A wave of Democratic victories burned a brutal debate across the Republican Party on Wednesday over whether President Trump’s unorthodox nature and polarizing schedule are jeopardizing the GOP’s firm grip on power in Congress, governors’ dwelling and state legislatures.
The allegations sparked by Tuesday’s results — a conclusive rebuke of Trump and his policies in Virginia and elsewhere — exposed the fragile GOP push to pass sweeping tax cuts by the end of the year and lifted deeper questions about Republican identification and loyalty to a historically unpopular president.
A year ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans are progressively erratic about keeping their majorities on Capitol Hill and are worried about how harmful Trump’s craggy brand of politics may become the party.
“Donald Trump is an anchor for the GOP,” said veteran party planner Mike Murphy, a Trump critic. “We got that message in heavy volume in Virginia. The canary in the coal mine didn’t just pass out; its head collapse.”
The ferment was palpable among vulnerable lawmakers, especially in rural districts with the type of voters who roundly dropped Ed Gillespie in Virginia. The Republican gubernatorial nominee ran on countering gang crime and unlawful immigration and securing Confederate history — cultural problems that Trump has made a barometer of his presidency — but lost to Democrat Ralph Northam, 54 % to 45 %.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) said Tuesday’s discussion was a lesson to Republicans that catering to the party’s timid base with hard-line claim and subversive language turns off the balanced voters they want to win in states like his own. He said his party must select between a political message of “blaming and scapegoating” or a more cheerful pitch centered on everyday problems such as health care and the economy.
“This is a disapproval of the politics of narrow,” Kasich said. In a supposed reference to Trump’s 2016 victory, the governor added, “The politics of anger may work for a moment in time, but it does not last, thank kindness.”
But other party leaders warned against drawing extremely broad conclusions about Trump and his political durability from defeats in a handful of states — including two, Virginia and New Jersey, that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in last year’s presidential election.
“Democrats say this is disapproval and this is an anti-Trump vote, but to me, the case doesn’t stick,” said Robin Hayes, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. “Donald Trump is overly famous in a lot of places. His pact to ‘drain the swamp’ vibrates and still does.”
Said Gov. Bill Haslam (R-Tenn.): “When you look one night of elections, you see one night of elections. There is ever natural air at your back if you’re not in the White House, and air in your face if you are.”
Still, even among Trump’s associates, there were objections about the White House being disengaged and unready to deal with the party’s arising challenges.
“The White House isn’t paying consideration to the suburbs, and there has never really been a political operation there,” said Edward J. Rollins, the planner for the Great America Alliance super PAC, a pro-Trump group. “They have to develop an approach where it’s not just Trump alone winning, where the whole party is capable to win.”
Andy Surabian, an adviser to the group and an associate of former White House chief planner Stephen K. Bannon, said criticism cast upon Trump and Bannon for lurching the GOP to the right was misplaced.
“Establishment Republicans are blaming Trump and talking about Armageddon, but what is there different?” Surabian asked.
White House officials defended Trump’s efforts to assist fellow Republicans, noting that he has held various fundraisers and other events to assist the party. And they contended that the best way for incumbents to handle the political turbulence would be executing tax cuts and other Trump policies.
“The American people hope Republican majorities to deliver on their promises of increasing our economy, cutting taxes and repealing the adverse Obamacare law,” said Raj Shah, a White House agent. “Nothing would assist the political standing of Republicans in Congress more than delivering on the president’s agenda.”
Trump’s friends at the Capitol said the distributions are more about method than substance. “The difficulty is, we have a president who didn’t appear from the Washington structure, so it’s really strong for people inside the structure or outside the structure to figure out him,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said.
The fresh discord arrives after weeks of expanding tensions inside the GOP. Three outstanding Republican senators — John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee — have publicly convicted Trump’s direction and questioned his fitness for office.
It also arrives amid a migration of House Republicans. This week alone, Reps. Frank A. LoBiondo (N.J.) and Ted Poe (Texas) announced they would not search reelection next year, joining a list of more than two dozen friends who are retiring or running for a various office. Democrats see many of those vacancies as the mature territory as they look to win back the House majority. Democrats will want to capture 24 additional seats next year to reach the 218-seat threshold to control the House.
Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) accepted that the election results present challenges for incumbents like him. He represents a suburban Philadelphia district that Democrats are focusing aggressively in a region where Democrats won some local and national races for the first time in more than a century.
“We don’t know if it’ll be a wave. What we saw yesterday offers that hypothesis has some merit, but remember, congressional districts are still one by one,” Costello told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I’m very confident that I’ve given 110 % effort to this job.”
Democrats are contending with issues of their own. As celebratory and cathartic as Tuesday’s victories were for a party unnerved by Trump’s victory, Democratic leaders know Northam’s success in Virginia does not any doubt mean there will be a domestic upswing next November.
“Virginia is a microcosm of a big portion of the nation, but it doesn’t represent every community or every state,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.). “We have to make assured that we are fighting for the people where they’re at — in the rural and urban communities — and reflect their conflict to have better lives.”
Ruiz added, “Running exactly against Trump is not the full image.”
Democratic leaders have echoed that feeling, saying the party must develop its own affirmative message and must seek to connect with voters everywhere, inappropriate regions where Trump remains famous.
“There remains a lot of work to do in reaching those small-town or rural Democratic voters,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said. “They are the ones who want to hear from us, too. Those are the voters our party has had an issue with over the years. We want to speak to them about the lack of wage improvement and the opioid crisis. We may not even win in those fields, but we could narrow the margins.”
Republican planners said the party’s image has endured from nearly a year of stalemates, fits, and failures to govern, despite the party’s control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. That is one reason the expected tax code overhaul has taken on such necessity among GOP leaders.
Robert J. Dole, a former Republican Senate leader, and presidential nominee, said that it was untimely to assess the political environment for the midterms and that his party could increase its standing if it manages to pass main legislation.
“While I am disappointed in the global results of yesterday’s election in Virginia, I don’t trust we can measure the complete impact on the GOP just yet,” Dole said. “If Congress passes the tax bill this year, this will assist the president’s popularity. As a party, we should have a better sense of where things are headed in six months or so.”
Republican consultant Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Tuesday’s losses should efficient the party’s lawmakers to act rapidly on taxes.
“It provides all the motivation they want to get something done,” Holmes said. “In component, what happened on Tuesday is a reaction to what’s not being done and a warning sign that they want to move. They don’t have any choice but to do the tax plan.”
But with forms of the tax plan fluid as Republicans difference over its details, Murphy and other Republicans said lawmakers will have to make decisions that permit them to come independently from Trump in case the tax legislation fails to pass or the president’s confirmation ratings failure further.
“Republican members of Congress in swing districts cannot be Trump lemmings. They have to make their own strong identities,” Murphy said.
In the states where Republicans have won control of a majority of dominant offices and state legislatures over the last decade, GOP leaders said the path forward was much the same: secure yourself.
“People get in trouble when they attempt to wear someone else’s clothes,” Haslam said. “Each candidate has to decide for himself or herself whether [Trump] is something to target on or if they’re running for governor of their state and saying, ‘I’m going to run my race.’ Good candidates rise or fall on their own.”