OPINION: Everything in Moderation, Except for Politics
Last Friday, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was in New Hampshire for Politics and Eggs at Saint Anselm College. Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, will be back in the Granite State for a Fireside Chat at New England College in Henniker in early April. Why are these moderate Republicans with national profiles visiting us? With three nor’easters in the last two weeks, the answer isn’t the awesome weather.
Flake is a proud, self-proclaimed “Never Trumper.” Kasich, while more measured in his criticism, is no fan of the president. In the 2016 race and currently, he represents a clear and alternative vision of what the Republican party can look like, perhaps as early as 2020. Flake is also considering a challenge to President Donald Trump.
Last week’s results in Pennsylvania’s 18th district where Conor Lamb, a moderate democrat, won a very close race against a Republican running on the president’s platform with his active endorsement. The result has a lot of people thinking because Trump carried the district by 20 points in 2016.
Historically, the first mid-term is not good for the party in power. In 2010, President Barack Obama’s first mid-term, the democrats lost 63 House seats, six Senate seats and had gubernatorial control of six fewer states. The state legislatures were not a pretty picture either. The Republicans are bracing for a hit this November, but will it be the expected gut punch or a knockout blow?
The Real Clear Politics generic house ballot has the Democrats up by eight points. It has been as high as 13 recently and we are still a long way from Election Day. Nevertheless, if you are a Republican, the generic tea leaves don’t look good. Twenty-five House Republicans are retiring vs. nine democrats (including New Hampshire Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter). In the Senate, four R’s are stepping down vs. one D. Flake is among those retiring, with conventional wisdom believing that he would not withstand a primary challenge from the right in Arizona.
Barring significant events, (North Korea, the economy, Mueller findings …), the Democrats will gain a lot of ground and have at least a 50 percent chance of taking back the House of Representatives. The Senate map is more daunting; 12 of the 18 most contested seats are currently held by Democrats with 10 of those in states carried by Trump in 2016.
Assuming November plays out as expected and is similar to 2010, the Democrats take the House and Republicans keep the Senate. The narrative will be that Trump’s electoral math cannot be duplicated by other candidates, and maybe not even by Trump himself. We’ll hear about turnout and those that were activated by antipathy toward Trump and all he stands for.
Given the political climate, the pitchforks and torches will be out for Trump even more than they already are, if that can be believed. Republicans, who either went down with the ship or remain standing in the minority will have a new calculation to make. What brought about their state of affairs? Was it because they were seen as enablers of the president’s unchecked impulses? Is there a way to preserve the core beliefs of the party and make them relevant to the emerging demography of the electorate?
Enter Flake, Kasich or someone else.
I believe there will be a primary challenger to Trump. That is an easy enough prediction, but in order for that person to be successful in the primary, let alone the general election, based on history they will have to draw to an inside straight.
It’s been a while since there has been a serious challenge to a sitting president. In 1992 Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush and didn’t get close, though one of his stronger showings was in New Hampshire where he got 37 percent of the vote to Bush’s 53 percent. While Bush survived Buchanan, he lost in the general election to Bill Clinton and was a one term President.
In 1980 Sen. Ted Kennedy gave President Jimmy Carter a run for his money, winning a number of states before Carter prevailed (Carter beat him in New Hampshire). The contest was so bitter than Kennedy refused to take Carter’s hand as a show of unity at the convention. In the general election, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide and Carter was a one term President.
Are you seeing the pattern?
The writing is clearly on the wall for a challenge to Trump from the center of the Republican Party. The problem is two-fold; centrists have a difficult time energizing the base and the mere presence of a challenge is divisive and potentially weakens the party leading up to the general election. On top of that, the insurgent candidate is unlikely to win the challenge and the last two centrist republican candidates for president, McCain and Romney, lost handily to Obama, so it is not a path that a lot of Republicans have faith in.
Having said that, the rubber will meet the road on the Mueller investigation, Stormy Daniels, the revolving door cabinet and more before ballots are cast in 2020. If the Democrats take the House in 2018, there is a fair chance that impeachment proceedings will be underway, even if Republicans still hold the Senate. There is a path for a candidate who emerges to save the party from Trump’s potentially embattled presidency.
Soon enough it will be down to New Hampshire.
The Republicans will likely be running Trump (pending world events) and someone Bill Kristol, Joe Scarborough and the other conservatives in mainstream media are more comfortable with, for example John Kasich. Let’s assume that they will have their act together enough not to try multiple challengers.
New Hampshire will determine the early narrative. Does the insurgent have a chance? Remember, Kasich finished second to Trump here in 2016, and in a narrow field, it could be closer than the 20 point margin between them in ’16. Kasich may benefit from voters pulling Republican ballots in order to vote against Trump, but he is competing against not just the Trump base, but also the pragmatic Republicans who don’t want to see the party divided and drained by a primary battle.
New Hampshire will pour either gas or water on the fire.
It will be a tough call. We will know a lot more about all the issues facing the Trump presidency that are developing before our eyes. Our votes will be informed by our own self-interest and what we think is best for the country.
And that’s where it starts to look like three-dimensional chess.
We’ve been focused on the Republicans, but there is a story for another day about whether the Sanders/Warren/Harris/Booker wing of the Democrat Party will drag them far enough to the left to make them vulnerable to Trump or Kasich.
The democrats will descend on New Hampshire with a host of candidates, one or more from the above mentioned left wing and perhaps options like Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, or former Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom would perform well in the rust belt states that cost Clinton the election and are unlikely to lose any of the states she won. There may even be a celebrity or two, but I don’t think the response to the Trump presidency will be to nominate another neophyte for the job.
So New Hampshire Republican voters, do you do the same thing many legislators are doing now, look past the things you might not like about the president in the interest of furthering an agenda you mostly support?
Do you support the primary challenger in the hopes of unseating Trump and possibly having the agenda you want without the vulgarity you don’t?
Or do you simply agree with/support Trump?
Don’t forget, the other side impacts your decision. Maybe you can live with Biden (for example) as president if you choose to support Kasich and he falls short of the nomination and weakens Trump’s campaign. His policies are not extreme, and he certainly has experience. He may not be perfect, but if you prefer Kasich over Trump, you can probably live with Biden.
But suppose you end up weakening Trump for a contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Kamala Harris? Even a moderate Republican would struggle to support most of the policies advocated by Sanders or the first term Senator from California.
Are you willing to increase the likelihood of President Sanders or President Harris in order to unseat President Trump?
Those are the stakes New Hampshire, and you’ll be setting the tone for the country. The responsibility of the First in the Nation Primary has never been greater.