Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Charlie Cook and David Wasserman, January 26, 2016

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.