Will Trump Lead Republicans Into Little Big Horn?

If history is any guide, his dismal approval readings threaten a bloodbath in the midterms.

President Trump listens as first lady Melania Trump introduces him during an event to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

Having lived, gone to college, and worked in Washington for 45 years, I thought I had seen pretty much everything. That is until 2015, and Donald Trump’s appearance on the national political stage. The presidential campaign featured so many developments that had never occurred before that words like unique and unprecedented seemed inadequate. Since he’s been in the White House, we’ve routinely seen behavior that we politely call “unpresidential.” We’ve become almost numbed to surprise, or maybe we’re surprised that we’re no longer surprised.

But the laws of political gravity that last year seemed to have been repealed, or at least suspended, now seem to apply again. During the campaign, Trump said and did things that would have ended the careers of other politicians, yet he won the GOP nomination and ultimately the presidency. This year, though, those laws are back in force.

Trump has averaged a 39 percent Gallup job-approval rating, and last week (Oct. 16-22) it stood at 36 percent. The Fox News poll released this week put his approval rating at 38 percent. These numbers pretty much reflect the consensus of poll readings. The RealClearPolitics average shows that 39 percent approve of Trump and 56 percent disapprove; the HuffPost Pollster reports that 38 percent approve and 57 percent disapprove.

These are the worst job-approval ratings of any newly elected president since comparable polling began during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Until now, the lowest approval ratings at this point were recorded by Bill Clinton (48 percent in Gallup) and Barack Obama (53 percent).

The consequences of their low standing were devastating. In the 1994 midterms. Democrats lost 54 seats and their majority in the House for the first time in 40 years, as well as eight Senate seats and a majority in that chamber. In the 2010 midterms, Obama’s Democrats lost 63 seats and the majority in the House, along with six Senate seats.

Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter both had 55 percent approval ratings in October of their first year in office. In 1982, Reagan’s Republicans lost 26 seats in the House and broke even in the Senate after winning four races by microscopic margins. In 1978, Carter’s Democrats lost 15 seats in the House and three in the Senate. Imagine going into the midterms with a president with a 38 percent approval rating. That’s what George W. Bush had in 2006, and his Republicans lost 30 House and six Senate seats.

What should concern Republicans now is that Trump’s dismal approval ratings are propped up by see-no-evil Republicans. In the Gallup soundings last week, Trump got the approval of 80 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of independents, and 8 percent of Democrats. Trump’s GOP numbers have only fluctuated 3 points, between 79 and 82 percent, since late July. Given the increased divisions in the Republican Party and disappointment over not getting anything done, the big question is whether either Trump’s base or the more establishment wing of the party, or both, will turn out in sufficient numbers to prevent a midterm bloodbath.

People who argue that Trump has his own brand distinct from the GOP’s should check out the new Fox News poll. It shows Democrats with a 15-point lead on a generic congressional ballot, 50 to 35 percent. For those preferring averages (I think averages are worth watching but believe they include some unreliable polls), the HuffPost Pollster gives the Democrats a 6.4-point advantage, 41.7 to 35.3 percent, while RealClearPolitics shows a 10.5-point Democratic edge, 46 to 35.5. The Republican House majority could survive a 6-point deficit in the national popular vote (which is what the generic vote tries to replicate), but a 10-point shortfall would probably not be enough and a 15-point deficit would probably mean a bloodbath.

Republican hopes of holding onto a House majority and scoring any Senate gains depend on passing major tax reform or tax cuts. GOP lawmakers are clinging to a tax bill like Titanic passengers clutching life preservers. I think if the Republicans get any bill through it will likely be relatively modest, and then they’ll face the challenge of persuading voters that it is actually huuuge. The chances of crafting legislation that pays for it are close to nil. So much for fiscal responsibility, but Republicans are riding the old saw that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Their desperation is so great that ideas that make no political sense are being seriously considered. Trump intervened to stop reducing contributions to 401(k) retirement plans, effectively saving Republicans from themselves since the party’s base skews decidedly older and is rushing to put money away for retirement.

Searching for something positive to offer Republicans in this column, I can only point to Sen. Jeff Flake’s retirement this week, a case of good news wrapped in bad news: It actually might increase his party’s chances of holding onto his Arizona seat.

It was becoming increasingly apparent that Flake’s book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, which was sharply critical of Trump, was a 160-page political suicide note. He was almost certain to lose the primary to former state Sen. Kelli Ward, an exotically far-right candidate favored by Trump. Flake’s departure clears the way for the establishment to come up with a less controversial and more electable alternative. But if that candidate is Rep. Martha McSally, it would create an opportunity for Democrats in her district. The Republicans, it seems, can’t win for losing.

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