If a Democrat had a nightmare a year ago, it might well look like what happened in last November’s elections. If a Republican had a nightmare on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration, it might well look like the last 118 days. After a presidential campaign that was, start to finish, the strangest in memory, this has been the strangest transition and first four months of a presidency that any of us have seen. Remember when Jeb Bush was the front-runner for the GOP nomination and Hillary Clinton was going to have a free ride to the Democratic nomination, with the general election shaping up as a joust between the two dynasties?
The only good news for Republicans this week is that they don’t have to say a whole lot about Trump’s legal situation every day. I asked several of the most respected Republican campaign consultants in the business on Thursday morning, the day after the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, what they were telling their clients on Capitol Hill. As one veteran GOP campaign consultant put it, “The Russian matter is under investigation by a respected prosecutor, and they shouldn’t comment on any matter under investigation.” Simple as that.
As a general strategy, another top GOP adviser said, “You need to straddle. There are right-wingers in the primary who won’t abandon Trump and you can’t afford to piss too many of them off. So something like this: The President tweets too much, and as far as the Russia investigation is concerned, we don’t know what it will find, but let the chips fall where they may. The turmoil in the White House is getting in the way of some of the good things Trump wants to do, like deregulation, simplifying the tax code, lowering rates, and reforming Obamacare. We need to resolve all this as quickly as possible so we can get back to the business of restoring economic growth.”
Another offered this guidance: “Keep your political head on a swivel. Go too far in one direction, and you draw a primary challenge. Go too far in the other, and it is harder to separate from Trump if he goes down.” That same consultant added, “Congress needs to post some successes.”
How seriously should a Republican candidate take the current situation? One of the consultants said, “This is a horrible environment for Republicans running campaigns.” The special election on June 20 in Georgia’s 6th District, for example, is very close when it shouldn’t be. “That’s all due to Trump. The president quite literally created Jon Ossoff [the Democratic nominee], who is otherwise an unimpressive candidate.” For the Republicans, it’s pretty scary that their candidate, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, who has no direct connection to Trump or any taint from prior congressional service, is facing such strong headwinds. It is particularly scary for a sitting Republican lawmaker who may have cast a controversial vote or two on health care and has little to show for his party’s majority in the House since 2010 and the Senate since 2014. It’s hard to blame former President Obama for the lack of legislation action this year.
One of the biggest challenges for Republicans these days is that most of the party faithful around the country are reasonably satisfied with the way things are going. More than 90 percent say that they would vote for Donald Trump again, even if they’re disappointed with what has or hasn’t happened, while Democrats are madder than hell and incredibly motivated.
Lower-turnout midterm elections are often dominated by voters who are angry and looking to send a message. For the moment, the Democrats have a big edge in this regard. A possible Supreme Court vacancy and looming nomination fight could well motivate the Republican base and get conservatives back into the fight, and it’s hard to see Democrats more motivated than they already are. But aside from the Supreme Court, it’s hard to think of an issue that would turbocharge the GOP base right now. Republicans are in a deep funk. Many have even stopped watching Fox News.
Midterm elections are rarely dull and often explosive, and 2018 doesn’t figure to be an exception. With the Republican majority in the House on a knife’s edge, and with the Republicans looking just to hold onto the Senate instead of making the big gains they once hoped for, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.