well look like what happened in last Novem­ber’s elec­tions. If a Re­pub­lic­an had a night­mare on the eve of Pres­id­ent Trump’s in­aug­ur­a­tion, it might well look like the last 118 days. After a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign that was, start to fin­ish, the strangest in memory, this has been the strangest trans­ition and first four months of a pres­id­ency that any of us have seen. Re­mem­ber when Jeb Bush was the front-run­ner for the GOP nom­in­a­tion and Hil­lary Clin­ton was go­ing to have a free ride to the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, with the gen­er­al elec­tion shap­ing up as a joust between the two dyn­asties?

The only good news for Re­pub­lic­ans this week is that they don’t have to say a whole lot about Trump’s leg­al situ­ation every day. I asked sev­er­al of the most re­spec­ted Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign con­sult­ants in the busi­ness on Thursday morn­ing, the day after the ap­point­ment of Robert Mueller as spe­cial coun­sel, what they were telling their cli­ents on Cap­it­ol Hill. As one vet­er­an GOP cam­paign con­sult­ant put it, “The Rus­si­an mat­ter is un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion by a re­spec­ted pro­sec­utor, and they shouldn’t com­ment on any mat­ter un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion.” Simple as that.

As a gen­er­al strategy, an­oth­er top GOP ad­viser said, “You need to straddle. There are right-wing­ers in the primary who won’t aban­don Trump and you can’t af­ford to piss too many of them off. So something like this: The Pres­id­ent tweets too much, and as far as the Rus­sia in­vest­ig­a­tion is con­cerned, we don’t know what it will find, but let the chips fall where they may. The tur­moil in the White House is get­ting in the way of some of the good things Trump wants to do, like de­reg­u­la­tion, sim­pli­fy­ing the tax code, lower­ing rates, and re­form­ing Obama­care. We need to re­solve all this as quickly as pos­sible so we can get back to the busi­ness of restor­ing eco­nom­ic growth.”

An­oth­er offered this guid­ance: “Keep your polit­ic­al head on a swiv­el. Go too far in one dir­ec­tion, and you draw a primary chal­lenge. Go too far in the oth­er, and it is harder to sep­ar­ate from Trump if he goes down.” That same con­sult­ant ad­ded, “Con­gress needs to post some suc­cesses.”

How ser­i­ously should a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate take the cur­rent situ­ation? One of the con­sult­ants said, “This is a hor­rible en­vir­on­ment for Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning cam­paigns.” The spe­cial elec­tion on June 20 in Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict, for ex­ample, is very close when it shouldn’t be. “That’s all due to Trump. The pres­id­ent quite lit­er­ally cre­ated Jon Os­soff [the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee], who is oth­er­wise an un­im­press­ive can­did­ate.” For the Re­pub­lic­ans, it’s pretty scary that their can­did­ate, former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del, who has no dir­ect con­nec­tion to Trump or any taint from pri­or con­gres­sion­al ser­vice, is fa­cing such strong head­winds. It is par­tic­u­larly scary for a sit­ting Re­pub­lic­an law­maker who may have cast a con­tro­ver­sial vote or two on health care and has little to show for his party’s ma­jor­ity in the House since 2010 and the Sen­ate since 2014. It’s hard to blame former Pres­id­ent Obama for the lack of le­gis­la­tion ac­tion this year.

One of the biggest chal­lenges for Re­pub­lic­ans these days is that most of the party faith­ful around the coun­try are reas­on­ably sat­is­fied with the way things are go­ing. More than 90 per­cent say that they would vote for Don­ald Trump again, even if they’re dis­ap­poin­ted with what has or hasn’t happened, while Demo­crats are mad­der than hell and in­cred­ibly mo­tiv­ated.

Lower-turnout midterm elec­tions are of­ten dom­in­ated by voters who are angry and look­ing to send a mes­sage. For the mo­ment, the Demo­crats have a big edge in this re­gard. A pos­sible Su­preme Court va­cancy and loom­ing nom­in­a­tion fight could well mo­tiv­ate the Re­pub­lic­an base and get con­ser­vat­ives back in­to the fight, and it’s hard to see Demo­crats more mo­tiv­ated than they already are. But aside from the Su­preme Court, it’s hard to think of an is­sue that would tur­bocharge the GOP base right now. Re­pub­lic­ans are in a deep funk. Many have even stopped watch­ing Fox News.

Midterm elec­tions are rarely dull and of­ten ex­plos­ive, and 2018 doesn’t fig­ure to be an ex­cep­tion. With the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in the House on a knife’s edge, and with the Re­pub­lic­ans look­ing just to hold onto the Sen­ate in­stead of mak­ing the big gains they once hoped for, the stakes couldn’t be much high­er.

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