Republican lawmakers face a big decision: Should they continue to ride with President Trump in hope that his poll numbers improve or abandon him to save themselves in the 2018 elections?
Trump's presidency is off to a rocky start. His job approval rating is flailing below 40 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics national polling average. The White House looks chaotic. The Republican legislative agenda is mired in Congress. The Russia investigation has started heating up with the appointment of a special counsel and ominous headlines every day.
Congressional Republicans publicly criticized Trump's handling of the firing of FBI Director James Comey and are growing impatient with the outrage du jour, though most GOP politicos still request anonymity to discuss the president candidly. "[Y]ou have this White House that is lurching from crisis to crisis, image of disarray," said a Republican pollster. "They can't get their hands around the basic day-to-day agenda."
Next year, all 435 House members and a third of senators are up for re-election. The Senate map favors the Republicans, but the GOP controls just 52 of 100 seats. Its position in the House could be more precarious. Republicans have a 24-seat majority, which includes 23 members representing districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Some of them are already starting to panic.
"Members' actions will depend on their states or districts," said Tim Miller, former spokesman for Jeb Bush's presidential campaign and an anti-Trump super PAC. "While Trump's approval rating is declining nationally, it is still very strong in most of the states where the Senate will be contested (West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, etc.). In certain urban/suburban House districts — Miami, Denver, Northern Virginia-type places — candidates didn't pay a price for opposing him in 2016, and I expect they will [successfully oppose him] again."
"I think we are a long way away from a more expansive distancing given Trump's strength with Republicans, seniors, rural/exurban voters," Miller added.
Another Republican with Capitol Hill ties said, "If you're talking about the scandal of the week, it's a fend-for-yourself situation. But as long as you're focused on the agenda, people want to stick together at this point."
Republican political organizations, such as the National Republican Congressional Committee, are nowhere close to ditching Trump to save the congressional majorities. "First off, the Trump administration has been very helpful to the NRCC," a committee insider told the Washington Examiner. "President Trump keynoted the annual March Dinner and helped raise $30 million for the committee. Vice President Pence has been all over the country for Republican candidates."
"We tell our candidates to make sure they listen to their constituents and fit their districts, but we're stressing that they need to cut out whatever cable news is obsessing over that hour and focus on what the American people truly care about, which is jobs and the economy," the insider said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has also been active in raising money and spending it in special elections. The NRCC has raised at least $10 million for four straight months as of May, and Ryan's super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has worked in recent competitive races.
"[I]t's far too early to make predictions about 2018," said a second national Republican operative. "The stage is just not set yet. Of course, we all acknowledge there are clear challenges staring straight at us right now."
Two things bolster the Republican optimists' case. First, Trump was pronounced dead many times during the campaign, not infrequently by the Republican Party's governing class and political consultants, yet his predicted demise never materialized. Second, Democrats have yet to win any of the special congressional elections that have taken place under Trump, with Republicans winning one in Montana with a candidate who had lost the gubernatorial race last year and was cited for misdemeanor assault against a reporter the night before voters went to the polls.
"You can watch how closely you hug him, but I wouldn't run away from him," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist. "Trump may not be everyone's cup of tea, but he is the cup of tea."
Both House races that have already been decided came in places Trump won handily last year, and the Republicans' margins of victory were narrower than normal. The biggest test lies ahead in the June 20 runoff in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, where Democrat Jon Ossoff is squaring off against Republican Karen Handel.
Ossoff ran nearly 30 points ahead of Handel in the first round of voting in April, coming within 2 points of avoiding a runoff entirely. More importantly, Trump carried the district by only 1.5 points last year, while former Republican Rep. Tom Price, now secretary of Health and Human Services, was winning by 23 — the same margin as Mitt Romney over former President Barack Obama there in 2012.
A Democratic pickup in Georgia could illustrate the fraying of the coalition of rural voters and affluent, suburban voters that delivers victory to Republicans, with Trump perhaps alienating the latter. "The Mitt Romney Republicans are getting weak-kneed," O'Connell said. It would certainly help the Democrats' fundraising and 2018 candidate recruitment.
Another national Republican operative, however, said, "These Montana and Georgia races are meaningless because it's a unique set of circumstances. In Virginia, we have a good candidate who is well funded." The operative noted that this candidate, Ed Gillespie, is trailing both Democratic candidates by double digits.
A divide is emerging between Republicans from safe seats and those from competitive districts. Red state conservatives generally support Trump because their constituents do. "GOP primary voters are very much in Trump's corner even to the point of wondering why Hill GOPers are not backing him up already," said a Republican consultant.
Republicans from swing states or blue districts are readiest to bolt. "Several already broke on healthcare, and I imagine many would over his budget, which isn't really real anyhow," said a consultant advising centrist Republican campaigns. "The big issue will be as the Russia stuff unfolds and what that looks like and how they react.
"Members that could determine the majority have no use for Trump. He's sitting in the 30s in their districts. They've been trying to manage him, but they're fed up. He didn't win their districts, lost them badly. ... Coming off this, doing a crisis a minute with Trump, they have no reason to stick with Trump, and they won't."
The Republican pollster noted, "When it's about Trump, whatever that day-to-day is, and not about issues Americans are concerned about, that's not a good day for the White House, and it's not a good day for the party — and it's not a good day for the country."
Republican donors are split. "There are two types," said a GOP bundler, "a group that thinks rightly or wrongly that there is still something to be had from this administration — a job, ambassadorship, something in it for them — and those that fear the end of the modern Republican Party. Not a middle ground."
Yet there are those who doubt whether Republicans can meaningfully distance themselves from Trump even if they want to. "There's no way in this instance to gain your distance and say you've been against him every step of way on policy," said the consultant, who noted Trump's continued popularity in many heavily Republican districts.
Trump upstages nearly every other Republican in the country, and it is difficult for any politician to differentiate themselves from a president of their own party. Many of the centrist and even slightly conservative Democrats who voted against former President Bill Clinton on taxes or gun control lost their 1994 re-election bids anyway. The same is true of similar Democratic lawmakers who voted against Obamacare, only to lose their seats in 2010 and 2014 after the law passed.
If there is a wave election in favor of Democrats, centrist Republicans who need significant Democratic crossover votes will probably be washed out of their seats. Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays was the only New England Republican to survive the 2006 midterm elections; the longtime centrist finally fell just two years later with Obama on top of the Democrats' ticket.
The only way to survive, some Republicans say, is to band together and, in the words of one GOP strategist, "start getting shit done." Regardless of how they feel about the president, many in this camp maintain that the party must show it can govern. And most Republicans on Capitol Hill are willing to stick with the president as long as the focus is their common agenda.
"These aren't lifetime appointments," O'Connell said. "If you can't get it done now, with a Republican House, Senate and White House, when are you ever going to be able to get it done?" He says Republicans suffer from "paralysis by analysis" but will pay a bigger price if they do nothing.
"The single greatest thing any member can do to get re-elected is produce results to run on," said a Republican operative. "All of the separation in world is not going to make a difference if you accomplish nothing."
"We clearly need some wins — to put points on the board," said a GOP insider, a sports metaphor that came up in many conversations with Republicans. "The key to fixing Trump's image with independents is points have to be on scoreboard," said a Republican consultant. "A tax cut and Obamacare repeal, a perceived strong economy, a better relationship with the world, more muscular with China and ISIS — that's how you fix independents."
"Think through what happened in 2010. Barack Obama decided the economy was fine because he did the stimulus and went off and did healthcare," said the pollster. "And voters said, you're on the wrong topic. That's the real challenge here for Republicans. How do we make this on a daily consistent basis about wages, jobs, the economy?"
Where this consensus breaks down is on whether the leadership needs to come primarily from Congress or the White House. Many Republicans envisioned GOP majorities putting conservative bills on Trump's desk to be signed. Yet from healthcare to tax reform to the debt ceiling, congressional Republicans haven't been able to come together to send legislation Trump's way.
Not everyone thinks it is so simple. "[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell can through force of will get [Supreme Court Justice Neil] Gorsuch done," said a Republican source. "It is going to require the administration to do healthcare or taxes."
"No way Dems would have gotten Obamacare had Obama not been on a stadium tour," the source continued. Trump had a rally planned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the beginning of June, but the event was postponed.
Bad as the headlines often look, many Republicans still have high hopes for what they can accomplish with unified control of the federal government. They are aware this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they still want to seize it by partially repealing and replacing Obamacare, overhauling a tax code that hasn't been reformed in over 30 years and rebuilding the military.
Republicans also know that while the midterm elections are still far away, the time available to implement this ambitious legislative agenda is dwindling. Much will have to be done inside the reconciliation window, a budgetary procedure that will allow them to avoid Democratic filibusters in the Senate. The closer it gets to 2018, the harder it will be to make even their own members take hard votes.
The happy scene of Republicans smiling with Trump on the White House lawn after the partial Obamacare repeal passed the House is a reminder that all it takes is one victory to restore party unity. But there are days when that Republican celebration feels as if it happened a very long time ago.