Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP
At this point in the impeachment inquiry, it appears unlikely President Trump will be removed from office, even though it is likely the House will impeach him. But the Republican Party’s worst nightmare—a second term with a Democratic Congress—might yet happen.
But a Democratic Congress might just be the beginning. Given the president’s reelection prospects, short political coattails, and malleable political beliefs, and huge ego this scenario may mean that Trump abandons the policies and style that has made him enduringly popular among those in his base.
The president’s strong support from Republican senators, along with continued support from his Republican base, makes Trump’s prospects for reelection in 2020 better than average. Recent results from the Meredith Poll show that Trump runs well against the top five Democratic challengers, despite his potential impeachment by the House.
But two recent elections in Kentucky and Louisiana in which Trump vigorously campaigned for the Republican candidate for governor—Matt Bevin in Kentucky and Eddie Rispone in Louisiana—continue to demonstrate that Trump’s electoral coattails are short. In North Carolina, incumbent Republican Thom Tillis is vulnerable and consistently runs 6-8 percentage points behind Trump in state polls.
With 35 Senate seats up for election in 2020 and the Democrats needing to have a net gain of four seats to win a slight majority in the chamber, other Republicans are similarly vulnerable including Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona, and Susan Collins in Maine. Even with the potential loss of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama, Democrats would need to win only one other Senate seat in addition to those mentioned above to take control of the Senate. This scenario is plausible given Trump’s inability get other Republican candidates across the finish line in elections.
Although having both chambers of Congress controlled by Democrats is a bad situation for a party hoping to continue packing the federal courts with conservative justices and passing other Republican policy ideas into law, this pales in comparison to the likelihood that Trump, facing a Democratic Congress, may simply choose to pursue a Democratic policy agenda in his second term.
A registered Democrat, as recently as November 2011, Donald Trump’s conversion to the Republican policy agenda has been both recent and inconsistent. Long a supporter of choice on abortion, Trump also advocated for the legalization of drugs in 1990 and he wrote in a 2000 book that he supported the assault weapon ban and a longer waiting period to purchase firearms. And, in a 2004 interview on CNN, he praised the economy under Democratic presidents.
As demonstrated repeatedly, Trump is not beholden to past positions or statements, nor does he have any strong belief in loyalty to people who have supported him, even through a crisis like impeachment.
Most two-term presidents start thinking about their legacies in their second terms. Trump, however, has and always will be consumed by the question of his presidential legacy. He wants to be remembered for dramatic accomplishments, not necessarily for Republican accomplishments. It is for this reason that a reelected Trump might gladly work with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on a major infrastructure bill, stop trying to kill the Affordable Care Act and, instead, make major improvements in it, and even drop the most draconian actions against asylum-seekers and immigrants in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform law.
This scenario leaves the Republican Party without a standard bearer in the White House, but, more importantly for the party’s future, leaves his congressional defenders humiliated with dismal hopes for their own political futures. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and others who transformed themselves from Trump critics to Trump acolytes would face excommunication from establishment Republicans and, almost certainly, well-funded primary challenges for those who decided to run again.
Some of the true believers in the Trump base would simply continue to support Trump, even if he worked closely with Pelosi and Schumer, while others would become so disillusioned with politics, because Trump decided to pursue the politically expedient path, that they disconnected with politics entirely. Either way, the Republican Party is further diminished because of its embrace of someone motivated more by the celebrity of the White House than by politics.
David McLennan is a professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., where he also directs the Meredith Poll.