Two recent headlines reflected continuing Republican divisions: “House GOP Ousts Rep. Liz Cheney,” and “Ex-Republican Office Holders and Officials Declare Independence from Donald Trump’s Party.”
They gave the impression of a party coming apart at the seams, ill-equipped for national leadership, especially when President Joe Biden is enjoying strong voter approval for his efforts to end the pandemic and revive the economy.
One prominent Trump critic, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, on CBS’ “Face the Nation” likened the GOP to the Titanic, saying it is in a “slow sink” while “we have a band playing on the deck telling everybody it’s fine.” Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, told the Washington Examiner that infighting “is the only way that we lose in (2022) and the presidency in (2024).”
But there is another, more positive take on the state of the GOP.
Most Republican strategists and independent analysts believe the party has an excellent chance of regaining the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections – and possibly the Senate, too. In many states, GOP governors and legislators are enacting a multi-issue conservative agenda.
Noting these two “seemingly contradictory” portrayals of the Republican Party’s prospects, a friend asked me recently to explain, “Which of these narratives makes sense?” The answer is that both do, to a certain extent.
On one hand, the GOP’s leadership has put the party in a questionable national position by remaining in thrall to Trump and his dishonest depiction of the 2020 election. That was a principal factor in Cheney’s ouster and is a main reason so many Republicans are worried about its future.
Polls show Trump’s overall national approval, even within the GOP, has declined since he left office. A recent NBC News poll showed his overall favorability has dropped from the low 40s to the low 30s. The Washington Post said Trump fared poorly in swing districts in a recent National Republican Congressional Committee survey.
At the same time, though, the party’s structural position remains strong. The GOP controls a majority of governorships and legislatures and half of the 100 Senate seats, and the party is only a handful of seats short of a majority in the House.
The nonpartisan Cook Partisan Voting Index, based on the past two presidential elections, gives Republicans majorities in more states than the Democrats and more congressional districts. Increasing straight-party, down-ticket voting gives Republicans an advantage in Senate races, since it means Democrats must win Senate seats in presidentially GOP states to gain a majority.
The Electoral College also favors Republicans. Democrats have polled more votes nationally in seven of the past eight presidential elections but only won an electoral majority in five of the eight. Biden got 7 million more votes than Trump, but only won the presidency by 43,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.
More immediately, the GOP’s big 2010 midterm victory enabled it to redraw legislative and congressional lines in key states to ensure a House majority. By 2018, political and demographic changes helped the Democrats regain the House.
But the Democrats’ failure last year to erode GOP legislative margins in states like Texas, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – partly due to that post-2010 gerrymandering – means Republicans are in position to bolster their House advantage in redistricting this year after the census, offset slightly by the Democrats’ ability to counter them in New York and Illinois.
That’s one reason many analysts believe that Republicans are likely to recapture the House next year, along with population gains in GOP-controlled states like Texas and Florida. That is, unless Biden is so successful and the economy so good that the Democrats can squeeze out 218-plus seats. But the Senate is less likely to go Republican, in part because Trump’s influence may lead the GOP to nominate candidates in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin who are unacceptable to the broader electorate
While House Republicans remain strongly loyal to the former president because of his support in the heavily GOP districts most represent, many Senate Republicans are trying to maintain some distance, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Some criticized the House GOP’s ouster of Cheney as its conference chair, including Trump critics, like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, and backers, like Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.
Still, few Republican senators have directly criticized the former president. All indications are that the party’s anti-Trump faction, while able to attract considerable media attention, represents but a small minority of the GOP rank and file.
Because of Trump’s continuing presence – and Biden’s age – the national political picture beyond 2022 is more than unusually hazy. While Biden has said he expects to seek a second term, he will be nearly 82 by the 2024 election, prompting widespread speculation he will retire after one term. Whether his vice president and presumable heir apparent, former California Sen. Kamala Harris, could maintain unity in the often fractious Democratic Party is an open question.
On the other side, while Trump leads current polling for the next Republican nomination if he wants it, he is nearing his 75th birthday and facing an array of potential legal problems that could further damage his future political viability.
Still, as long as he remains active, Trump’s presence will continue to complicate the GOP’s future prospects.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.