Even after a year marked by incompetence and inaction, the GOP Congress is well-placed to defend itself in the midterms.
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Six months ago, Republicans were already worrying their failure to pass any major legislation by Donald Trump's 100th day in office could hurt them in the 2018 midterm elections. They haven't passed any big bills since. Although the GOP is making a big push to score at least one major legislative win—on tax cuts—before the end of the year, it's entirely possible that 2017 will end with Congress having done nothing more than keep the lights on—and it might not even do that.
Such inaction, Republican strategists fear, could leave their base so demoralized and disgusted that it might oust incumbents in the primaries in favor of less electable insurgents, then fail to turn out come election day 2018. The party has long feared losing at least some ground in the House, but there's now talk of losing one or two Senate seats as well—something that seemed all but unthinkable until just a few weeks ago. Some forecasters even seem to think that if the year ends without a Republican achievement, the GOP could lose both chambers of Congress.
This gloom-and-doom vision has Republicans trembling, and their critics salivating. But it may, according to experts I've spoken to, be overblown. Republicans, they say, were almost certainly going to take a drubbing in 2018—even if they'd been productive. But it's not clear legislative failures will cause them extra pain. And the party still has enough advantages built into the electoral map that it could escape lightly chastened, but with both of its majorities intact, regardless.
"There's been too much acceptance," said congressional campaign expert Frances Lee, "in the narrative that failure to pass stuff is the key to understanding the fate of the party going forward."
In recent midterm history, the party that controls the presidency has lost an average of 33 seats in Congress. Losses are a little higher when the president is unpopular, like Trump. But the connection between presidential approval and losses is not solid.
These defeats are usually fueled by the inevitable letdown voters and donors feel when their party doesn't deliver on all its promises, said Lee. Parties also suffer, says public opinion and elections expert Stephen Ansolabehere, when they pass "divisive or unpopular legislation," like this year's Republican healthcare reform bills. Both Ansolabehere and Lee say this means that, even if Republicans can pass a tax bill this year, they'll likely suffer for it rather than gain.
"It's very hard for me to see what they can do on taxes that makes the base grateful," said Lee, as voters likely expect more than practical politics allow. "The best they can probably hope for is grudging respect, and it goes downhill from there." In other words, he said, "The party may be in trouble no matter what it does."
Lee noted that to this day there's no consensus in the GOP or among experts on whether the Democrats, who lost their legislative majorities in the 2010 midterms as backlash for passing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), would have suffered more or less if they'd failed to enact their signature legislation altogether.
Republican strategist Brian Darling maintains the failure to implement Trump's agenda will uniquely suppress his supporters' turnout, while the failure to repeal and replace the ACA will deflate wider conservative enthusiasm. But these voters may have failed to turn out anyway, either because they wouldn't have been happy no matter what, or because, as Darling himself theorizes, Trump voters may be very loyal to him but, like Barack Obama diehards, aren't reliable midterm voters.
The widespread belief that the party will pay extra penalties for failing to achieve its goals is, says Lee, pure speculation.
Even if inaction does tack a little extra sting onto the inevitable backlash the GOP faces next year, Republicans are shielded by ridiculously favorable electoral math. In the Senate, they only have eight seats up for reelection, while the Democrats have 23, or 25 if you count the independents who caucus with them. Ten of those Democrats are in states Trump carried in 2016, while only one Republican seat is in a state Clinton won. Republicans worry the primary victory of Roy Moore in Alabama could signal a Steve Bannon-fueled slew of brutal primaries that will sap their resources, and could leave flawed insurgent candidates to face Democrats. But Lee thinks this is speculation—Moore was well known and popular in Alabama, and it's unclear if Bannon can replicate his success.
Meanwhile the Democrats are having a hard time finding strong candidates to contest the GOP's Senate seats, much less develop messaging that goes beyond "fuck Trump." They also likely have too many races to defend themselves in to devote the time, energy, and resources to seriously contest the GOP's Senate seats. "Democrats are in a great place right now," said Darling, "yet it is reasonable to believe they will snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory." The Republicans probably won't be able to pick up new seats from weak Democrats, as many had hoped earlier in the year. But stasis is hardly punishment for inaction.
Republicans are much more vulnerable in the House than the Senate, especially after the retirement of several swing-state representatives. But while they have less insulation than the Senate, they can also mount a stronger defense of themselves. House Republicans, after all, passed a healthcare bill, so they can also offload responsibility for inactivity on the Senate. They'll almost certainly lose some seats. But they too can likely protect themselves from the severe beating most of the party seems convinced is coming their way.
So yes, the GOP is going to take a nasty hit next year. But it probably would have no matter what happened this year. For all the rhetoric, there's no hard evidence they'll suffer any more for inaction than they would have for getting things done. All they have to do is sit back and take advantage of an easy electoral map. Which is pretty sad for anyone, liberal or conservative, who thinks this miserable Congress should get some comeuppance next year.
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