In the departure of chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, exasperated Republicans see a troublesome Trump trifecta: personnel, policy and political chaos that GOP leaders increasingly fear is turning an already difficult midterm election year disastrous.
Exhibit A in testing how that White House chaos plays at the polls will be the Pennsylvania special election next Tuesday. There, Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone are facing off in a tight race in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.
President Donald Trump carried the district by 20 points just 16 months ago, but Republicans are increasingly suggesting they will lose.
“PA-18 loss coming,” was the morning response of a seasoned GOP hand, a campaign hand with access to the latest data.
It is the data, both cumulative and recent, that have smart Republicans so nervous, almost resigned. The most worrisome, and scathing, White House critiques are private, shared only with the promise of anonymity. But the public comments by House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading elected Republicans also have become more critical, which is a telling sign of the GOP angst.
They get the history: First term midterm elections are almost always bad for the party in power.
And they understood this President’s horrible poll numbers make defying history a giant challenge. So the plan was a disciplined year focused on promoting the 2017 tax cuts and encouraging economic news, and avoiding as much as possible anything that either demoralized the Republican base or invigorated an already energetic and enthusiastic Democratic base.
But the President has consistently refused to go along.
The tariffs and other protectionist measures being debated at the White House are anathema to establishment Republicans and carry the risk of triggering a trade war that hurts Americans when they shop and Republicans in November.
And the timing of the trade tumult and yet another senior White House departure, just as primary season opens, has more and more Republicans using alarmist and despondent tones in their midterm analyses.
The consensus of a half dozen GOP strategists contacted after the Cohn resignation Tuesday was that there would be six to 10 additional retirements of House GOP incumbents if PA-18 goes blue. One of these strategists said he was already aware of “at least four” likely retirements. Keep an eye on the North Carolina and Florida delegations, was the suggestion.
“He is making losing the majority more likely by risking economic growth through higher prices and higher interest rates,” said a Republican player in Washington with three decades of campaign and GOP administration experience. “He is creating the reality for his impeachment by the House. Hill Rs are flabbergasted. And when Rs lose the safe PA seat, panic will become epidemic.”
The Republican establishment, of course, has been wrong about Trump and the wisdom of his political calculations before. But there is near certainty now that 2018 is not 2016, by any stretch, and the attributes and instincts that led to the President’s astounding win are now exacerbating an anti-Trump political environment that puts GOP congressional majorities at risk.
The public numbers are bad enough; both Quinnipiac and Monmouth released new polling Wednesday showing significant Democratic leads when voters are asked how they would vote for Congress if the election were today.
Private data and focus groups make things look as bad or worse, according to several leading GOP strategists.
A trade fight that pits the establishment vs. the “America First” or Breitbart wing divides the party in a midterm cycle where base turnout is essential. Yes, Democrats have plenty of family feuds, too, and have months to squander their early midterm advantage. But to study midterm elections is to learn one undeniable fact: The biggest factor by far is the President’s political standing. Republicans had plenty of family feuds in 2010 and 2014, but anti-Obama sentiment carried the day and took Republicans to their House and Senate majorities, respectively.
Some Republicans say the specifics are less the issue than the constant chaos.
“A busy, professional suburban woman who has to manage a household, a job and more looks at chaos and churning and attacking and is repulsed,” said a GOP pollster involved in several challenging races this year.
Republican leaders have tried to impress upon the President for months that a midterm year is most unlike a presidential year. Their verdict as the first voting in 2018 got underway this week is that he doesn’t understand or doesn’t care.
“His instincts, which worked brilliantly in 2016, are failing him,” said the GOP source with the long mix of campaign and government service.