Trump Still Bulletproof?

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 21 – This week:

  • Elections soon to test Trump administration’s early woes
  • Dems hope this time, things are…different?
  • Dem dark-horse candidate takes the lead in Virginia governor primary

House 2017

Just as President Trump’s plane reached its cruising altitude, leaving the country on his first foreign trip as president, the New York Times and Washington Post struck with two highly negative stories — one on what President Trump said in his meeting with Russian officials, and another on one of his top aides (apparently his son-in-law, Jared Kushner) being a “person of interest” in the Russia election investigation.

It sounds pretty bad, right? And yes, there are some very subtle indications in the polls that all of the negative media coverage is taking its toll. (It should be noted, however, that Trump’s high-30s approval rating more or less mirrors his favorability rating on election day, when he won.)

Then again, we’ve seen this happen before. We saw it throughout the 2016 election. Candidate Trump was somehow bulletproof, to the delight of his fans and the outrage of his detractors. It just didn’t matter what he said. He famously declared that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Surely he’ll never do that, but who can doubt that he was right? He moved from one negative story to the next without suffering politically, defying every reasonable-seeming prediction that this time he’d gone too far — this one would end his campaign.

Now it’s this one will end his presidency, just four full months in. But no matter how bad things look, no one can safely just assume that this time things are different, after everything we’ve recently experienced. In the last 12 months, Americans have been forced to accept that the impossible is now routine.

How much are the Trump administration’s current troubles going to afflict Republican candidates down-ballot? Or will they at all? As we’ve noted before, we’ll get a much clearer idea pretty soon.

This week, on May 25, the ballots will be counted in Montana’s House special election. Just over three weeks later comes the much more anticipated runoff in Georgia’s Sixth District between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

A loss in Montana would be absolutely crushing for Republicans. A loss in Georgia, although less unexpected would be very bad. Victories in both, on the other hand, might once again cast doubt upon the idea (discredited once, at least with respect to the 2016 election) that Democrats can now successfully use Trump controversies to drag down his party’s down-ticket candidates.

Georgia-6: If there’s a fair test of how much trouble Trump’s current woes are causing the Republican Party, this is it. This contest, in a Republican district whose voters were not necessarily too keen on Trump in 2016 (although he did win it, barely), remains the race to watch.

Outside of candidate spending, both parties spent about half a million dollars on this race in the last seven days. Those numbers are sure to ramp up in the last four weeks of the campaign for the June 20 runoff election.

Montana-At Large: This race, to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the U.S. House, will be the next shoe to fall. In just the last seven days, the Republican National Committee has dumped more than $700,000 into this race. Paul Ryan’s SuperPAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has spent $176,000, and the NRCC has dumped in $450,000 during the same timeframe, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also spent a quarter million on behalf of Republican Greg Gianforte. Other smaller players have pitched in tens of thousands as well.

During the same period, Democratic outside money in this race has been pretty much non-existent, although the Democrats’ candidate, musician Rob Quist, has a well-funded campaign. (So does Gianforte, who is self-funding.) The Montana Democratic Party spent only $17,000 last week, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund spent $20,000 on Quist’s behalf.

The outside money seems to be saying Democrats don’t especially like their chances in this one, but Republicans are still running scared in the current environment and leaving nothing to chance. Various polls have suggested a tightening race. A Republican loss in Montana, even more than in Georgia’s Sixth District, would be devastating for the party, giving new power to the storyline that the Trump administration’s woes are dragging down the entire Republican Party. It would also make Sen. Jon Tester seem pretty safe in his re-election bid next year.

South Carolina-5: The conservative candidate in the GOP primary to replace Mick Mulvaney, Ralph Norman, narrowly won the runoff by 221 votes. After the recount, he is the clear favorite in the June 20 general election, which is to be held on the same date as the vote in Georgia.

Republicans cast more than twice as many votes in their primary as Democrats did in theirs when they chose former Goldman Sachs attorney Archie Parnell as their nominee. That isn’t necessarily indicative of anything, but at least it doesn’t provide obvious evidence of a Democratic groundswell. And it’s a lot better than the situation in Georgia, where voters supporting Republican candidates just barely outnumbered those supporting Democrats.

Utah-3: Just what Republicans need — another special election! But in this case, Democrats really won’t figure much when voters go to the polls in the Provo area to pick a replacement for Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz will be quitting his House seat and the chairmanship of the House oversight committee on June 30.

Although there’s a lot of controversy over how the election will be held and who makes the decisions about it (Utah has no law on the matter and has apparently never held a special House election to fill a vacancy outside of the regular election day), it appears there will a primary in August followed by a general election in November.

Governor 2017

Virginia: Former Rep. Tom Perriello, D, the young dark-horse progressive candidate in the race, is finally polling ahead of the state’s establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, D, just three weeks before the primary. The race has been moving in his direction ever since it started, and at this point he should be considered the favorite.

On the Republican side, former RNC Chairman and 2014 Senate candidate Ed Gillespie has a commanding lead and should win the nomination without difficulty.

Governor 2018

Idaho: The conventional wisdom is that Russ Fulcher will drop out of the governor’s race for Raul Labrador, who endorsed him in 2014, to run for Labrador’s northern and western Idaho seat. If so, that will help unify the conservative side of the primary equation, in a state where Ted Cruz won 45 percent of the presidential primary vote. With Fulcher still in the race, it’s a bit of a muddle. But in a three-way race against Lt. Gov. Brad Little and self-funding developer Tommy Ahlquist, Labrador’s chances are much better. 

House 2018

Florida-27: A poll from a Republican firm shows Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera with a commanding 57 percent in the primary for the swing-y Miami seat being vacated by Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen.

Even if the poll is somewhat self-interested, the lead for the primary is so large (understandably, since the other potential candidates are quite low-profile) that it’s hard to chalk up to bias. If Lopez-Cantera chooses to run, the nomination is probably his, although the seat itself could easily go to the Democrats even in a non-wave election. This Republican poll shows him with a modest lead over this most likely opponent, Democratic State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, 41 to 34 percent. Ros-Lehtinen only won with 55 percent in November, and Hillary Clinton carried the district with nearly 59 percent of the vote.

It should also be noted that the same poll showed both Sen. Marco Rubio, R, and Gov. Rick Scott, underwater in terms of favorability within this district’s boundaries. It seems evident that it will take a particular kind of candidate — not just any Republican, and not even just any Cuban Republican — for Republicans to have much of a chance to hold this seat after the next election.