It may be that Republicans can’t win with President Donald Trump, but they also can’t win without him.
That’s the essence of the dilemma facing the GOP leadership as it plots strategy at a time when their congressional majorities appear to be in grave danger. Some observers are already writing off their chances of holding the House of Representatives in November. Others are beginning to think the unthinkable and contemplate the possibility that a once seemingly glorious opportunity to enlarge their Senate majority has become a desperate battle to hold onto it.
Their problem is that the GOP is saddled with the usual problems that afflict a party that controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Added to that is the widespread belief that any chances of an upset victory in the midterm is being swamped by President Trump’s unpopularity and the constant distractions he provides from what ought to be a convincing narrative of economic success and lower taxes.
That’s why many in the Republican leadership have been trying hard to convince Trump to give up Twitter and stick to the scripts provided for him by his staff — advice that the president clearly has no interest in heeding. This explains why some GOP candidates are determined to avoid Trump like the plague in order to avoid the taint associated with his vulgar bullying and the baggage of the Mueller investigation.
The notion that Republicans can successfully navigate 2018 by distancing themselves from Trump seems logical, but it is a mistake. The president may be toxic to most of the electorate, but if the GOP is to have a prayer of holding its own in what is likely to be a blue year, it is going to need Trump. This may be a bitter pill for some mainstream Republicans to swallow, and especially bitter for what remains of the Never Trumpers, but there is no way the conservative base will turn out to vote in anything like the numbers needed to maintain the party’s congressional majorities unless Trump is an active presence on the campaign trail.
Even more to the point, though they would like to avoid discussing Mueller and the various scandals that have attached themselves to the president, the only way to generate a massive Republican turnout may be to directly address the threat of impeachment by congressional Democrats should they win in November.
Whether GOP candidates go all in with Trump or not, the odds in favor of a Democratic wave this year seem to be growing with each passing month.
Most election-rating services, such as that of Real Clear Politics, now say that the battle for the House has decisively tilted in the Democrats’ favor. They contend that any lingering Republican hope is centered on the GOP’s dwindling chances of holding on to the more than two dozen Republican seats rated as tossups.
The 2018 Senate math seems to guarantee Republican gains, with far more Democrats up for reelection (including several in states Trump won by wipeout margins) and only few Republicans. But instead of a cakewalk, the 2018 Senate battle is turning into a nail-biter, with Republican-held seats in Nevada, Tennessee, and Arizona in real jeopardy and golden opportunities for flipping seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia now rated as no better than even.
The problem for Republicans goes deeper than the usual off-year downturn for the party in power. Trump’s low favorability ratings and the nonstop focus of the mainstream media on scandals large and small associated with the president may be about to disprove James Carville’s rule that all elections are decided by “the economy, stupid.”
Trump’s protectionist tariffs have undermined the notion that the economy has been booming since he took office. But the Republicans still have a strong case to make that the administration’s deregulation policies and the tax-cut bill passed by Congress in December have finally turned Barack Obama’s anemic post-recession uptick into a full-scale recovery.
But so long as the conversation is dominated by whatever it is Trump’s critics are alleging, or by what he’s tweeted, it’s hard for Republicans to keep the public focused on economic success. Trump’s mastery of social media no doubt helped propel him to victory, but the same factor inflates the Trump scandals du jour promoted by his opponents into stories that obscure the positive economic narrative. As a result, Republicans are running scared about the possibility of Trump taking to the road to work for GOP candidates.
Nor is it clear that any political magic that Trump might possess can be transferred to House or Senate candidates he favors. As we’ve seen in recent months, in special elections in Pennsylvania and Alabama, Trump campaign appearances, even in places where he is still popular, didn’t wind up helping Republicans win.
Trump still retains the approval of the overwhelming majority of Republicans.
These factors combine to make many Republicans believe that the best course of action is for Trump to be heard and seen as seldom as possible in the coming months. But Trump’s unwillingness to lay low isn’t the only obstacle to such a strategy. It may also be counterproductive.
Democratic turnout will probably exceed the low levels they achieved in past midterms but fall well short of the massive mobilization of minority and young liberal-leaning voters that propelled Barack Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012. That leaves Republicans hoping against hope that they can come close to the massive turnout of the GOP base that created their 2010 and 2014 midterm landslides. Given the dismal approval ratings for Congress and widespread dissatisfaction with the GOP’s performance, that seems a long shot at best.
The only possible way to generate Republican enthusiasm lies with Trump. As unpopular as he remains with most voters, Trump still retains the approval of the overwhelming majority of Republicans. Many of those who backed him in 2016 don’t care much about the Republican party; that see the GOP and the Democrats as equally culpable for the nation’s problems. But their loyalty to Trump is still intense.
For all of the unhappiness with Trump’s unorthodox manner, his deeds over the past 14 months have proved that he is committed to conservative governance.
While that popularity can’t be transferred, the GOP can still tap into it by reminding voters that the one issue at stake in this election isn’t so much about economic or foreign policy but impeachment.
If the Democrats win the House, 2019 will be a year dominated by a debate about impeaching the president, regardless of whether Robert Mueller finds any wrongdoing on his part. The Democratic base wants impeachment whether there are reasonable grounds for it or not. They have no chance of evicting Trump from office, but the resulting furor would derail any hopes of the administration achieving anything in 2019 and 2020. That is no small thing when you consider that for all of the unhappiness with Trump’s unorthodox manner, his deeds over the past 14 months have proved that he is committed to conservative governance.
It’s by no means certain that there is any issue that can generate the kind of Republican turnout in 2018 that will save their congressional majorities. If there is one, it’s likely to be an effort to prevent what most on the right see as an attempted coup aimed at overturning the results of the 2016 election.
For some anti-Trump Republicans, a successful campaign fought primarily to save a president whose behavior they deplore would be as bad as losing and perhaps worse. But if they are going to generate the same kind of voter enthusiasm that helped them win an unlikely victory in 2016, it’s going to have to come from a desire to sustain the president, not a vote of confidence in the GOP as a party. Like it or not, it is now Trump’s party and will be until he leaves office and perhaps even beyond. As much as he is in some ways a millstone hanging around their necks, Trump also provides the only possible path to victory for them.