Republicans Can’t Live With Trump, Can’t Live Without Him

Republicans are in a serious bind these days, one that has only been reinforced by Tuesday’s election results.

The Republican base loves Donald Trump. Or at least, what is left of the Republican base does. Republicans desperately need increased turnout from their base to have any hope of holding the House and even the Senate.

And Donald Trump loves being the center of attention. Which means the president is going to put himself front and center in as many swing districts as he can going into November:

On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted that he would campaign more for Senate and House candidates “if I find the time” and predicted a “giant Red Wave!” (He previously told his friend and informal adviser Sean Hannity he would campaign for Republicans “six or seven days a week.” No political operative in either party thinks a Republican wave election is likely or even possible.)

But Trump is also, of course, toxic to voters (especially suburban women) who seem to be abandoning the GOP en masse. He is not only energizing for his own base, his presence is strongly motivating for base Democrats to come out and vote to oppose him.

Which is turn is leaving Republicans scrambling to find new voices and new strategies to help them:

A new round of lackluster showings by Republican candidates reignited a debate Wednesday within the GOP over whether President Trump will be a drag on the party’s chances in November and should stay out of some of the country’s most hotly contested races.

Inside the White House, Trump aides are mapping out plans for the fall that would offer a variety of options to Republican candidates, including visits by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump to blue states and presidential tweets to bolster red-state allies.

But mounting apprehension about Trump’s political capital lingered in Washington and on the campaign trail.

In a flurry of elections on Tuesday — from the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, to the technology corridor in Washington state — Democrats turned out in droves and significantly overperformed expectations by posing serious challenges to Republicans in staunchly GOP districts.

Many Republican strategists viewed the results as a dark omen three months ahead of Election Day, saying they illustrate the limits of Trump’s ability to boost candidates, particularly in suburban areas where the president’s popularity has suffered.

The biggest problem for Republicans here is one that has often frustrated Democrats: Trump sucks up all the oxygen in the political room. He is a black hole of attention from which no light can escape.

Republicans can attempt to localize races where the national party is too conservative for them, but Trump won’t let them. They can try to find different messengers, but Democrats and Trump’s own need for attention and political gravity will ensure that their candidates are tied to Trump’s unpopular anchor.

This is the danger, too, of Trump’s advisers and Fox News promoters allowing him to believe that he is really more popular than he is, that the polls are all wrong, and that the media is simply out to get him. If Trump were smart, he would lay low for a while, motivate his national base through his actions in Washington, and then let local Republican candidates distance themselves from him as needed. But that’s not going to happen. Trump’s craving for attention is too desperate, and his belief in his own powers of persuasion and popularity is too strong.

Even that approach, however, would be fraught with peril. Republican turnout is down, and independents have turned against them. Listen to Republican strategists on cable news, and they hold out hope that Republican turnout in November will be greater than in special elections. There’s little reason to believe that will happen, given that it’s older Republican homeowners who usually dominate in special elections. If anything, it’s likely that Democratic turnout advantages will only increase as we approach November. And no one can motivate the GOP base like Trump.

All of which means that Republicans are now in a bind from which it will be difficult to escape. They can’t win with Trump, but they probably can’t win without him, either.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.