Rachael Bade of the Washington Post has written the latest iteration of an increasingly familiar analytical theme in American politics: Donald Trump is hurting the Republican Party in the suburbs. There’s really no doubt about this observation, but Bade takes it one step further to argue that this development will prevent the Republicans from retaking the House of Representatives and is leading a lot GOP congresspeople to retire.
On this second point, Bade profiles a few examples, most prominently Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, who are expressly retiring out of frustration or disgust with their own president. While a tiny handful of Republicans have made clear at least obliquely that defending Trump’s behavior is a factor in their retirement, Bade lists out several others who are suspected of being motivated in that way. This leaves an unbalanced impression on the reader, in my opinion, where high principle plays too great a part in explaining why a higher than normal number of GOP officeholders are hanging it up to spend more time with their family. More often, simple distaste for serving in the minority is the driving factor. In other cases, the House Republicans’ self-imposed term limits on leading committees is removing the last compensation for serving in the minority. In still other cases, retirement is driven by polling data that shows a congressperson’s seat is no longer safe in this environment. They’re not willing to risk the indignity of defeat.
Some of these retirements are happening in blood red districts and won’t have any perceptible impact on who controls the House after the 2020 elections. But retirements in competitive seats will indeed make it harder for the Republicans to take away Nancy Pelosi’s gavel. The problem for the Republican Party is that Trump doesn’t have a strategy that fits with any sensible strategy to win the lower chamber.
For Trump, he would like to win as many suburban votes as possible and he will fight for them. But his winning formula can be described in fairly simple terms. He will win if he gains more votes in rural and small-town areas than he loses in the suburbs. The worse he does in the suburbs, the harder his task, but he can already be certain that his suburban performance in 2020 will be inferior to his 2016 performance. For this reason, victory is dependent on making small-town/rural white America vote for him at an even higher rate than 2016. This is why he keeps to themes that racially polarize the electorate and that hit on social, cultural, and economic insecurities people feel in overwhelmingly white communities.
The result is hard to achieve both because he came close to maxing out his support in these areas four years ago and because every vote he wins there is likely to be offset by another lost suburban vote. The strategy doesn’t work for House Republicans because they already own almost every one of these districts, so they don’t gain any benefit simply by carrying them by even larger margins.
However, the strategy can work for Senate seats because those are chosen by a statewide electorate. This is why the GOP won competitive Senate seats in 2016 and 2018 even while losing House seats.
What results is a Senate where the Republicans remain fairly static in their makeup, and a House that becomes a world all of its own. Basic natural selection wiped out Blue Dog Democrats in the 2010-2014 period, and it is now wiping out suburban Republicans. The threat for statewide Republicans running for Senate or governor is that the suburbs will reach a tipping point where the GOP becomes a pariah, much like it already is in major urban centers like New York City and San Francisco. The same problem in reverse happened to the Democratic Party in 2016 and gave us a shocking Trump victory.
Insofar as members of the GOP really are retiring from Congress out of disgust for the president, that is leaving Congress bereft of Republicans who have principled objections to his style and actions. When people say that Trump is molding the party in his own image, this is what they actually mean.