The wave election in Virginia and elsewhere last week, which buoyed the other broken party -- Democrats -- jolted congressional Republicans running for re-election in 2018. They don’t really know who their voters are anymore and whether there will be enough of them left next year to defend their majority.
As they shoulder Trump’s tweet tantrums and toxic approval ratings in the very districts the GOP needs to keep, watch many of their colleagues retire in frustration, and gird themselves for more bad news from the Russia probe, Republicans are tired of the “winning” they heard so much about last year. Their base still loves Trump and is furious with them for failing to enact his agenda in Congress. Trump loves the blame game and has proven he will pile on. Steve Bannon’s earth-scorching has produced Roy Moore and Democrats now enjoy the kind of significant lead in the generic ballot polling that historically presages a rout. As the kids would say, Republicans are “shook.”
There are some comforting data points to cling to, however: The GOP has powerful structural advantages in the congressional map because of redistricting. The results in Virginia, where a surprising surge of Democratic support gave Ralph Northam a nine-point gubernatorial victory, by no means guarantee that Democrats will turn out to vote in midterm elections they sat out and lost badly in 2010 and 2014. But Republicans should prepare for it, and plan accordingly because some of the results in the Commonwealth were alarming. Northam beat Ed Gillespie among white college-educated women by 16 points. Take note, those are pre-Roy Moore numbers. Also, voters ages 18-44 chose Northam over Gillespie by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Those ages 18-29 chose him by 39 percentage points, and those 31-44 chose him by 24 points. The kids were shook too.
And after uniting behind a repeal of Obamacare for four political cycles, Republicans watched it become a winning issue for Democrats last week. In exit polls, 39 percent of Virginia voters chose health care as a top concern, out-polling all other issues by 22 percentage points.
Alarmed Republicans found an easy answer -- blaming the inaction of the GOP majority on Capitol Hill. And because Trump actually doesn’t lead on policy, that is perfectly fair. Former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli fingered congressional Republicans for the Democrats’ sweep, saying Gillespie was damaged by “the utter failure of the Republicans in Washington to do what they said they’d do.”
Salvation, they all say in unison, can be found in passing tax reform. No one can prove it will produce the growth they’re promising but passing anything, they believe, is better than nothing at all. So far the proposals are fluid, and unpopular in polling, and deficit-funded -- a violation of what were longstanding principles of many Republicans in Congress. Could the “middle-class miracle” Trump promised become “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” by next November? Some openly admit it's not really about what the voters want, it's about their campaign coffers. Rep. Chris Collins admitted it’s all about political donations anyway: “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” Even if they get the money, Republicans should beg donors to come to the polls.
And was it the lame GOP majority or a president two-thirds of the country opposes that helped Northam exceed his statewide margin and win Virginia’s 10th District – represented by Republican Barbara Comstock -- by 13 points? Like the 10th, the competitive districts Republicans must hold nationwide are not comprised of white non-college-educated male voters but higher numbers of non-whites, and higher-income and education-level voters who largely reject Trump. Comstock is one of the most endangered Republicans in the country. She can’t champion Trump and she can’t disown him. “It’s hard to conclude anything other than that Democrats are the current favorite for control of the House in 2018,” David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report said last week.
Like Comstock, most Republicans are hostage to the Trump base, grumbling that standing for what were once their party’s principles is now useless in the face of Trump’s cult of personality. Free trade, a balanced budget, smaller government, a leading role for the United States abroad -- none of it matters. To please roughly 80 percent of current Republican voters, elected officeholders just have to be for Trump.
Former Rep. Tom Davis described a candidate unable to separate from Trump no matter how overt his attempts: “Ed couldn't escape being a proxy for Trump, which killed him.”
According to Trump, however, Gillespie didn’t parrot him enough. “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won four out of four House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!” he tweeted via presidential smartphone from Asia just after the Virginia results were official.
It can’t be good news for Rep. Generic Republican, especially those who cling to Trump, that the lege
A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. She is also host of "No Labels Radio" on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel.