(reprinted from Santa Fe New Mexican, October 19, 2016)
NOTE: While in Santa Fe for the fall, I will be writing occasional commentaries for the local newspaper on the election and its aftermath, and will post them on DOMEocracy once published.
Predicting election outcomes is a tricky business, but not when a presidential campaign is self-immolating. Here are certain signs of trouble: when the candidate, less than a month from the election, denounces his own party’s leadership, his allies are fleeing like he is the Walking Dead, and the press refers to the campaign as a “murder-suicide mission,” there’s trouble brewing on Election Day.
Even if Hillary Clinton is victorious, she may face a daunting task as President: dealing with a Congress in which Republicans are likely to control the House and will have enough votes in the Senate to obstruct her legislative priorities. Concern about those wishful priorities is why both parties are focusing so much attention on the “down ballot” races for the House and Senate.
As Donald Trump’s campaign spins alarmingly out of control, Republicans confront the unenviable challenge of encouraging voters to support their down ballot candidates even if they disapprove of the presidential nominee. Infuriated by the refusal of Speaker Paul Ryan to campaign for the ticket, Trump has launched unprecedented vitriol at those who are vacillating on, or abandoning, his campaign, tweeting “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary.” As for the House Speaker, Trump tweeted, “I don’t really want his support,” dismissing Ryan as a “weak and ineffective leader” and suggesting an undisclosed “sinister deal” is influencing Ryan. There are still congressional Republicans embracing the Party’s nominee, like Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold who recently admitted he would “consider” withdrawing his support if Trump “said he liked raping women,” but the ranks are getting thinner daily.
The GOP’s internecine warfare is escalating at a rate unprecedented in American presidential politics. Independent conservative campaign funders like the Koch brothers have decided to bypass Trump, pouring money instead into the races of endangered GOP incumbents. Loyal Trump voters are retaliating by threatening to boycott candidates who decline to embrace the top of the ticket. Meanwhile, GOP strategists are appealing to voters who blanche at voting for the Trump-Pence ticket to turn out to vote for other Republican candidates. As one who spent four decades in congressional politics, I know how difficult it is to persuade voters to focus on candidates even when they enthusiastically embrace the top of the ticket; when voters are deeply riven about the nominee, the task of enticing them to focus on the “down ballot” becomes even more formidable.
Few recognize this problem more than Ryan. Like his predecessor John Boehner, Ryan has been unable to persuade about 70 of his most conservative Members to support legislation he favors, depriving him of the 218 Republican votes he needs to pass bills designed by Republicans. Instead, like Boehner, he has had to negotiate with President Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to secure the Democratic votes to make up the deficit. Indeed, virtually every major bill enacted during Boehner’s speakership had been passed with less than a majority composed of House Republicans (the supposed “Hastert Rule”) and with the strong support of Democrats. Ryan has not even tried to move forwarded with complex reforms on immigration, criminal justice and tax policy because of the deep GOP divisions and an unwillingness to be accused of compromising with Democrats.
Republicans may be able to sustain their House majority in 2016, largely because many districts have been drawn to disproportionately favor GOP candidates. But with Trump potentially running more than 10 percentage points behind Clinton in several bellwether states, Ryan may lose as many as 20 seats from the dwindling “moderate” wing of the Party, the only seats to remain marginally competitive despite the best gerrymandering efforts of state legislatures. As a result, in the next Congress, any majority Ryan enjoys will likely be much smaller and include an even larger proportion of irreconcilable conservatives than at present. Ryan would once again have to rely on Democrats to pass essential laws simply to keep the government functioning, and Democrats will continue to insist that the price of their support is keeping bills “clean” of conservative riders, like abolishing Obamacare. Ryan’s inevitable capitulation to that political reality will only outrage the Freedom Caucus further.
Such a likely dynamic is certain to spell continued turbulence for the Republican Party nationally, and renewed headaches for Speaker Ryan who would rather promote his ambitious policy agenda and perhaps pursue a 2020 campaign for the White House. One more reason to keep a close eye on the outcome of the congressional balloting next month.