Republicans at War

The Briefting, Vol. V, Issue 33 – This week:

  • Trump at war with congressional GOP
  • Incumbent at risk in Alabama Senate primary
  • A credible challenger to Flake?


Republicans at war: There is a great deal of frustration in Republican-dominated Washington. Obamacare repeal has failed, and the great fear is that tax reform, infrastructure, and other initiatives could suffer the same fate.

President Trump angrily took to Twitter last week to lay the failure of Obamacare repeal at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the feeling is mutual. Trump is upset enough about current developments that he is preparing to distance himself from the congressional GOP if necessary.

What does it all mean? Not too much in electoral terms. If Republicans suffer in Trump’s first midterm, history suggests it won’t be due to lack of presidential support. President Obama committed himself to be as helpful to his party as possible in both of his midterms. Both turned out to be disastrous for Democrats, and Obama’s involvement only made things worse in each case. In fact, by 2014, when Obama had learned to limit his appearances to safe Democratic states, Democrats lost the governorships in Maryland and Maine, where he had shown up to campaign.

Similarly, voters will likely either reward or punish Republicans in 2018 based on Trump’s effectiveness or lack thereof. Any attempts to separate the Republican president from the Republican Congress will likely be in vain, for better or for worse. The Republican Party is Trump’s party now, just as the Democratic Party of 2010 was Obama’s party.

So the McConnell-Trump feud might make for exciting television — after all, McConnell’s wife is Trump’s secretary of Transportation — but most persuadable voters will likely view Republican-controlled Washington as one part of the same lot.

Manchin for Energy? The defection of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to the Republican Party could become more than just a public relations coup for President Trump.

It also means that the appointment of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to any position in Trump’s administration would result in an immediate gain of a Senate seat for the GOP.

Although there is nothing concrete at this point, Manchin’s name is already being floated by the White House as a potential replacement for Secretary Rick Perry, who would in turn move into the new vacancy at the top of the Department of Homeland Security.

Manchin denies any discussions are underway about such an appointment. But not only would he be a perfectly acceptable secretary for most conservatives, it would also provide him with an easy and graceful exit in a state where the voters have turned very sharply against the party that dominated for 80 years. Manchin told a local newspaper on August 7 that he does not “give a sh*t” about whether he is re-elected. If he gets an appointment, he won’t have to.

As the last genuinely popular Democrat in West Virginia, Manchin has to be favored for re-election from the outset if he runs. But 2018 won’t be an easy or pleasant race for him by any means. Republicans haven’t had trouble recruiting top-shelf candidates — their primary will feature a showdown between U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Morrisey won re-election last year by a modest (by modern West Virginia standards) 10 point margin. Jenkins, a former Democrat, won nearly 70 percent in his district last year, which had been the most Democratic area in the state. Again, Manchin would be a favorite against either, but not a prohibitive favorite.

Senate 2017

Alabama: Even as they feud in public, one area where Trump and McConnell are definitely united is their common desire to elect appointed Sen. Luther Strange to a full term in the Senate seat he took over from Jeff Sessions earlier this year. McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund has poured millions into the race already on his behalf, and Trump offered Strange, as he put it on Twitter, “my complete and total endorsement!”

Strange, however, has no easy path to the nomination. The first round of voting takes place Tuesday. A September 26 runoff is almost guaranteed. What’s not guaranteed is that Strange will actually make the runoff.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore seems certain to finish first on Tuesday and secure his spot. But Strange finds himself in a tight competition for second place with Rep. Mo Brooks, a more traditional anti-establishment conservative candidate. One poll has the two within the margin of error, and Strange at just 22 percent — add ten points and that’s still a disastrous number for an incumbent. Brooks, who was a Ted Cruz supporter in 2016, has come under attack from Strange and from the Senate Leadership Fund for attacking Trump quite vigorously during the 2016 primary.

Strange’s problem goes back to a perception, whether it is fair or not, that he obtained his seat as a trade of favors with the scandal-plagued governor who was forced to resign earlier this year. As Alabama’s attorney general, he had been investigating former Republican Gov. Robert Bentley for using state resources to conduct an extramarital affair.

The revelation of the affair created a major scandal and even discussion of impeaching Bentley, but it had mostly died down by the time he was seeking a successor for Jeff Sessions, who had just resigned the seat to become Trump’s attorney general. The accusation — which Brooks is now laying thick once again as primary day approaches — is that Strange used his leverage over the governor to get a promotion to the U.S. Senate. A milder version is that the governor packed him off to Washington to get the heat off of himself, and that Strange should have known better than to cooperate in the process.

Of course, there’s no sign that Strange’s former office actually backed off of Bentley after Strange’s appointment. In fact, the appointment itself may have been what revived the issue to the point that Bentley was forced to resign. But this whole story explains why Strange, who had been a fairly popular elected official prior to this, is polling so poorly for an incumbent in a three-way primary.

The Senate GOP leadership has treated Strange like he’s an elected incumbent, surely in part because his vote has been critical at every turn in a Senate with just 52 Republicans.

House 2017

Utah-3: The race to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is on. There isn’t any serious risk of a party switch to the Democrats, but Tuesday’s primary election comes down to three candidates with serious credibility in Provo.

In the pole position (which is to say, leading in the polls) is that city’s mayor, John Curtis. Former state legislator Chris Herrod is also running. And finally, Sarah Palin has endorsed Tanner Ainge, son of Celtics basketball star and BYU grad Danny Ainge.

Primary elections can be volatile, but think of Curtis as the favorite in this first-past-the-post race.

Senate 2018

Arizona: Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has announced she is considering a challenge to vulnerable Sen. Jeff Flake, who already finds himself under pressure with a primary challenge on his hands from Kelli Ward. Flake’s criticism of President Trump could cut either way in a state where Trump did quite poorly compared to other Republicans.

Dorothy, we’re not in Ohio, Iowa or Wisconsin anymore.

You can sneer all you like at Sinema, the first avowedly bisexual member of Congress, but she has managed to hold on to a very competitive district now ever since she was first elected. Flake’s numbers are very weak, and he has gone out of his way to criticize Trump, potentially weakening his support with the base.