Deal or No Deal?

The Briefing, Vol. VII, Issue 2 – January 14, 2019

This week:

  • Deal or no deal?
  • Republicans’ suburbia problem
  • Five more House districts where Republicans will fight in 2020


Shutdown: We are now in the midst of the longest government shutdown ever.

The good news for President Trump and the Republicans is that it isn’t a terrible crisis. Indeed, it is only a partial shutdown, and few Americans are typically in any position to notice even a total shutdown.

The bad news, though, is that most people blame Trump and the GOP for the shutdown. The ABC News/Washington Post poll shows a fairly wide margin of 53 to 29 percent who blame Democrats in Congress. It should be noted, however, that the same poll shows growing support (42 percent) for the border wall that is at the center of the impasse, to the point that it has reached an all-time high (at least in that poll).

So far, nothing has brought the parties together for talks. And there is little indication that a compromise is in the works, whether it involves DACA or any other possible concession. Democrats just won an election and it stands to reason that they would not be in a conceding mood.

It therefore looks increasingly likely that President Trump will resolve the situation by declaring an emergency and using military construction funds to build as much of the border wall as he can. There is a great debate afoot as to the legality or wisdom of this move. But politically, it would be a double-edged sword. The wall is not especially unpopular and it’s hard to believe that Trump would pay too steep a price politically for something he’s been quite clear on since his candidacy first began in 2015. But the use of emergency powers to build it would create the possibility that its construction will be tied up in court for some time.

There are still slim hopes of another resolution. It is probably in everyone’s interest to find a compromise. Obviously, the apparent chaos of a government shutdown has negative effects for any president. But if this situation has a positive for Trump, it is that he will be able to use it to make the case that Democrats oppose border security, despite their protestations to the contrary.

The wall’s purpose, after all, is to funnel border-crossers (including asylum-seekers) to legal points of entry, where the government can decide whether to accept them or turn them away. Even if the wall is a weak idea in other respects (for example, somewhere around half of illegal immigration in recent years has been the result of visa overstays, not border crossings), it’s not a counterproductive or harmful idea.

A fight over the border wall isn’t going to help Trump win centrist swing voters or suburban Republicans.. But it is the sort of fight that could help Trump in key Midwestern states where he can build on his 2016 rupture of the Blue Wall — think Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota. The border wall issue could also be very dangerous for a lot of House Democrats holding down moderate districts that Republicans are seeking to win back.

Republicans and suburbia: One can say at any given time that both parties face some kind of long- or medium-term crisis. Democrats, for example, face the loss of organized labor as a political force in the medium-term, and a loss of interest from non-white voters (best exemplified in poor 2016 turnout) in the long-term.

But Republicans face their own crises, which are arguably worse. First, as we discussed in the weeks after the election, the GOP is losing younger voters by margins that are far too large for them to continue winning elections in the long run. Not only are the young voting for Democrats, but the data show that they are not changing their habits as they get older.

But the medium-term crisis for the GOP has to do with the loss of so many House seats in suburbia. This was a defining feature of the 2018 election. Without counting the judicial gerrymandering that flipped seats in Pennsylvania, Republicans underperformed badly in the suburbs and exurbs of states as diverse as Nevada, Texas, Minnesota, Utah, California, Iowa, New Jersey, Illinois, Georgia, Kansas, New York, and Michigan.

Is this a real long-term problem? It looks that way, but there is an argument that it isn’t. The loss of suburbia already seemed like a problem for Republicans in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats gained serious suburban ground, only to lose it all again (and then some) in 2010. But just because it was a false alarm then, doesn’t mean it’s a false alarm this time.

One underplayed cause of the suburban bloodbath — at least in the states where it was worst — is the tax reform bill that Republicans were actually counting on to help them. The decision to cap the deduction on state and local taxes at $10,000 was sound policy. It was also a gut-punch for wealthy voters in high-tax states and communities, and it probably cost Republicans a number of seats.

This explanation fits perfectly for the results in New Jersey, Illinois, California, and New York, accounting for 15 of the 40 lost seats.

Then again, this theory doesn’t fit so well in a lot of the other states mentioned above. In at least part of the country, Trump-era Republicans seem to be suffering from a culture problem in suburbia.

Will this wound heal for the GOP, as it did last time? The tax changes might fade, but a culture problem will prove more enduring. If they want to rebuild a House majority and remain competitive in the long run, Republicans need to reach out to suburban voters with an agenda that fits their needs, and with a tone that doesn’t put them off quite so much.

President Trump’s message has not played especially well in this part of America, in contrast to formerly Democratic small town and rural areas where he excelled in 2016. But Trump’s message is not necessarily doomed to be a loser in every suburb. For example, suburbia is always open to a public safety, anti-crime message like the one that accompanies his immigration position. Wariness of urban crime helped form most suburbs, after all.

It’s also worth mentioning that at least part of the Republican suburban weakness has to be a product of the same historical forces that make nearly all presidents lose ground in Congress during midterm elections.

House 2020

Speaking of Republicans and suburbia, this is the fourth part of our series on Republicans’ path back to a House majority. This time we take a big-picture look at just one state — California — where Republicans were brutally beaten in 2018. We will look at these seats individually in the future, but the loss here was so big that it needs a big-picture look first.

The brutality of their beating cannot be blamed on the classic bogeyman of immigration. And if Republicans don’t make a point of contesting these seats and winning back at least some of them in 2020, it’s an ominous sign that the state party is headed toward extinction even faster than anyone thought.

California 10, 21, 25, 39, 45, 48, 49: The Republican story of House seats in California has long been one of retreat. Democrats seized control of the state’s new supposedly non-partisan gerrymandering process after 2010 and concentrated Republican voters in much safer seats, allowing Democrats to gain ground in most of the state.

But those Republican seats weren’t safe enough, evidently, and as a result the state party keeps on shrinking. For many reasons, California Republicans have underperformed their national counterparts, failing to win over various groups (Hispanic voters included but also Asians) with the same kind of numbers they win them by in other states.

In the wake of this recent election, California Republicans have responded to their shellacking in California by blaming ballot harvesting, President Trump, and everything else under the sun. But the fact is, they are failing to hold safe seats that the opposite party created specifically to pack them in.

In short, the national Republican Party has to help a failing state party, because Republicans cannot afford to write off all of the House seats in the nation’s most populous state.

These districts are in California’s most conservative areas, including all of Orange County. There’s very little excuse for Republican inability to hold such tailor-made areas on such a grand scale. Many of the districts listed here will be competitive once again in 2020 under presidential-level turnout. Republicans aren’t serious about winning back the House if they aren’t making these seats a top priority.