Political Connections

The GOP's Bad Bet on Trump

Ryan, McConnell and their fellow Republicans decided to tie themselves to an unpopular president, and they paid the price in the midterms.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) and House Speaker Paul Ryan listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican lawmaker at the White House on Sept. 5.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Nov. 14, 2018, 8 p.m.

In last week’s election, the bill came due on the defining bet placed by congressional Republicans during the Donald Trump era.

Led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House and Senate Republicans made a strategic decision to lock arms around Trump over the past two years. They resolutely rejected any meaningful oversight of his administration, and worked in harness with the president to pass an agenda aimed almost entirely at the preferences and priorities of voters within the GOP coalition.

In the election, the consequences of that decision became clear. In the 2006, 2010, and 2014 elections, between 82 to 84 percent of voters who disapproved of the president voted against his party’s candidates for the House, according to exit polls. Last week, fully 90 percent of Trump disapprovers said they voted Democratic.

Political strategists in both parties generally consider it easier for senators to establish an independent identity from the president. But attitudes about Trump were a powerful force in those elections too. Exit polls were conducted for 21 Senate races in which a Republican faced a Democrat. Democrats won at least 90 percent of voters who disapproved of Trump in 15 of those 21 contests and 88 or 89 percent in five more. Meanwhile, Republicans carried at least 90 percent of Trump approvers in seven Senate races with exit polls and between 80 to 89 percent in 13 others.

In total, the tightened connection between congressional voting and attitudes about Trump was a bad trade for Republicans because significantly more voters disapproved (54 percent) than approved of him (45 percent) in the national House exit poll.

The exit poll found that just over three-fifths of whites without a college degree approved of Trump’s performance. That helped explain why Democrats made only very modest gains in rural or heavily blue-collar House districts. That support also powered the Republican Senate victories in the preponderantly white and heavily blue-collar Heartland states of Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. The biggest exception to this pattern was two folksy Democrats, Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana.

Conversely, about three-fifths of whites with a four-year college degree or more disapproved of Trump, as did about 70 percent of nonwhites. That gale-force rejection powered the sweeping Democratic gains in white-collar and diverse metropolitan House districts across the country.

The recoil from Trump, though, extended even to many of the metro areas where the GOP had maintained an advantage. Republicans lost House seats in Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Atlanta; Houston; Dallas; Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Kansas; Orange County, California; and possibly Salt Lake City.

Trump in 2016 carried only 13 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, according to data compiled for me by the Pew Research Center. But last week, about half of that already-modest group notably shifted toward Democrats in statewide races. Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs in Arizona, was the largest county that Trump won in 2016; but it provided Democrat Kyrsten Sinema a decisive margin of about 40,000 votes in her Senate victory over Republican Martha McSally. Tarrant County in Texas, which includes Fort Worth, was the second-largest county that Trump carried in 2016; but last week it narrowly backed Democrat Beto O’Rourke over Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Even with the GOP’s net gain in the Senate, these patterns represent a heavy price for the choice congressional leaders made to bind the party to Trump. Ryan, who had been among the most openly skeptical of Trump during 2016, sublimated any private doubts to a posture of public subservience and a policy of legislative cooperation, Now Ryan leaves Washington as the architect of the GOP’s biggest loss of House seats in any election since Watergate.

These reversals don’t mean Trump can’t win in 2020. Midterm elections have not consistently predicted presidential results two years later. But whatever it augurs for Trump’s own chances, the 2018 results underscored how he has truncated the opportunities for congressional Republicans. So long as the party is defined by his racially infused nationalism, it will be a strong competitor in states and House districts dominated by older, blue-collar, and evangelical white voters. But while Trump is defining the party, it also seems guaranteed to struggle in suburban areas and to face growing challenges in diverse Sun Belt states.

Over the past two years, Republicans up and down the ballot could have tried to establish an independent identity from Trump. Instead, led by Ryan and McConnell, they sent voters an unmistakable signal that they would not act in any meaningful way to restrain or even oversee him. In 2018, voters in turn sent Republicans an equally unmistakable signal that their fate is now inextricably bound to the volatile president they have embraced as their leader.

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