While the world waits to see what will come of rising tensions between North Korea and the United States, less attention has been paid to the civil war inside the Republican Party — a conflict that raged on this week with notable flare-ups.
Just consider what has taken place in the last several days alone:
■ President Trump has been attacking Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell all week on Twitter and during a press conference Thursday. The gist: Trump blames McConnell for a stalled Republican agenda, particularly when it comes to the years-long GOP promise to replace Obamacare. This fight could stall the agenda even further.
■ Arizona Senator Jeff Flake already knew he was facing a GOP primary, but now one of Trump’s biggest donors just gave $300,000 to his primary opponent, which can pay for a lot of negative campaign ads. Every dollar Republicans spend trashing their own is one dollar that Democrats won’t have to spend doing the same.
■ A similar problem is brewing in Nevada where Senator Dean Heller learned this week that he, too, will face a primary challenge from a strong Trump supporter. Heller might just be the most vulnerable Republican up for reelection in the Senate and the national party traditionally does what it can to help at-risk incumbents. But what if the primary challenger is the president’s preferred candidate? That could further complicate the already strained relationship between the national GOP and the Trump administration.
■ Then there is Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, who told a local radio host that one reason why John McCain voted against the Obamacare repeal weeks ago was because of his brain cancer. The Republican Senate caucus has already been torn apart on policy, but saying that a respected member of the Senate is too sick to vote rationally will make it even harder to move forward with legislation.
In Washington, there is always political tension, driven either by pure policy differences or by ambition. But rarely are such fights so heated — and so public — among a party that controls the House, the Senate, and the White House.
As House Speaker Paul Ryan reminded a Wisconsin audience this week: This is only the third time Republicans have held all three, meaning it’s time for them to buckle down and get things done. But so far that hasn’t happened. Trump has yet to sign a major piece of legislation. Democrats used to worry that there was nothing they could do to stop the Republicans, but so far on major bills Republicans are their own greatest obstacle.
Why does this fighting matter? Because coming this early in the Trump presidency sets up the likelihood of even more primary fights, while muddling the midterm message that must be clearly elucidated to overcome the historical challenges of the president’s party’s first midterm.
This could spell good things for Democrats in 2018. But Republican infighting is just one piece of the puzzle. Democrats now will still need to recruit good candidates who can win in districts that have voted for Republicans in the past.
Consider the Senate. While Republicans only have a two-seat advantage, it will be hard for Democrats to flip control. Doing so will require all 10 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection in states that Trump won to win again. Then they need to beat Heller in Nevada and Flake in Arizona. Even after all of that, they still need to defeat one more Republican, and the only places left for Democrats to pick up a seat are in deeply red states like Alabama or Texas. That’s no easy feat.
There’s little doubt in the long term that this week will be remembered best for the rising tensions between the United States and North Korea. But it should also be recalled as the one when Republicans began to seriously turn on each other. The question now is whether Democrats can unite enough to take advantage.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.