In 2006, the reckoning finally came for Republicans. After 12 years in power in the House, scandal after scandal brought the party down — Tom DeLay, the powerful majority whip from Texas, quit after being indicted, and Rep. Mark Foley of Florida resigned following a scandal involving underage congressional pages. The Iraq War was looking lost. And the president was a drag on everyone. Republicans lost 30 seats in the House, six in the Senate.
Almost immediately after the election, Republicans started eating their own.
In February 2007, 17 Republicans voted for a Democratic-backed resolution opposing the “surge” of 20,000 troops in Iraq proposed by President George W. Bush. Among those who joined with the Democrats was Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican.
“You found some Republicans right away after 2006 who knew they needed to put some distance between themselves and the president on the war,” Davis says.
The break with the president didn’t end there. In June, conservatives in the Senate helped sink a plan backed by Bush to overhaul the country’s immigration policies. In an effort to derail the effort there, a majority of House Republicans announced their opposition to the Senate plan.
The upshot was clear: Republicans in Congress could no longer be counted on to support the policies of the president, whose second term ended in a whimper.
Could 2018 be the same?
Of course, this year and 2006 are not a perfect comparison. It was Bush’s sixth year in office and this is Donald Trump’s second. The country is not at war. Still, if a November wipeout comes and Democrats are left with complete — or even partial — control of Congress, could it mean a cold-shower reassessment for Republicans? Will they see a scandal-plagued president with historically low approval numbers and thinning ranks on Capitol Hill and throw in the towel on Donald Trump?
“That won’t happen,” says Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an early Trump backer. He cites the case of GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Trump critic who retired before facing a primary challenge from the right. “Look at Flake. It won’t happen because in virtually every district in the country, a pro-Trump Republican would beat an anti-Trump Republican.” He points out that Ronald Reagan lost 26 House seats in 1982, “and nobody thought there was going to be a rebellion against Reagan.”
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Gingrich’s stance is not unusual. If conversations among lawmakers and others in the Republican Party are to be believed, no matter what the outcome in November, those who have backed Trump will continue to do so.
“Do I see my support waning?” Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, said in responding to a question. “No, I don’t, because I think the core of the support that I’ve had for the president is getting people back to work, growing our economy, and unleashing the potential of the American worker.”
Indeed, come January, the composition of the new Congress might actually be even more enthusiastically pro-Trump. In the Senate, Trump critics like Flake and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who have offered rhetorical rebukes of the president but little in the way of legislative apostasy, are retiring, and could be replaced by Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Martha McSally — both of whom have offered their unqualified allegiance to the president during the 2018 campaign.
As for the House, Republican ranks “will be smaller but also more conservative and presumably more belligerent being in the minority,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call earlier this month.
A host of moderate Republicans are in danger of losing their races and could be replaced with Democrats, while at the same time a number of conservative Republicans could be replaced by those even more Trump-friendly.
Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus who often clashed with Trump, lost his primary this year to Katie Arrington, who has offered little criticism of the president. Lena Epstein, a businesswoman from Michigan, has made building a border wall a cornerstone of her campaign. If she wins her competitive race, she would be replacing Dave Trott, a retiring moderate who said Trump has exacerbated partisan rancor in Congress. Van Taylor of Texas is almost assured of taking the spot of Sam Johnson, a conservative who nonetheless surprised many when he helped lead a bipartisan effort in the House earlier this decade to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies.
Trump himself doesn’t think he’ll be to blame for any electoral losses. In an interview with The Associated Press on Oct. 16, he was asked point-blank if he should bear at least some responsibility. “No, I think I’m helping people,” he said, pointing to historical trends that show a president losing seats in Congress midway through their first term.
Past loyalty tests
Republicans didn’t abandon Richard Nixon until the very end, when the release of secret tapes showed Nixon had ordered the cover-up of the Watergate break-in and was undeniably guilty. Indeed, Watergate drove many previously skeptical conservatives to Nixon’s side.
In the case of Bill Clinton, Democrats didn’t abandon Clinton — ever. In fact, Gingrich says he learned an important lesson from his Ahab-like impeachment effort against the president: “One of the unintended side effects was it drove Clinton to the left because he had to be defended by the left in order to survive,” he says.
Moreover, Gingrich wonders how an internal resistance would even manifest itself today. “McCarthy’s not going to be anti-Trump. Scalise is not going to be anti-Trump, Cathy McMorris Rodgers is not going to be anti-Trump,” he says, referring to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Washington’s McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-highest-ranking House Republican. “Where is this anti-Trump base going to come from?”
As if to reinforce the notion, at a Montana rally on Oct. 18, Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte for body-slamming and punching a reporter for The Guardian in 2017, an incident that Gianforte initially lied about before eventually pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind — he’s my guy,” Trump said of Gianforte, explaining that he felt the assault would help Gianforte in the eyes of Montana voters. The comments were condemned by the White House Correspondents Association and several high-ranking Democrats.
Scalise joined a different chorus, writing a day later on Twitter that Trump was “clearly ribbing Congressman Gianforte for last year’s incident, which he apologized for last year.” He added: “It’s obvious he was not encouraging his supporters to engage in attacks, and not one person harassed the numerous media reporters who were present.”
Scalise then suggested that journalists were covering for Democrats by not reporting on what he sees as the real story — “Democrat leaders in Washington regularly using threatening rhetoric to call on their supporters to harass Trump officials, supporters, and Republican members and candidates.”
A chance of wobbling
Davis, who once ran House Republicans’ campaign arm and has been critical of Trump, still thinks there’s a chance, however small, for some wobbling as Republicans begin eyeing the next election.
“There may be some members in the House . . . who look at this and look toward 2020 and they’re just saying, ‘This is a fool’s errand and we need to make some changes and show some independence,’ ” he says.
He thinks a primary challenge to Trump could scramble things. But he believes Republicans could be more willing to cross the president if special counsel Robert S. Mueller III comes back with a damning report for the president on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“It may well embolden some Republicans to put some distance” between themselves and Trump, he said. “That will be the test.”
Geoffrey Kabaservice, a Trump critic and the director of political studies at the right-leaning Niskanen Center, thinks there could be room for some reconsideration by Republicans following a bad election result.
“I think the feeling then will be, ‘Wow, you know this whole Trump stuff, it really does rile up the base, but it also turns off a lot of the people we need and whose support we depended on in the past. We’re going to have to at least distance ourselves a little bit from the circus.’”
But what would that distancing look like? There might be more rhetorical jabs from Congress, but on policy there will probably be little in the way of divergence. If anything, leaders in both chambers will be even more pro-Trump and Senate Republicans are not going to suddenly start opposing him on judicial nominees, or as Gingrich puts it: “The most consequential question of election night is: Is Mitch McConnell the majority leader? Because if he is, you’re going to get two more years of conservative judges.”
Or consider immigration, Dreamers and the border wall.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, says he doesn’t see his stance changing in the slightest post-election. “I don’t think there’d be a change in positions.” Though he allowed: “The president might have a harder time getting his program enacted.”
But Capito, who chairs the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, says she’s still interested in trying to find a solution for so-called Dreamers and the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which Trump ended in 2017 leaving in limbo hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. The question is how that is paired with funding for border security and Trump’s long-sought wall.
“I think immigration is such a volatile issue, but there are issues there that we absolutely need to solve, and I think both sides acknowledge it,” Capito said.
When asked whether he saw the potential for any repercussions from Republicans, Missouri’s Roy Blunt, a member of Senate leadership, said the midterms could play a role, though he stopped himself mid-thought. “Let’s see what the election results look li--” he said, before offering a rote endorsement: “President Trump’s policies are producing good results for the economy and I think good foreign policy results as well.”
He also said that the prospects for funding for the wall and a potential shutdown would be clearly contingent on the election. “Election Day results will have some impact on that. It’s hard to know what that might be, but believe me they will have an impact after Election Day.”
Some even believe there might be room to work together on a limited number of issues, as improbable as that may seem.
Many in Congress are still interested in pushing for an infrastructure bill, though how that would be paid for is another matter. “We have to keep pushing on the difficult issues,” says Capito, who is up for re-election in 2020. “We can’t just tread water for two years.”
Corker, for his part, suggested that it could be Trump, and not Congress, that changes.
“If there’s a Democratic House, does he conduct himself in a little different way?” he says. “You saw how President Clinton dealt with Congress in those days. . . . He could alter the ways he’s dealing with Congress.”
Davis is much more skeptical.
“Probably nothing gets done,” he said. “I think for the most part, legislation stops.”
Gingrich doesn’t necessarily disagree, but he believes that under a divided Congress, Trump could put Democrats in a bind ahead of 2020 on a host of issues like an overhaul to the nation’s prison system and infrastructure. He could “design a series of bills that are so popular, that if the Democrats want to block it, fine, they will have defined the 2020 election,” he said. “Let’s see if the Democrats want to block prison reform. Now that would be a good example.”
— Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.