House GOP Moving Right, Democratic Direction Less Clear

We don’t know exactly how many House seats Democrats will gain in November, though Democratic control of the chamber next year looks almost inevitable. But even now it is clear that the midterm results will move Republicans further to the right. Where the Democrats will stand is less clear.

In the House, GOP losses will be disproportionately large in the suburbs and among members of the Republican Main Street Partnership, the House GOP group that puts “country over party” and values “compromise over conflict,” according to its website.

Not all the 70-plus members of the group are pragmatists or generally seek to defuse partisanship, but many are endangered this election cycle.

GOP casualty list?

Reps. Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Mike Coffman of Colorado are headed for defeat, and Democrats are likely to flip the seats of retiring pragmatists such as Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Pennsylvania’s Ryan A. Costello, and New Jersey’s Frank A. LoBiondo and Rodney Frelinghuysen, as well as the seats of former Pennsylvania Reps. Charlie Dent and Patrick Meehan.

Reps. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, Kevin Yoder of Kansas and Peter Roskam of Illinois are running even or behind their Democratic challengers, as are Mimi Walters of California and Leonard Lance of New Jersey. (Roskam is not listed as a member on the Main Street website.)

Some Republican pragmatists and advocates of increased cooperation with Democrats, including Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and John Katko of New York, are likely to survive the wave. They are the exceptions to the general rule.

But at least 30 of the House members listed on the Main Street website are now at risk in the midterms, and when Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan starts to crawl on to some endangered Republican lists, you know that most of the remaining GOP pragmatists on Capitol Hill have reason to be nervous.

Not every Republican incumbent in a tough race, though, is a pragmatist who at least talks about changing the tone on Capitol Hill.

A handful of Freedom Caucus members are at risk — including Iowa’s Rod Blum, Virginia’s Dave Brat, North Carolina’s Ted Budd and California’s Dana Rohrabacher — and a number of conservatives are retiring or running for governor, including former Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida (who left Congress last month to focus on his gubernatorial bid) and Steve Pearce of New Mexico.

Rep. Jason Lewis, a Minnesota conservative, will likely lose, and the GOP’s California delegation will take a significant hit.

This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of Republican losses, but it does demonstrate that while there will be House losses across the party’s ideological spectrum, the biggest losses — relatively speaking — will be among party members for whom “compromise” is not a dirty word and Donald Trump is a liability.

The House Republican Conference next year will be smaller but also more conservative and presumably more belligerent being in the minority.

Democratic divisions

The effect on the Democrats is more complicated and less certain.

On one hand, Democrats are likely to add a number of more pragmatic members to their caucus. These members won’t be “conservatives,” but they are less likely to see everything in knee-jerk ideological and partisan terms.

Among the likely winners in November are Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, who won a special election this cycle and is a solid favorite over GOP incumbent Keith Rothfus in a newly drawn district. Former Navy helicopter pilot and prosecutor Mikie Sherrill looks likely to win Frelinghuysen’s open seat, and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew appears an easy winner in the district LoBiondo is vacating.

If they win, Democrats from upscale suburban areas — e.g., Virginia’s 10th, Kansas’ 2nd and 3rd, Minnesota’s 2nd and 3rd, New Jersey’s 3rd, 7th and 11th, and a handful of California seats — will be well aware of the “swing” nature of their districts, and they will be less likely to be robotic followers of their party’s liberal agenda, particularly on economic issues.

But while the House Democratic Caucus will add more pragmatic members who represent competitive districts, it will also see an influx of progressives who say the party has been too timid when it comes to proposing and defending liberal proposals.

All of the energy on the Democratic side is on the left, and progressives surely will demand an unapologetically confrontational approach to Trump nationally and on Capitol Hill.

The fight over the direction of the party is likely to play out first when House Democrats choose their leadership after the midterms.

In mid-August, NBC News identified more than four dozen Democratic incumbents and candidates who’ve indicated they won’t support Nancy Pelosi for speaker next year if the party takes the House.

Not all of the candidates on that list will win, and Pelosi’s opponents come from both the more moderate and the more progressive wings of the party.

While much of the opposition to Pelosi obviously is generational, not ideological, it’s notable that Lamb, Sherrill, North Carolina’s Dan McCready and Kathy Manning, Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin and Kansas’ Paul Davis are among those who have said the party needs new leadership.

Republicans will surely call next year’s House Democratic agenda “extreme,” “radical” and “socialist.”

But those labels reflect the GOP’s knee-jerk ideological approach and beliefs as much as the Democrats’ positioning, and the Democratic Party will need to work out its agenda during the next two years, when its voters will pick a presidential standard-bearer.

That nominee will, to a large degree, define the positioning of the Democratic Party just as the 2020 Republican nominee will make a statement about the GOP’s values and direction.

Note: This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 4, 2018.

Winner of the GOP’s Civil War? The Democrats

The Republican Party has been divided before. There was Robert A. Taft versus Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater versus the moderate establishment, evangelicals versus pro-business Republicans, and more recently the Tea Party/Club for Growth/Freedom Caucus versus the GOP establishment.

But the current divide in the Party of Lincoln looks deeper and filled with more animus than ever.

Ultra-outsider Roy Moore looks to have an edge over establishment-backed Sen. Luther Strange in the September 26 Alabama GOP Senate runoff, and other insurgents are lining up to go after incumbents or establishment-backed Republicans in next year’s primaries.

The party establishment, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, and supported by some deep-pocketed backers, has no choice but to devote considerable time and resources to these internal struggles.

Spending millions of dollars to fight off challengers from within the party isn’t an ideal way to spend your time, but it’s better than handing over the GOP to the most ideological and uncompromising in the party.

Preventing the nomination of another round of Todd Akins, Richard Mourdocks, Christine O’Donnells, Joe Millers and Ken Bucks is important to help retain Republican Senate seats and new opportunities, but it’s also a way of preventing the party from marginalizing itself completely.

Nominating Moore in Alabama would not cost the GOP a Senate seat in the general election, but nominating Kelli Ward in Arizona probably would.

More importantly, electing more confrontational conservatives, like Moore, Ward and Chris McDaniel of Mississippi, would help shape the national image of the GOP. Donald Trump has already done some of that, but nominating and electing more Tea Party/Freedom Caucus types would damage the party’s reputation even further in all but the most Republican and conservative states.

McDaniel, you may remember, ran against Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, finishing just a hair under the 50% mark, which forced a runoff. Cochran won that runoff and went on to hold the seat in November, in part because plenty of Democrats supported the establishment Cochran in the runoff.

Now, McDaniel is mentioned again as a Senate candidate, this time as a possible primary challenger to GOP Sen. Roger Wicker.

I remember seeing McDaniel and two other conservatives – Ben Sasse and Idaho congressional hopeful Bryan Smith – introduce themselves to a meeting of conservative, free market campaign contributors and activists early in 2014. It was enlightening.

Sasse, who that cycle was elected to the Senate from Nebraska, talked about his background and experience, discussed his view of government and made a few funny comments to connect with the crowd and show that he was personable.

McDaniel (and Smith, who eventually lost his primary challenge to incumbent Republican Rep, Mike Simpson) talked mostly about the Founding Fathers and how the GOP establishment and Republicans-in-name-only were destroying the party and the country. He made little attempt to introduce himself except for his ideology. He wanted to show how committed and uncompromising he was.

A civil war now looks unavoidable for the Republican Party. And the likely fallout is obvious.

Where the establishment wins, insurgents will complain that the system was rigged or wealthy contributors bought the election. Embittered and only loosely tied to the GOP, many of those voters will walk away after the primary loss.

Where insurgents win, party insiders and pragmatists will be frightened. The winners will clean house, installing true believers in state party posts. In turn, the defeated will sit on their checkbooks in the fall, maybe even forget to vote.

Either way, the GOP loses.

“Not this time,” some will say, arguing that the partisan divide is so deep that the McConnell wing and the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus wings will eventually come together to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats.

Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Independents are likely to be turned off by Republican infighting, and a civil war, with each side lobbing accusations at the other, rarely ends happily. There will be enough open political wounds to give Democrats opportunities they otherwise would not have.

I’ve been around long enough to see more than a few political circular firing squads. I’m seeing another one form, this time within the GOP.