Does Trump Hurt the GOP in the Midterms?

This is a silly question over a year away from the midterm elections. Yet many are asking it at the conclusion of a round of Congressional special elections highlighted by Karen Handel’s victory over Jon Ossoff in the overhyped and overspent run-off election in Georgia’s sixth district.  And there are many theories; the latest Commentary podcast gamed out seven different scenarios.

The one in which I am most interested, set forth by David Harsanyi (and others), goes something like this:

What if Republican voters who don’t particularly like Donald Trump are also able to compartmentalize their votes? What if they dislike Democrats more than they do the president? What if, rather than being punished for Trump’s unpopularity, local candidates are rewarded for their moderation? This, of course, would be a disaster for Democrats. And Tuesday’s run-off election in Georgia’s sixth district shows that it might be possible.”

Of course, this theory interests me in large part because it tends to confirm many of my biases.  I harp on the fact that down-ballot GOP candidates generally outpolled Trump in 2016, frequently with a different “map” than Trump that relied more on suburban college-educated whites.

Charlie Mahtesian can write about “The GOP’s Suburban Nightmare,” but if you read it closely, he’s writing much more about how poorly Trump did in the ‘burbs, not the Congressional party of Rubio, Toomey, Johnson, etc.  Indeed, in GA-6, Tom Price far outpolled Trump before being tapped to be HHS Secretary.

And as I’ve noted more than once, John Judis — a progenitor of the Emerging Democratic Majority theory — had figured out prior to the 2016 cycle that the GOP was having great success with middle-class voters in the so-called “office economy,” a success not limited to white voters, either.

Moreover, I’ve written quite recently about the nature of the GOP coalition and suggested that conservatives could wind up regaining control of the party from its Trumpier factions.   So naturally, I am interested in the theory that the GOP might do well in 2018 running its traditional GOP candidates in relatively traditional campaigns.

But one of the reasons I set up this blog was to work through my own thinking and challenge my own biases.  And this theory, appealing though it may be, has its weaknesses.

For example, Harsanyi asks:

We already know that an electorate can be happy with a president and dislike his party. Why can’t the reverse be true? Barack Obama, for example, carried healthy approval ratings for the majority of his presidency, yet voters decimated his party over six years. What if there’s a faction of Republican voters who don’t like Trump but still don’t like Obama’s policies?

Obama was less popular than we remember.  Pres. Obama’s job approval numbers went underwater in late June 2010 in remained there through year’s end.  And they were underwater during the entirety of 2014.  Indeed, Obama was also pretty flat for his 2012 election, in which he became the first POTUS since 1944 to receive fewer electoral votes and a lower popular vote percentage in his reelection.

The second part — positing GOPers who don’t like Trump but also don’t like Dems — seems on much firmer ground.  You can hear this theme from people in GA-6.  And it’s why some Dems are grumbling about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who personified more than Ossoff what GOP voters in GA-6 were voting against.

Harsanyi also notes that the midterms, unlike the specials, will feature mostly GOP incumbents, which is one of several structural advantages the GOP will have going into the midterms.  But as Nate Cohn also notes at that link (and Dave Wasserman did on Twitter), the Dems’ over-performance in these special elections ought to have GOP candidates concerned that their margins for error — or victory — may be much smaller with Donald Trump as the face of the party.

I don’t want to place all of that burden on Trump per se.  Just as I caution people not to attribute Trump’s 2016 success entirely to him when there were many other factors helping him, I would caution people not to blame Trump entirely for the fate of the Congressional GOP in 2018.

As Jay Cost has noted: “The moment a party achieves total control of the government is the moment just before power begins to slip through its fingers.”  Historically — and unsurprisingly — voters hold the party in power accountable (even for things not entirely within its control).

Moreover, presidential approval at the time of the midterms seems related to the scale of losses in initial midterms.  Trump’s already low net approval could be deadly if it continues to deteriorate (though the fact that he’s never been really popular argues for less of a fall than other Presidents).

The GOP ought to be preparing for this.  Indeed, it’s why I suspect they will want to make Pelosi (assuming she survives) their boogeywoman, and why they will want to stoke hysteria that a Democratic House would impeach Trump.

But already resorting to the Democrats’ 1998 anti-impeachment playbook — and running against the media — is (like most Trumpian politics) a base strategy.  It does not suggest a party confident of convincing swing voters on the GOP record, should there be one.

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