The GOP Will Be the Party of Trumpism Without Trump

In what is probably a coincidence, the New York Times and the Washington Post each ran articles Monday on how the Republican Party is now more firmly than ever the Party of Trump. However, the articles differ from each other in that the Times focuses on the House while the Post focuses on the Senate.

Both chambers will be transformed in the next Congress, and while there is some overlap in the causality, there are also important differences that will become more noticeable over time.  One common factor is that many of Trump’s harshest critics chose to retire. In the Senate, this includes Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.  In the House, we can look at Reps. Charlie Dent and Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

In the House, retirements played a much bigger role. One reason there were so many Republican retirements in the House is that, unlike the Democrats, they have term-limits for their chairmen, and that largely explains why so many (eight) of their committee chairs chose not to seek reelection. But there were two other factors that drove chairmen to retire. One was that savvy political observers could anticipate that there was a good likelihood that the Democrats would take over the chamber, and certainly a better chance of that outcome than in the Senate. Therefore, all House GOP chairmen faced the prospect of losing most of their power irrespective of whether they were term-limited. Another factor was that some of those chairmen, like Darrell Issa of California and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, were personally endangered.

Among the rank-and-file, there were probably a lot of members who opted to retire rather than risk the indignity of electoral defeat, but there were more who ran and were defeated. Unlike in the Senate, those losses in mostly moderate and diverse districts were not offset by wins in more conservative areas. This left a much smaller GOP caucus in the House, but also a caucus that mostly represents constituencies that support President Trump.

Turning to walk into the House chamber to cast one of her final votes this week, [Rep. Ros-Lehtinen] noted that many of her remaining colleagues hail from overwhelmingly conservative districts.

“Where they stand is how they see the world,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said. “And the world is not their congressional district. But that’s who’s left. So they’re all dug in. I don’t expect many changes.”

It stands to reason that politicians will be less inclined to challenge the president if their constituents support him, but Republican lawmakers have the additional problem that the Republican base is sticking with Trump even when their districts are not. This creates fear of a primary challenge of the type that took out Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, but it also creates a disconnect. In one of the biggest upsets of the midterms, the Democrats picked up Sanford’s seat. That was just one of the more extreme examples, but dozens of Republican candidates lost at least in part because they did not convince their constituents that they would serve as a check on the president. The Republicans who remain in the House represent districts that don’t want Trump to be checked.

We can’t really the same thing about the Senate, at least not to the same degree. This is primarily because only a third of the Senate faced the electorate in the midterms, so the sorting there was minimal. It’s also because there are proportionately more safe Republican seats in the House than in the Senate, where constituencies are state-wide. Recent election results in the Senate have sent a mixed message. On the one hand, Democratic senators like Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota were unable to overcome the pro-Trump tilt of their states. On the other hand, that didn’t prevent politicians like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana from winning another term, and the Democrats’ win in a Alabama special election and near-wins in Texas and in a Mississippi run-off showed that it would be foolish to assume that any place is truly safe statewide for a Republican in the Trump era.

As the Post article points out, this has not necessarily been internalized by Senate Republicans.

“This is the president’s party now. It really is. I don’t think you can read it any other way,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is retiring and has frequently voiced concerns about Trump…

…The electoral contours of 2020 are expected to prompt Republican senators to keep relations warm with the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top deputy, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), are up for reelection in states the president is an early favorite to win.

Whichever chamber of Congress you choose to focus on, there’s powerful evidence that can be marshaled to argue that Trump has more support after the GOP’s large midterm electoral losses. There may be some Coriolis effect or centrifugal force at play here that helps explain why the Republicans appear to be circling the drain rather than running for cover. But all of this is going to challenged in the next Congress as the country attempts to deal with the Special Counsel’s conclusions in the Russia probe.

Even prior to Mueller making his big mark and the Democrats taking the helm of the House, there are forces working against Trump. The Republicans know that the midterms revealed weaknesses that will not self-correct and that will grow over time. In California, they have all but been wiped out, including in their former stronghold of Orange County. They are now losing suburban districts not only in Detroit and Chicago but also in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Salt Lake City. Sticking with Trump after Mueller drops his bombs is not going to improve that situation.

In any impeachment process, the House Republicans will be largely irrelevant, although they can do real damage to themselves and to their Senate colleagues if they refuse to take the charges seriously and dig in. If there is a trial in the Senate, the Republicans there will be in a real quandary that will be made much more complicated if they get no cover from their House colleagues.

There will be 53 Republican senators in the next Congress, but I suspect that no more than one or two them (if that) genuinely wants to defend Trump against the charges Mueller will bring, and they don’t want to go into 2020 with Trump as their standard bearer either. If the Trump/Russia conspiracy is proven to the degree that I anticipate and the obstruction case is as compelling as I expect, these won’t be plausibly defensible crimes.

In truth, I very much doubt that the Republican-controlled Senate would have a trial because it would be better for all involved to convince Trump to step down. Where things will get sketchy is if Trump refuses that request and forces the Senate Republicans to take a public stand. He could conceivably be acquitted in those circumstances, even though it’s hard to imagine a super-minority of U.S. Senators voting to let Trump stay in office if the case against him is as solid as I believe it will be.

I’ll save my prediction of what the eventual charges will be for another post, but the midterm results had three major repercussions for a potential impeachment process. They made it harder for Republicans in both the House and Senate to hold the president accountable, and they made it clearer than ever that a party that sticks with him will go down with the ship.

In the end, I can’t see how Trump can overcome having lied about his dealings with Russians, being completely compromised by the Russians, and having committed a plethora of criminal acts varying from witness tampering to obstruction of justice. If any group of people could look at the evidence that is coming and give the president a good bill of health, it’s the modern day GOP.. And that’s why I understand the widespread skepticism that Trump will be removed from office.

I guess we will all know soon, but one way or the other I do not believe that the GOP will remain the Party of Trump for too much longer.

If they won’t get rid of him, the American people will.

Either way, we will find out what it’s like for the GOP to be the party of Trumpism without Trump.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.