(And Why The GOP Can’t Stop The Bleeding)
While a trifecta of crises looms over him — a deadly virus ravaging the country, damming economic forecasts, and massive civil unrest sweeping the nation, Donald Trump is spiraling. As he descends, a question rises: Will the GOP go with him?
Former VP Joe Biden leads Trump in polling by an average of 9 to 10 points nationally. Trump is behind in every swing state by an average of 6 points. And in states the President should have no problem with at this point, like Georgia and Texas, Biden is now competitive.
The President’s sinking electoral ship appears to be related to his response (or lack thereof) to at least two of these three crises. His handling of the virus is disapproved of by an average of 56% of Americans polled, while 67% believe he had only made racial tensions worse following the murder of George Floyd.
Yet Trump has only dug his heels in on his approach to both. Just days before protecting statues was the theme of his pre-4th-of-July Celebration message, he retweeted a video of a supporter shouting “white power,” then called ‘Black Lives Matter,’ planned to be painted onto NYC’s Fifth Avenue, a ‘symbol of hate.’ Since then, he has criticized NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag while also attacking its only Black American driver.
On the Covid-19 front, the post-reopening resurgence is no longer just a blue state concern as it was in the beginning, with states like New York and Washington getting the hit the hardest. The situation is unraveling in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, where hospital capacity spells disaster.
If GOP strategists are losing sleep, they are right to: Donald Trump is bleeding, and there may be little they can do to stop it. Trump has given little more than an incoherent response to what he’d do with a second term, and inconsistent messaging generally that gives nothing to the national party to unify around.
Anything can happen between now and November, but if the numbers continue this way, Trump is looking at a devastating electoral college defeat.
But what does this mean for the Republican Party writ large? The numbers suggest that alignment with Trump is pulling many Senators with him. Perhaps the numbers are just the product of bad luck in a perfect storm, but there is one number that nearly guarantees they will go down with the ship.
And its been glaring at the party long before 2020.
The Vulnerable Senators Caucus
It was just last summer that of the Republican-held seats considered vulnerable, only three were authentically competitive: Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Martha McSally of Arizona. While Republicans are set to defend more seats than Democrats, only Collins and Gardner are defending seats in states that Clinton won in 2016. Needing a net gain of three if Biden wins the Presidency (Vice Presidents break tie-votes) or four if he doesn’t, capturing the Senate seemed a bleak prospect for Democrats.
But the Vulnerable Senators Caucus (Yes, I coined it and yes, you can use it) has since scaled its membership. Senators Gardner, Collins, and McSally are now joined by Thom Tillis of North Carolina; Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both of Georgia; and Joni Earnst of Iowa, all facing competitive races. In March of this year, Senator Steve Daines of Montana quickly found a cozy spot among them after the popular Montana Governor Steve Bullock joined the race.
A 9th seat, that of retiring Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, is threatened by a polarizing primary candidate- Kris Kobach- that the party’s establishment intends to stop. It’s a prime example of another problem Republicans have: For seats they may not necessarily lose, resources better spent elsewhere are being redirected to places no one was expecting to need shoring up- something the Trump campaign is now dealing with, too. A GOP-aligned PAC is set to spend more than $2 million in ads just to prevent Kobach from winning the primary because his incendiary and divisive nature cost the state its Governorship in 2018. The Kansas Senate seat has been reliably Republican for nearly 90 years, and it is likely to continue to be. But the reactivity of the GOP stands as a testament to just how bad the map has turned against the party.
The Republican Party, however, is without the excuse as to what is happening. Even before George Floyd’s murder; even before Covid-19; even when the economy was stronger; the warning signs have been in front of them the entire time. The signs were there in 2017 when Democrats took state seats in Virginia including the Governorship and they were there in 2018 when Democrats flipped the House of Representatives. The trend continued in several special, gubernatorial, and other statewide elections since, and it was affirmed in 2019 both in how close the Democrat in North Carolina’s 9th came to winning and when Democrats in Virginia kept those seats captured in 2017 while flipping both state chambers.
Republicans are losing what they cannot afford to: The Suburbs.
The Suburban Revolt
After sending Donald Trump to the White House by a reluctant 4-point margin, suburban voters, apparently regretting the decision, backlashed against the Republican Party with an intensity over the last 3 and a half years that makes “trend” an understatement.
Realignment is a better word. Republicans held 69 suburban districts before the 2018 midterms. That November, they lost nearly half of them. And while some suburban men stuck with Trump because of the economy, it was suburban women who drove the exodus.
There are an abundance of reasons for this shift, not least among them that suburban voters have aging parents and are concerned about healthcare. They want to see movement on issues like guns and climate change. They eschew extremism, which appears to be in Joe Biden’s favor this year. Donald Trump would have no doubt had an easier time attacking Senator Sanders, the self-acclaimed socialist, because Biden doesn’t scare these moderate voters. With Biden as his opponent, we already see Trump’s difficulty. At the President’s failed Tulsa rally, his line of attack was not that Biden was a radical leftist, but that he’s a puppet to radical leftists. We can expect to see more of that, but for the record, at least right now, its not working.
Perhaps the GOP sealed their fate with these voters when they decided to repeal Obamacare with no better alternative. Perhaps they sent these voters to the door because of their inaction on guns and the environment. Trump’s divisiveness, race-baiting, and the way he treats others also seems to play a significant factor. But two things are true: While voting for him in 2016 at 49% to Clinton’s 45%, today suburban voters prefer Biden at 60% to 35%.
Electoral math doesn’t lie: If Donald Trump loses these voters, Donald Trump loses the election. If both the trend since 2018 and the current polling for Senate Republicans are any indications, the GOP is bound to him, and they will go with him.
The Tea Leaves Before Donald Trump
But this isn’t new. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira wrote of the “up-for-grabs” nature of the suburbs as far back as November of 2005. In an op-ed in NYT at the time, Teixeria warned that Republicans were misreading their success with exurban voters, a segment of suburbanites. These voters, he notes, might be weary of taxes, but they aren’t “ideologically anti-government.” They are religious, but socially moderate. They are pro-business, but decry corporate abuse.
As Representative Tom Davis, a moderate Republican from northern Virginia, put it last week, the Republican emphasis on cultural issues may be popular with rural voters, but if ‘you play to your rural base, you pay a price,’ namely by alienating voters in suburbs and exurbs.
If Republicans continue to pursue an ideologically anti-government agenda that compromises government services while taking a hard line on social issues, they can have every expectation of shrinking margins among these voters. [Emphasis mine]
Those shrinking margins, Teixeria asserts, could mean for Republicans that:
…they would have to do even better in rural areas, which might lead them to rely even more heavily on cultural wedge issues, which would make them perform even worse in exurban and suburban areas, which would make them well, you get the picture.
Yes, we get the picture. Do we ever.
Donald Trump is the logical conclusion to the Republican Party. He is the short-sighted strategy to polarize base voters at the expense of alienating moderates fully manifest. Republicans chose to polarize demographics without attempting to broaden their appeal. They chose nationalist rhetoric over compassionate conservatism. They chose the Tea Party, the patriarch of modern, radical Republicanism, with little reluctance because it delivered glittering House seats. They created their base, they nurtured it, and they carried it to adolescence.
The Senate GOP has found themselves in that very conundrum, as Trump’s grip on the base has only tightened these last years: Defy, lose the base. Comply, lose everyone else.
The future of the Republican Party in a post-Trump era is still up for debate, but continuing down the road they have been on since the Bush years if not before will only break their power electorally. If Texas continues its trend from the last several years and flips, a scenario now on the table, there will no longer be a Republican pathway to the White House. New coalitions will emerge, but the party as it stands today will not be around to see it.
Electoral math doesn’t lie, and the fate of the Republican Party has been in the numbers the entire time.
With the possibility of losing the Senate now on the horizon and a President who so lacks self-awareness that he cannot counter his instincts even when those instincts spell ruin, the GOP needs an off-ramp. There seems to be only one pathway out of the woods they can bet on: Make the election about something other than Donald Trump.
But it’s a bad bet. Even if Presidential elections were not always about the incumbent, which they are; even if Presidents didn’t always own the crisis, which they do; even if anti-Trump Republican PACs weren’t unleashing their mercenary media skills, which they are and with precision; that pathway is narrow.
After all, if your only pathway out of electoral ruin is to convince Donald Trump to stop making everything about himself… Well, good luck.
This Historic Moment Belongs to Donald Trump
Can the Republican Party get off the ship before its submerged? Only four-months’ time will tell, but after years of folding like lawn chairs and defending or otherwise writing off as “deeply concerning” everything he says and does, their Faustian deal seems to be complete. Covid-19 in the US continues to spread across the country while the death toll pushes skyward. Civil unrest and violence seem far from slowing down.
What is sure to be a dark night in American history belongs to Donald Trump. No less, to those who enabled him and provided cover.
In a powerful speech on the Senate floor, his last in the impeachment of Donald Trump, Representative Adam Schiff laid out a sweeping indictment of the President’s place in history, a clear choice, and a consequence for those sitting before him:
“If you find that the House has proved its case and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history.”
In the openning Act of 2020, the Republican Party was given a clear, and final, way out.
They didn’t take it.