The very public intra-party fight between President Trump and the Freedom Caucus is just the latest twist in the ongoing fight over the philosophical, strategic and ideological direction of the Republican party. As has been his mode of operation since his candidate days, Trump has taken to Twitter to shame/intimidate/cajole members of his own party. In this case, it was to get rebellious GOPers to “take one for the team” and support a flawed, but nonetheless GOP-authored Obamacare replacement bill. But, in the end, it’s not the Freedom Caucus that gets hurt by this infighting. They sit in safe Republican seats and know their voters better than anyone in DC. Instead, it’s the vulnerable GOP incumbents who lose this fight. Why? The more the GOP gets bogged down in process instead of progress, the more likely it is that their voters become disillusioned and that independent voters abandon them. Combine these ingredients with an energized Democratic base and you have all the ingredients for a disastrous midterm election in 2018 for the GOP.
In fact, if you look back at the last four midterm elections where the party in the White House lost control of one or both houses of Congress, you see that they share the following traits in common: the president has approval ratings among his own partisans under 85 percent and approval ratings among independents in the 30’s or low 40s.
For example, in November 2006, President George W. Bush’s job approval ratings among his own party were 81 percent. Just 31 percent of independents gave him a positive job rating. His party lost 30 House seats – and control of the House. Four years earlier, in the 2002 midterms, Bush’s job approval ratings among Republicans were a robust 91 percent and among independents they were at 63 percent. His party picked up eight seats in the House that year. We are less than 75 days into the Trump Administration and the president is flirting very close to the danger zone territory. The most recent Gallup survey put his approval ratings with Republicans at 85 percent, but he’s sitting at just 33 percent with independents. If he drops a few points among GOPers, Trump’s ratings today would look exactly like those of President Bush right before his party was routed in 2006.
The old rules say that the GOP is going to take serious damage in the 2018 midterms, but the real question is do the old rules even apply anymore in the Trump era? Given the most disastrous opening 70 days in modern White House history, Trump's still at 85% with Republicans and that shows no sign of getting any worse for him. Independents and Democrats have already bailed on this President, but it's Republicans who show up for midterms to actually vote, and that's not going to change.
Will Democrats and independents show up with enough force to counter that trend in 2018? They sure as hell didn't in 2010 and especially in 2014, the lowest midterm turnout since WW II. 2018 better be different. and the time to lay that groundwork for candidates and turnout efforts is now.
Luckily, Democrats at the national level seem to grasp this, or at least Tom Perez does. Whether this will translate into actual action remains to be seen.