One of the biggest questions this year (and perhaps the next four) is which branch of the GOP is running things in Washington? Is it the White House with its unpredictable and unorthodox priority list? Or is it the GOP-controlled Congress pursuing a more traditional GOP agenda under known rules and procedures?
At this point, it’s pretty clear that the Trump White House is calling the shots. Trump’s first few days in office have been singularly focused on making good on the campaign promises he made on the trail – rescinding TPP, building a border wall and a enacting a travel ban – despite the fact that very few members of his own party supported, promoted or ran on them. In fact, all three run counter to the priorities and positions taken by congressional Republicans during the Obama Administration.
On trade, the Washington Post’s Paul Kane pointed out that less than two years ago 90 percent of House Republicans supported the fast track trade legislation that would allow a vote on TPP. Less than two years later, the White House pulled the U.S. out of that very trade deal. Now take your mind back a loooong four years ago when leading Republicans, including the head of the RNC and now-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, were arguing that the GOP needed to do a better job at showing its compassionate side. The infamous “autopsy” written in the wake of the 2012 campaign, warned of the GOP’s demographic challenges. “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” the RNC authors wrote. Just how well do we think the travel ban and border wall are going to do at helping the GOP’s “inclusion” problem?
Moreover, Trump’s decision to pursue these issues via executive order is a not so subtle jab at the legislative branch.
Given his decision to embark of politically divisive topics – and to do them in a way that has cut out Congress, can Trump count on Congressional Republicans to stick with him? Or, does he risk alienating the folks he’s going to need down the road when the serious legislating begins?
One of the most important gauges for a president’s political health is his job approval rating. According to the most recent Gallup poll, Trump currently sits at 45 percent – the lowest in modern history for a president in his first month in office. Yet, despite his weakness with Democrats and independents, Trump still has his base behind him. The Gallup poll finds that 89 percent of Republicans approve of the job he’s doing. A new Survey Monkey poll finds Trump with an overall approval rating of 48 percent with 50 percent disapproving. But, again, among Republicans he has almost universal approval (92 percent). This strength with the GOP base is critical since most of the GOPers in Congress sit in districts that were carried by Trump.
The most important/vulnerable constituency in Congress is the cross-pressured members – those members who sit in districts won by the opposite party. If the president is super unpopular, these are the first members to bolt. They are also the most vulnerable in a mid-term election.
The good news for Trump is there are few Republicans who sit in districts he didn’t win. As my colleague David Wasserman has outlined, there are just 23 Republicans who sit in CDs carried by Hillary Clinton. Even then, Clinton didn’t exactly run up the score in those 23 districts. She carried just ten of them by more than 50 percent of the vote. In other words, there are very few Republicans who sit in CD’s that went overwhelmingly for the other side.
Compared to the last three presidents in their first term, Trump has about half as many “vulnerable” House members of his own party to worry about. In 1993, during Bill Clinton’s first term, there were 53 Democrats who sat in districts won by Pres. George HW Bush. In 2001, in George W. Bush’s first term, 42 Republicans sat in seats carried by Democrat Al Gore. Barack Obama started his first term in 2009 with forty-nine Democrats in districts won by John McCain.
Dem and GOP House Members in CDs won by Opposite Party's Nominee
|Year/President||Dem House Members in CDs won by GOP nominee||GOP House Members in CD’s won by Dem nominee|
|1993 – Clinton|
|2001 – Bush|
|2009 – Obama|
|2017 – Trump|
However, there are also a lot fewer “persuadable” members of the other party – at least in the House. In 1993 and 2001 there were about as many Democrats sitting in seats won by the Republican presidential nominee as there were Republicans who sat in districts carried by the Democratic nominee. In 2009, there were 15 more Democrats in GOP districts than Republicans who sat in seats carried by Obama. Today, there are just twelve Democrats who sit in House CD’s carried by Trump. In other words, Trump has a shallow pool of potential bipartisan buddies.
In fact, there are fewer members who sit in the wrong district than at this point in a president's first term in the last 24 years.
Congressional Districts Held by Opposite Party
|Year||CD’s Held By “Opposite” Party|
This drop wasn’t caused solely by 2016. Fewer voters splitting their tickets, gerrymandered districts and back-to-back “wave” elections (2006, 2008, 2010) have helped to winnow the number of members who sit in the “wrong” districts. The southern Democrat and coastal Republican were on the endangered species list long before Trump won.
Trump’s unpredictability makes it hard for congressional members to find a comfortable footing. This week, for example, many GOPers, especially those in seats and states carried by Clinton, were clearly uncomfortable with the White House travel ban. Some explicitly distanced themselves from the overall policy, but most were critical of the execution of the policy. Yet, just hours after a rocky weekend, Trump quickly warmed the hearts of wavering conservatives/GOPers with his choice of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. For now, House Republicans seem ready and willing to follow Trump’s lead, with the hope that they will soon get to the issues *they* want to tackle like Obamacare, taxes and the economy. And, as long as the president retains the solid support of the GOP base, there’s little incentive – and much risk – to these members abandoning him.
Cook Political's Ally Flinn and Ashton Barry contributed to this column.