Politics & Government

GOP confronts nightmare scenario with Election Day one year out

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. pauses during a news conference at the Republican National Committee Headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Congressional Republicans are desperate to pass tax reform after failing to repeal and replace Obamacare.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. pauses during a news conference at the Republican National Committee Headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Congressional Republicans are desperate to pass tax reform after failing to repeal and replace Obamacare. AP

No Obamacare repeal, no meaningful tax reform, a Republican president who can’t stop attacking his own party and a party that can’t stop fighting itself.

That’s the nightmare scenario for the Republican Party one year out from the congressional elections, as the GOP seeks to defend its House and Senate majorities amid fears that the conservative base could be so demoralized, disillusioned and divided that there is room for a Democratic wave in 2018.

“If the Senate looks like it’s frozen up and incompetent, to the voter, it creates apathy,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “(Donald) Trump attacking his own party equals voter apathy at the polls, while the Democrats are going to be absolutely ginned up the same way we were able to do when (Barack) Obama was president. It’s what Republicans have to be careful of.”

There is still time to land a big-ticket legislative accomplishment, and many Republicans profess bullishness about tax reform—and the ability to campaign on a strong economy. They are playing offense on a Senate map that strongly favors them, and in the House, many GOP candidates in districts that flipped to Hillary Clinton in 2016 are seasoned incumbents. [Read about the Democrats’ nightmare 2018 scenario here.]

And yet, midterms are consistently—often ruthlessly—challenging for the party of the president, which has lost seats in almost every midterm election going back decades. That threatens to be especially true with this president, who has smashed into record-low approval territory as investigations into his team’s connections with Russia begin to yield indictments and one guilty plea so far, giving Democrats more fodder for the argument that Congress should serve as a check on the White House.

Asked to name their biggest worry about next year’s election cycle, top party strategists described the overarching concern that Republican voters stay home because a fractured GOP has little to show for its full control of Washington other than crippling intraparty strife, even as progressives are fired up to take on the party of Donald Trump.

One year out from Election Day 2018, here is a guide to the scenarios that are keeping Republican leaders up at night, according to interviews with a dozen knowledgeable GOP operatives from across the Republican ideological spectrum:

1) Congress doesn’t get anything done

The Republican-controlled Congress has failed repeatedly to make good on the years-long conservative pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare. Now, the pressure is on to deliver on tax reform. Most strategists expressed optimism that Congress would be able to notch some deal that lawmakers could sell as a boon to the economy—and to voters’ wallets—simply because the stakes are so high.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worried. After all, Obamacare repeal was considered a top priority, too—until it fell apart.

“If the election were held today, the Republican base would stay home because they’re upset with congressional Republicans, and the Democratic base would turn out in droves because they want to stop Trump, and it would be losses of historic proportions—if it were held today,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. “Members [of Congress] realize that, which is, in part, why they view tax reform as must-do.”

Henry Barbour, the Republican national committeeman from Mississippi, said there is still time for Congress to follow through on key priorities. But, he added, “the clock is ticking.”

“If we don’t get the big-ticket items done, I worry we lose a lot of our swing voters, and some of our people lose enthusiasm and don’t vote in the numbers they’d vote in if they were excited and felt like we were getting it done,” he said.

Indeed, the concern is not just that base turnout will be depressed if Republicans fail to deliver. Some voters may swing to the other side, said Rob Stutzman, a veteran Republican consultant based in California—a state that is home to a bevy of GOP-held congressional seats that Democrats are targeting.

“I don’t have concerns about Republican voter apathy—I have a concern that Republican voters themselves will turn on Republicans in Congress if they don’t perform,” Stutzman said. “I could see them voting for alternatives, I could see them voting elsewhere on their ballots. It may not be reflected just in turnout. They may be in a mood to actually be part of the firing of [the Republican majority] in some seats.”

Some members of Congress privately say the fate of tax reform will play a role in determining whether potential primary challengers see enough of an opportunity to decide to jump in against incumbents. And a top Republican strategist warned that if tax reform doesn’t happen, there will be “another tranche of retirements that will come down like a hammer.” Already, a number of House members in competitive districts have announced retirement, as have Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

“That’s a fear shared among a lot of Republicans in town, that’s why there’s so much momentum behind tax and a shared sense of urgency,” the party strategist said.

If there’s no follow-through, “incumbents will say, ‘Why should I even do this?’”

2) Trump doesn’t stop attacking fellow Republicans

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is “toxic.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done” on health care. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker is a “lightweight” who “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”

Trump’s broadsides against leaders of his own party over the last several months have some top Republicans fearful of a scenario in which he would essentially abandon the party brand by the midterms, leaving lawmakers to fight for the strongly pro-Trump base without much help from the man himself.

“The biggest concern is that neither the president nor [Breitbart chief] Steve Bannon are aligned with Republicans and may prefer to sabotage the Republican majority so they have a foil to run against in 2020,” said one major Republican donor and bundler. “It hurts fundraising when he blames policy failures on Congress, and it could depress turnout. And in close elections, those can be determinative.”

Certainly, in recent weeks, Trump has made some effort to engage in displays of party unity, making a joint appearance with McConnell, lunching with Senate Republicans to discuss tax reform and offering support to a number of the senators Bannon is seeking to primary. But Trump is unpredictable, and there’s no guarantee he will lay off even his own allies going forward.

“Every time Trump criticizes congressional Republicans, he’s signaling to his voters that they don’t need to vote next year,” Conant said.

3) Primaries tear the GOP apart

In the last several campaign cycles, party leadership was frequently successful in protecting incumbent candidates from hard-right insurgent primary challengers. But Bannon has pledged to boost a panoply of primary challenges, and this time, many of his GOP critics are taking him seriously, given his close ties to Trump and access to conservative donors, including—at least to some extent—the deep-pocketed Mercer family.

There is also no doubt that the same grassroots that elected Trump remains in a sharply anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood, a dynamic on display in this fall’s heated Alabama Senate primary runoff in which the deeply conservative former Alabama Chief Justice, Roy Moore, beat out Sen. Luther Strange, despite support the incumbent received from Trump.

Certainly, party leadership is skeptical of how far Bannon and his allies will get in seeking to shape the primary process, but top strategists are worried more broadly that a divisive primary season will drain resources and undercut Republican enthusiasm in a general-election scenario.

“We could end up spending an outsized amount of time, energy and resources fighting this intraparty battle that has emerged,” said Steven Law, the president and CEO of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, which clashes frequently with Bannon. “Every dollar and every day we spend on that is basically a gift to Chuck Schumer. It diverts our attention from winning these Senate seats that are available to us.”

But conservative activists who support insurgent primary contenders say that fault for the divisiveness fueling these primary challenges sits with incumbent GOP congressional leadership—a belief that makes them no more bullish about prospects for next year.

“They have been given everything,” said conservative strategist Ned Ryun of the GOP majorities. “At some point you can’t say, ‘we’re not the other guy so you should vote for us.’ My concern is, people would stay home because they’re like, ‘Why vote Republicans back in if they’ve done nothing with what we gave them?’”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck