From time to time I think about the first time I tried the Southern delicacy that is turducken—a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned duck, all inside a deboned turkey. I didn’t like it. As somebody once said, “There is just too much going on there.”
We have a lot going on right now in our politics, and like turducken, it isn’t going down well. The consequences aren't yet clear, but it may not be a feast that Republicans will want to reap.
Most immediately there are the tragic shootings less than 13 hours apart this weekend in El Paso and Dayton. Every time something like this happens, we hear people wonder whether this is the tipping point event on the gun issue, but none to date have actually tipped the balance. How long does that last? What happens if the tide turns on the gun issue? The ratio of urban and suburban voters is growing relative to those in small towns and rural America. Neither group is monolithic on the gun issue, but a shift is definitely taking place.
Then there is the simmering racial tension in this country. Somebody else can decide whether President Trump is a racist or whether he has said things that are racist, but there is no arguing that he has an affinity for pouring gasoline way too close to an open flame. There are those who applaud Trump and have no problem with what he has said and done, but a quite a larger group are equally adamant in their opposition. Most importantly, the group in the middle seem to be growing increasingly uneasy with his words and style and what it seems to be doing to our society. How do they respond next year?
Economic growth slowed down a full percentage point between the first and second quarters of this year, from 3.1 percent to 2.1, the latest sign that business spending and investment is slowing down. On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 767 points, or 3 percent. The U.S. consumer seems to be keeping our economy from slowing down at a much-more rapid pace, but what happens if suddenly they turn pessimistic, slowing down their spending and borrowing?
These are some ominous clouds on the horizon. Add to this mix an extremely unstable world political situation, one in which our adversaries don’t seem to fear us much and our allies are questioning our friendships, and we're left with a combustibility that is far outside the norm.
The behavior of Republicans could be a leading indicator. Like animals that seem to sense when an earthquake is imminent, a disproportionate number of retirements is often a sign that a party is bracing for a bad year. As of Monday afternoon, 11 House Republicans and just three Democrats have announced that they are not seeking reelection. Some have rational explanations. Alabama’s Bradley Byrne and Montana’s Greg Gianforte are running for Senate and governor, respectively. Rob Bishop of Utah has a self-imposed term limit, while Texan Mike Conaway will lose his slot as ranking member of the Agriculture Committee thanks to Republicans’ term-limit rules. Martha Roby of Alabama, Susan Brooks of Indiana, and Paul Mitchell of Michigan just seem to be fed up with what is or isn’t happening on Capitol Hill.
Members of Congress have a pretty good sense of what may be about to happen, and it affects their behavior. Rob Woodall of Georgia, who won with 50.1 percent of the vote last November, would face another difficult race in the suburbs of Atlanta. In Texas, Pete Olson faced a tough race in the suburbs outside Houston that he won last year with just 51.4 percent of the vote, while Will Hurd, after a narrow escape last year with 49.2 percent, has decided not to run again in a district that includes San Antonio and El Paso suburbs. And Monday, Kenny Marchant announced he would not be seeking reelection in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburban district in which he escaped with 50.6 percent last year.
Note that all four are in states in which incumbent Republicans lost reelection in suburban districts last year, Texas has relatively early filing deadlines; thus, decisions need to be made sooner than in many other states.
There is no reason to question Trump’s hold on his base. But the president and his campaign remind me of a football team that only knows one play. They are very, very good at that play, yet it comes with the discomfort, or even animosity, of the other two-thirds of the country.
Even if some GOP members privately wouldn’t shed a tear if Trump lost, they surely must fear the impact on those wearing the same color jersey. The increasing nationalization of elections and the demise of ticket-splitting has resulted in 88 out of 100 senators representing a state carried by their party in the previous presidential election. In the House, 204 out of 235 Democrats (all but 31) and 194 out of 197 Republicans (all but three) hold a seat where their party prevailed in the White House vote last time. In that last presidential election, for the first time in American history, every single Senate race was won by the same party that won that state in the presidential contest. Given this kind of political synchronization, it doesn’t take much to move a bunch of seats one direction or another.
It’s important to remember that there are 455 days between now and the elections on Nov. 3, 2020. There is a very natural tendency to amplify current events and project today’s circumstances on an election well down the road. But bad election years begin at some point. While waves usually arrive in midterm years, it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen again if the bottom falls out under a party. Think what happened in 1964 when Sen. Barry Goldwater dragged 37 House Republicans down with him, or when Democrats dropped 34 House seats and a dozen Senate seats in 1980, as President Carter was battered by Ronald Reagan. In all likelihood, that isn’t what is going to happen, but there is a lot going on out there—and not a lot that should make Republicans feel sanguine about their situation.