In private conversations with roughly a dozen GOP members of the House over the past two weeks, what’s striking is their struggle to reconcile their own desire to recapture the White House with GOP primary voters’ preferences in their districts. Reactions to grassroots groundswells of support for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, even among members from rural deep-red districts, ranged from puzzlement to palpable panic.
While many Democrats worry that Hillary Clinton is not as strong as expected, they’re not nearly as concerned as Republicans because few of them believe Bernie Sanders actually has any chance of winning the nomination.
Simply put, many Capitol Hill Republicans are genuinely frightened that Trump or Cruz may not only guarantee Clinton the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but could also badly divide the GOP and produce a down-ballot apocalypse.
Also apparent is that many of these officials feel helpless to do anything about the situation. In past years, endorsing a more “mainstream” presidential hopeful might have sent a signal of validation to voters, but now GOP operatives know that throwing their weight behind candidates other than Trump, Cruz, or Carson could backfire.
That’s because of the vast disconnect that’s emerged over the past six years. Most GOP members of Congress realize that their legislative agendas will go nowhere unless they can reclaim the White House. And they know they don’t have the leverage to use a government shutdown to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, or for the Homeland Security Department as a way to invalidate President Obama’s executive order on immigration.
But the base just doesn’t get this. After retaking the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, Republican voters haven’t gotten the payoff they thought would come with control of both chambers. Trump and Cruz have capitalized on a feeling that most GOP leaders in Washington are as complicit as President Obama in not responding to their wishes.
That brings us to the hypothetical question of what would transpire down-ballot if Republican voters end up picking Trump or Cruz. Perhaps those are two separate questions.
Our sense is that given Trump’s deep unpopularity with the larger electorate, he would become his own radioactive island, and GOP candidates in swing states and districts would have no choice but to refuse to endorse him and run for cover. However, it’s possible that Trump is so over-the-top in his antipolitical celebrity and his rejection of party etiquette that voters wouldn’t even draw a connection between him and their local, run-of-the-mill GOP member.
Fewer voters outside the GOP primary electorate have fully-formed opinions of Cruz at this point, but our hunch is that many of the same swing-district Republicans would also need to renounce him to survive. Democrats are eager to define Cruz as a rigid ideologue who has enthusiastically taken positions well outside the mainstream, serving as an architect of the GOP’s 2013 government shutdown and supporting Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’s defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.
Either way, it’s possible the margin of victory in the presidential race in November could be wider than we have seen in a long time. And although the lack of a recent blowout makes it hard to gauge down-ballot Republicans’ odds of keeping their seats, history provides some reassurance.
Since 1960, there have only been three elections in which one candidate prevailed by double digits: Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by 22.6 percent in 1964, Richard Nixon beat George McGovern by 23.2 percent in 1972, and Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by 18.2 percent in 1984. Despite the Democrats’ drubbings in the latter two races, they maintained control of the House and, curiously, even increased their share of the national House vote over the previous presidential cycle. In both 1972 and 1984, a whopping 44 percent of voters split their tickets between the presidential and congressional ballots.
Of course, there has been a dramatic decline in ticket-splitting in the three decades since. Candidates need to work harder than ever before to set themselves apart from their party and presidential nominee. In 2012, just 6 percent of voters split their tickets between their presidential and congressional choices. We have clearly exited the all-politics-is-local era and entered one in which all politics is national. A Trump or Cruz nomination would force many Republican House and Senate candidates to raise extra money to convince voters that they aren’t cut from the same cloth.
However, another evolution of the past half-century benefits House Republicans: There are far fewer competitive districts than in the past, which helps insulate them from a wipeout at the top of the ticket.
Today, the Cook Political Report counts just 33 seats out of 435 as competitive, including 27 held by Republicans and six held by Democrats. That means that even if Democrats swept every single competitive seat, they would still fall three seats short of a majority. It’s possible the specter of Trump or Cruz could aid Democratic recruitment and put more seats into play, but filing deadlines have already passed in several key states like Illinois and Ohio. It’s a much different story in the Senate, which is in play to begin with and would be at far greater risk of falling to Democrats if Trump or Cruz were the nominee.
While congressional Republicans understandably live in fear of their party self-destructing at the presidential level, it’s still too early for Democrats to crow about the prospect of a GOP down-ballot apocalypse.