If it’s true that the Republicans are losing their edge with educated white voters over 60, they’re going to suffer a political bloodbath in November bigger than anything most people have given themselves the right to dream about. And there are signs that they’re already moving in triage mode. If they can’t save their majority in the House of Representatives, then the smart thing to do is to divert resources into protecting their majority in the Senate.
There are problems with this strategy, however. People don’t die a little bit or a lot. They either die or they survive. It’s one thing to lose their house majority, but it’s another thing to give up on trying to save it. They could make a bad election night into an historically catastrophic one. This election season is setting up in a counterintuitive way, and I’m not sure the Republicans understand the dynamics yet.
The founding fathers envisioned the Senate as a bulwark against rash populism and extremism, but the midterms right now look like they’ll be the exact opposite of this. The Republicans’ Senate majority hinges on them holding states like Tennessee and Mississippi and taking over seats in states like West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. There are other important contests, like the ones in Nevada, Arizona and Florida, but the battlefield is going to be waged almost entirely on Trump’s turf. If the Republicans somehow have a big night, they do it by winning seats in traditionally Democratic states like Wisconsin and Michigan but, until proven otherwise, those are Trump states now. As a result, Senate Republicans know they can win these elections if they can turn out Trump’s voters but they don’t have confidence that they can win them if they produce too much distance between themselves and the president.
The House is the opposite, for the most part. The evidence is mounting that even heavy Trump districts are at risk provided that they have enough upscale voters. Holding traditional Republicans in line is very important to GOP candidates running in even partially suburban districts. These voters had a long history of opposing the Clinton political dynasty, which proved to be crucial to Trump’s success. He lost a lot of them, but not so many that it doomed him. He will do much worse in these areas the next time around, and the congressional candidates are going to feel the pain before he does. As a result, Republicans running for House seats have much more reason to run to the middle than Republicans running for Senate in places like North Dakota or Tennessee.
It’s never easy or without risk to create separation from a president of your own party, but it’s the best hope for a lot of Republicans. We just witnessed Democrat Conor Lamb win a special election in the Pittsburgh suburbs and exurbs by creating distance from Nancy Pelosi. Sometimes, a show of independence from the party’s national leaders is essential to success.
So, the GOP can’t really have one common strategy that applies to both the Senate and the House. Trump’s made this is even more obvious by starting a trade war with China that threatens corn and soybean farmers. That greatly increases the number of districts where a Democrat can do damage by saddling his opponent with the record and policies of the president.
If the Senate candidates decide to stick to Trump like glue, and the GOP decides to put all their eggs in the Senate basket, then we’re not going to see any daylight between the Republican Party and the president prior to the elections. House candidates will suffer not only from the diversion of resources, but from the lack of cover they get and the lack of message amplification they’ll enjoy.
As triage, it makes some sense. If they want to beat Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia or Joe Donnelly in Indiana, they need to be able to argue that Trump is doing a good job and is being unjustly investigated and criticized. If they show much doubt about these things, their argument could collapse. If they try to hold the House that way, though, it will amount to wishful thinking because the educated voters they’ll need are not impressed with Trump’s performance and want to see him held to account. They can’t hold seats in the Atlanta or Charlotte or Chicago suburbs by insisting that Trump is a victim of fake news and a witch hunt. They’ll need to run their own campaigns based on their own records, and hope that people will hear them out despite their party connection to the president.
So, ironically, we should expect to see more open criticism from House Republican candidates than from Senate Republican candidates. But we also should be prepared to witness a general abandonment of the House in a desperate last ditch effort to save their Senate majority.
If it works, we may see the GOP actually pick up a seat or two in the Senate but lose the House more decisively than most people are ready to predict.