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How To Measure Trump’s Performance

Flickr user Gage Skidmore

For Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, these are heady times. Against ex­pect­a­tions, they main­tained con­trol of their ma­jor­ity and are vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed of keep­ing con­trol of the up­per cham­ber after the 2018 midterms, thanks to a fa­vor­able map. With at least 11 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors in their sights—and only one or two Re­pub­lic­ans to de­fend—they have dreams of a su­per­ma­jor­ity.

But the op­tim­ism of the trans­ition peri­od is soon go­ing to col­lide with the real­ity of Trump’s po­lar­iz­ing pres­id­ency. The in­com­ing pres­id­ent is alarm­ingly un­pop­u­lar even be­fore be­ing sworn in, with just 40 per­cent of voters view­ing him fa­vor­ably in two new polls. Midterms tra­di­tion­ally run against the party in power, which would make it easi­er for vul­ner­able Demo­crats to ar­gue that they provide a ne­ces­sary check on his ad­min­is­tra­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans are fa­cing re­newed op­pos­i­tion to re­peal­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law, a messy un­der­tak­ing that is fraught with polit­ic­al risk.

One in­dic­at­or is worth watch­ing closely for a sign of the GOP’s health in the Trump era: Will am­bi­tious House Re­pub­lic­ans, many of whom are in safe seats, look for a pro­mo­tion to the Sen­ate? Will they bet on voters look­ing to re­ward Trump’s first two years with more al­lies in the Sen­ate, or will they hunker down in the House, fear­ing a back­lash against the pres­id­ent? Any back­lash would be fierce, and these mem­bers would stand to bear the brunt of it. But in the red states where Trump won big, up-and-com­ing rep­res­ent­at­ives are apt to run for the Sen­ate whatever the polls say about the pres­id­ent.

“There are three types of [Re­pub­lic­an] con­gress­men: The largest group gets ex­cited to head­line a Rotary break­fast in their dis­trict; the second group, which is a bit smal­ler, want to be on Fox News; and the smal­lest but most im­port­ant group are the ones who want to be a sen­at­or,” said one seni­or GOP strategist. “They may say they love the House, but the real­ity is it’s a lot bet­ter to be a sen­at­or.”

In sev­en of the 11 states where Demo­crats are de­fend­ing Sen­ate seats, GOP rep­res­ent­at­ives would be ob­vi­ous choices to mount chal­lenges. Rep. Kev­in Cramer of North Dakota has already met with Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell to dis­cuss a cam­paign against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. In Wis­con­sin, Rep. Sean Duffy is con­sid­er­ing a bid; he would provide a pop­u­list con­trast to lib­er­al Sen. Tammy Bald­win. Demo­crats are already cir­cu­lat­ing op­pos­i­tion ma­ter­i­al against Rep. Pat Mee­han, con­cerned that the sub­urb­an Phil­adelphia con­gress­man could chal­lenge Sen. Bob Ca­sey. Flush with over $2 mil­lion in her cam­paign ac­count, Rep. Ann Wag­n­er of Mis­souri is as pre­pared as any Re­pub­lic­an to chal­lenge Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill. Her in­ten­tions seemed clear when she stepped down from two House lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions after last year’s elec­tion.

The list of pro­spect­ive re­cruits goes on: Rep. Bar­bara Com­stock, fresh off a hard-fought reelec­tion, would be a com­pel­ling op­pon­ent against Sen. Tim Kaine in Vir­gin­ia. Rep. Evan Jen­kins is one of sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans mulling a chal­lenge to Sen. Joe Manchin, who rep­res­ents West Vir­gin­ia, the most Trump-friendly state in the coun­try. And sev­er­al House Re­pub­lic­ans from In­di­ana are eye­ing a race against Sen. Joe Don­nelly, con­sidered one of the most vul­ner­able Demo­crats.

These mem­bers’ de­cisions will tell us a lot about the emer­ging polit­ic­al land­scape. Re­pub­lic­ans were able to ex­ceed ex­pect­a­tions in 2016 be­cause their co­ali­tion of busi­ness-friendly con­ser­vat­ives and pop­u­list Trump sup­port­ers held. In swing Sen­ate races, the GOP can­did­ates ran ex­cep­tion­ally well in the tra­di­tion­ally friendly sub­urbs while Trump ran up the score in work­ing-class small towns. To the Demo­crats’ dis­may, swing voters didn’t hold con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans re­spons­ible for Trump’s cam­paign be­ha­vi­or. But that dy­nam­ic is bound to change once Trump be­comes pres­id­ent.

Next year, Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers have the be­ne­fit of a fa­vor­able map, but the bur­den of de­fend­ing Trump’s re­cord. Ty­ing red-state Demo­crats to Obama will be tough­er now that he’ll have passed from the scene. Re­peal­ing Obama’s health care law, as pop­u­lar as it sounds in red states, could run afoul with enough work­ing-class whites who could end up los­ing be­ne­fits. Mean­while, Heitkamp and Manchin are strong re­tail politi­cians with a long re­cord of win­ning over voters across the aisle in their small states.

Just look at Montana GOP Rep. Ry­an Zinke, viewed as the lo­gic­al op­pon­ent against Sen. Jon Test­er in 2018. Des­pite per­son­al lob­by­ing from Mc­Con­nell to run for the Sen­ate, he de­cided to ac­cept Trump’s of­fer to be­come sec­ret­ary of the In­teri­or in­stead.

For swing-dis­trict House Re­pub­lic­ans (such as Com­stock and Mee­han), there will also be cross-pres­sures from with­in their party. Their de­par­tures would risk ced­ing their seats to Demo­crats at a time when the House is more ripe for turnover than the Sen­ate. They’d be run­ning in states that have tra­di­tion­ally backed Demo­crats, against in­cum­bents who are per­son­ally pop­u­lar. They’d have to be aw­fully con­fid­ent that the polit­ic­al mood is still against Demo­crats, with Trump in charge.

There’s one way for Re­pub­lic­ans to hedge their bets on Trump’s polit­ic­al im­pact. At a time when politi­cians are viewed so neg­at­ively, maybe the tried-and-tested route from the House to the Sen­ate isn’t the smartest strategy. Run­ning as an out­sider would be the best way to dodge scru­tiny on con­tro­ver­sial votes and the taint from Wash­ing­ton.

After all, such a strategy would be con­sist­ent with Trump’s own cam­paign mes­sage of drain­ing the swamp.

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)

Josh Kraushaar

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly "Against the Grain" column.

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