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Republicans Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Both supporting Trump and dumping him look like losing propositions for Republicans.

As the impeachment inquiry heats up, congressional Republicans are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place in terms of whether to stand by the president or to cross over support his impeachment and removal. With the public sharply divided on impeachment, there are electoral pitfalls for Republicans that associated with either choice.

While the polling shows that a slight majority favors Trump’s impeachment, Republicans still overwhelmingly support the president. The conundrum for Republicans is similar to that of 2018 when they needed to be staunchly pro-Trump to win their primaries but then faced an electorate in the general election that was sour on the president.

On one side is the rock-hard support that Republican primary voters have for Donald Trump. If Republican officeholders abandon Trump and vote for impeachment, then they will likely find themselves in the shoes of Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican congressman who recently said that he was “still thinking about” whether the president had committed an impeachable offense. The day after he made that comment, Rooney announced his retirement.

On the other hand, the hard place represents an electoral disaster in 2020 as moderates are driven from the GOP. A number of polls over the past few months have shown that more than half of the voting public say that they will not vote for Donald Trump. If this Never Trump contingent actually turns out next year, its coattails may sweep more Republicans out of Congress. More recent revelations show that the GOP hold on the Senate may be in danger as seats previously thought safe in Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina suddenly look vulnerable.

Many Republicans fail to appreciate the extent of the 2018 blue wave since many races were not decided until after Election Day. The Republican gain of two seats in the Senate also obscures the fact that many red-state Senate races were won by razor-thin margins. In the final analysis, Democrats picked up 41 House seats and seven governorships. The rout of House Republicans in suburban districts included a wipeout in the former Republican stronghold of Orange County, California.

In 2018, Democrats had an eight-point advantage in the House popular vote. If this margin is repeated in 2020, it would almost certainly preclude a repeat of Trump’s Electoral College victory and popular vote loss from 2016. Much has been said about the Republican gender gap with female voters, but exit polls from 2018 show that Republicans also suffer from an age gap, a race gap, an education gap, and an income gap. All have gotten worse under Donald Trump.

Moving Trump aside, whether through forced removal or a voluntary resignation or decision not to run for reelection, to make way for a Pence candidacy is no panacea either. Many of Trump’s core supporters might not vote Republican if Trump is not on the ticket. Further, the party would still suffer residual damage to its brand from its association with Trump over the past three years. Even after Republicans finally decided to push Richard Nixon to resign in 1974, the party lost 49 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate.

By default, most Republican incumbents will batten down the hatches and hope to weather the storm by doing and saying as little as possible. The first obstacle to re-election is the primary and the way to win the primary in a red district is to stand by Trump. Candidates who have won several terms will gamble on their knowledge of their districts and their local popularity to trump what may evolve into another blue wave.

The problem with that strategy is that Donald Trump makes it difficult to stay in the shadows and not attract attention. The president seems intent on one-upping his increasingly erratic behavior on an almost daily basis. In a few short weeks, we have gone from revelations of abuses of presidential power to an unpopular Syria policy that seems to change with every presidential tweet to calling political opponents “human scum.” If Trump’s behavior is defensible today, it may not be tomorrow.

And beyond tomorrow may represent the biggest threat for the GOP. While it looks like the safer bet for 2020 may be to stand by Trump, Republicans up for reelection in 2022 may have more to worry about. The odds are pretty good that, three years from now, Trump’s hold on the Republican Party will be much weaker. Fealty to Trump may soon be seen as a liability rather than an asset. The flip side is that voters tend to have short memories.

At this point, both supporting Trump and dumping him look like losing propositions for Republicans. The party will drive away moderates if it defends the president and it will alienate the president’s MAGA base if it turns away from him. Both options look bad for next year’s elections. At this point, keeping to the current course seems to be the least-worse option, but that could change tomorrow.

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