WASHINGTON — The Republican Party has undergone an improbable transformation amid the swirl of scandals and controversy engulfing its leader in the White House. While it certainly cannot be called love, the forced marriage of Donald Trump and the GOP has begun its second year in a state of positive equilibrium — a mutual, if sometimes begrudging, admiration.
For Democrats, meanwhile, the feelings are equal and opposite, a sense of clammy unease that a 2018 Congressional comeback wave may not materialize if Trump’s base continues to firm, that even his re-election — for the left, the true apocalypse — has to be contemplated.
There was never a Republican honeymoon for Trump, whose hostile takeover of the party and Washington sent shock waves through the establishment and completely upended American politics. His freshman year in the White House was one of chaos.
But now — even amid fresh sex scandals and mishandling of spousal-abuse allegations against a top White House aide — it’s as if someone hit a mute button in Congress. Trump’s Republican critics have gone relatively quiet, including past targets of Trump’s Twitter ire such as Senators Bob “Liddle Bob” Corker and Lindsey “Publicity seeking” Graham. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a regular Trump combatant, is riding high after legislative victories on tax cut legislation and the newly passed spending bill — both passed with Trump’s blessing and help.
Polls show Trump’s favorability ratings at an all-time high among voters in his own party — with one early February Gallup poll citing numbers as high as 90 percent and one from CNN showing Trump with higher favorable ratings than Vice President Mike Pence or House Speaker Paul Ryan.
There remains uneasiness among his whipsawed allies that Trump is always just one exposé away from seeing his numbers tank again. And the Russia investigation still looms large. Independent Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday unveiled an indictment of Russians accused of meddling in the 2016 election and working to help Trump win. But short of an indictment for obstruction of justice or some direct evidence of Trump collusion with the Russians, the president thus far appears to be on sound footing to recapture the GOP nomination in 2020.
“The tax cuts helped immensely,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who broke from Trump by refusing to support Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s special Senate election last year. “That was a big thing, probably the biggest thing we’ll do in this whole Congress. It was a positive development for us Republicans.”
Some Republicans are even becoming more optimistic about the party’s fortunes in this year’s midterm elections, hoping that Trump’s new strength can help them diminish or even thwart a Democratic takeover of the House. For months, evidence has pointed to Democrats as the odds-on favorites to make substantial gains come November, but a growing chorus of Republicans are saying Trump’s improving numbers could stem the coming blue wave.
Trump also seems to have benefitted from a solid State of the Union performance and his hard-line stance against illegal immigration. And he and his allies in Congress have even managed to mold perceptions of FBI investigations into Trump’s campaign as the political machinations of left-wing conspirators supposedly embedded in the government — the so-called Deep State.
The business community has done its part to bolster Trump. It has showered the media with press releases trumpeting bonuses for workers, which companies attribute to Trump’s tax cuts, even though bonuses are transitory, and the cuts heavily favored the wealthy and corporate interests.
“Policy is trumping style,” said Lanhee Chen, former policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a current fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Chen, who did not vote for Trump, called himself “pleasantly surprised” by Trump’s pursuit of his agenda. He said the massive tax legislation, the raft of very conservative judges Trump has appointed, and the president’s push for a pro-business, deregulatory environment have pushed him from skepticism to a place of acceptance.
He said he expects many Republicans focusing on the midterm elections are in a similar place.
“Even those who sought to distance themselves from the president have to recognize that their fate is still very much tied up with his,” Chen said. “The more successful the president is, the more successful Republicans will be. And there’s a recognition of that.”
Trump’s new strength is a warning shot for Democrats, who benefitted from diminished enthusiasm among Republicans in their recent electoral victories in Alabama and Virginia. In a sign of the growing angst, one progressive group is so worried about recent shifts in national polling data that it sent out a letter to supporters Tuesday urging them not to assume the Trump backlash will remain permanent.
Democrats “must reassert control over the economic narrative if they are going to maximize electoral success in House, Senate and governors’ races this fall,” said a memorandum sent by a liberal advocacy group, Priorities USA.
The memo cited a poll which showed Trump with improving numbers, specifically regarding the country’s economic performance. The internal Democratic poll showed Trump’s job approval rating at 44 percent, up from November when he was at 40 percent.
Democrats’ advantage in polling on Congressional races also shrank dramatically after the brief government shut down last month, an apparent sign that many voters blamed Democrats for holding the budget hostage in their effort to force Republicans to protect some undocumented immgrants from deportation.
Still, Democrats also have their share of good news. Trump’s approval rating among voters overall hovers around 40 percent, a dismal showing for a new president. His approval rating among independents is stuck at 39 percent, with 49 percent disapproving. Die-hard liberals are energized at historic levels and data shows a growing cohort of self-identified Republicans have left the party in the Trump era.
One key demographic to watch in 2018 are women, among whom Trump’s brand has been especially damaged. In the key Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, Trump is polling significantly worse among women after a year in office. The Gallup data, published last week in The Atlantic, showed Trump had dropped 18 percentage points in Ohio and 19 in Wisconsin and Minnesota among women.
Those numbers present warnings for Republicans who may emerged from primaries damaged by their connections to Trump.
“Trump is still hugely popular with the base. If you don’t line-up with him, you lose the primary and don’t get to the general election,” said Ana Navarro, the Republican strategist who has been vocally opposed to Trump. “But in purple districts ... if you align with Trump and win the GOP primary, it probably means you’re damaged goods in the general. Short-term gain. Long-term pain.”
Other Republicans shared that concern. Mickey Edwards, the former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, said he was not surprised members of his party were increasingly lining up behind the president as elections approached, but he urged them to reconsider.
Trump “can put forth a position on an issue that I would agree with very strongly — and he sometimes does — but that doesn’t change my opinion of him,” Edwards said. “I think it’s very, very important that the Republican Party gets a slap across the face this election to say you cannot continue to normalize this sort of behavior.”Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley