Against the Grain

The Week From Hell for Republicans

While the press is focusing on Trump’s bigoted language and uninformed interviews, his party’s rank and file are raising the white flag.

Rep., Kevin Cramer talks about being one of the first to endorse Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, as Trump meets with some of the 22 delegates from North Dakota to the Republican National Convention in Bismarck, N.D. on May 26, 2016.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 14, 2018, 6 a.m.

It’s been a brutal week for Republicans hoping and praying that President Trump would turn the corner in the new year. A more competent president would be celebrating the healthy state of the American economy, touting the long list of corporations offering more-generous benefits because of his tax bill, and focusing on a bipartisan idea—like infrastructure—to win back support in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Instead, this past week featured the president showcasing an abject ignorance of his own administration’s agenda (on three separate occasions) along with a bigoted rant about immigrants from certain countries that soon leaked to the press and sparked an international firestorm.

But for all the chaotic headlines emanating from the Trump administration, the worst news for Republicans came far from the White House. It stemmed from the actions of self-interested Republican officeholders, who are increasingly distancing themselves from the Trump agenda, deciding to pass up promising campaigns, or leaving Washington altogether.

In politics, actions speak louder than spin. And even as Republicans are hoping their political fortunes will improve with the growing economy, the moves from some of their most important talent suggest things are getting a whole lot worse.

Here’s what happened:

1. Two veteran California Republicans representing districts that Hillary Clinton won abruptly retired. The decisions from Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa to leave Congress make their seats much more likely to flip to the Democratic Party; already, The Cook Political Report has rated both as leaning in their direction. Trump won just 43 percent of the vote in both these districts, even as they voted for Mitt Romney four years earlier. They both fit the profile of diverse, affluent districts that are rapidly moving away from the Republican Party.

Royce, the outgoing Foreign Relations Committee chairman, was a Republican uniquely able to win over a diverse roster of constituents in his majority-minority district. Since first elected in 1992, he always won more than 55 percent of the vote—a streak that was in serious danger if he ran again this year.

Issa’s profile was much more polarizing, and he won reelection last year by the narrowest of margins. But Issa was still a known commodity in the district, and his fortune allowed him to self-finance what’s expected to be an expensive race in Southern California.

When a political wave hits, the first seats to flip are those of retiring members. With three open Republican seats already tilting in the Democratic column, the bar only gets lower for Democrats to retake the House.

2. The GOP’s leading recruit in North Dakota passed up on a Senate bid. It’s safe to conclude that the political environment is lousy for Republicans when they can’t find a top candidate to run in North Dakota—Trump’s second-best state. And that’s where things stand after Rep. Kevin Cramer decided to remain in the House instead of challenging Heidi Heitkamp, one of the most-vulnerable Senate Democrats.

Cramer wasn’t originally the top choice for Republicans, but became the default pick for recruiters after other candidates opted out. As the state’s lone House member, he’s well-known and has comfortably won statewide for the past three elections. He was courted by President Trump to run, and publicly boasted of private polls showing him leading Heitkamp in the race.

That leaves state Sen. Tom Campbell, a farmer, as the only candidate in the race. Republicans are still hoping to find someone with a stronger profile; they have until the April 9 filing deadline to do so.

3. Several of Trump’s closest allies rebelled over the administration’s offshore-drilling plan. Republicans enjoyed ample opportunities to score political points over President Obama’s environmental overreach, from his refusal to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline to an eagerness to impose regulations on energy producers, regardless of the economic cost.

But now it’s the Trump administration’s turn to embrace a policy championed by the base, even as it’s generating fierce pushback from some unlikely sources. Trump’s decision to open up much of the ocean for oil and gas drilling sparked outrage from leading Republicans, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, and outgoing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. One of the most conservative lawmakers in the House, Rep. Mark Sanford (whose district includes Charleston, South Carolina), is a vocal opponent of the move. Several of the most vulnerable districts held by Republicans—particularly in California—are near the coast.

Scott, who is considering a Senate campaign in Florida, managed to convince the administration to give Florida a reprieve from the policy—a move that reeks of political favoritism. His fierce pushback over the drilling plan—in a swing state that backed Trump last year—is as clear a sign that the move is a big political loser for Republicans.

4. A new Quinnipiac poll showed the Democratic lead on the generic ballot up to a whopping 17 points. For much of 2017, Republicans reassured themselves that the favorable maps in the House and Senate would protect them from the worst of a Democratic wave. But that’s assuming that the anti-Trump wave is manageable, placing a bet that the party doesn’t face a double-digit deficit.

Reality check: All the polling suggests that 2018 is shaping up to be a Democratic tsunami, not a mere wave. Even if the Quinnipiac survey is something of an outlier, the overall outlook suggests that even Republicans in many favorable states and districts can’t take anything for granted.

Indeed, these are the numbers that are fueling the historically-high levels of retirements for Republicans and dissuading otherwise-strong candidates to run for Congress this year.

5. Senate Democrats revealed eye-popping fundraising numbers. Money isn’t everything in politics, but the disparity between Democratic- and GOP-candidate fundraising was one of the major political storylines last year. And so far in 2018, the Democratic Senate candidates are releasing fundraising totals commensurate with the supercharged energy that the party base is experiencing in the age of Trump.

Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, one of the most vulnerable Democrats, announced she raised $2.9 million in the latest fundraising quarter, keeping up a breakneck fundraising pace. Ohio Sherrod Brown announced he raised over $2.6 million in the same period. Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin announced she brought in $2.8 million, significantly more than her two Republican opponents.

If Democrats have any chance to win back the Senate, they need to run the table in these Trump-state races. Their senators’ early fundraising performance serves as yet another encouraging sign.

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