At this stage of the game, losing the House is the most likely proposition. It’s just a matter of how bad it gets,” said a disconsolate Republican strategist with clients on the ballot, describing the final, desperate scramble to rescue the G.O.P.’s 23-seat majority from an impeachment-happy opposition. In Washington, a familiar sort of fatalism has taken hold. Just weeks until early voting kicks off, a spate of fresh public-opinion polls show Democrats on the precipice of a resounding victory. Time is short; resources are dwindling, and the singular figure with the power to make or break the party—Donald Trump—seems pathologically incapable of standing down and letting a booming job market do the talking. “You have people imploring the president not to put them in a position that will harm them—and therefore harm him,” a veteran G.O.P. operative said of Republican congressional leaders.
The pendulum of political power, which historically swings against the White House during the midterms, could be especially savage this year, given the sharp dissatisfaction with Trump in America’s usually Republican-leaning suburbs. Washington’s high-powered consulting class is betting on it. The lobby shops and advocacy organizations that play both sides and thrive on proximity to power are preparing for a changing of the gavel and moving to forge connections with Democratic committee chairmen in the House beginning in January of 2019, when the 116th Congress is seated. “Downtown, there is a sense that the House is already lost for Republicans,” a G.O.P. lobbyist and former senior House aide told me. “There is a hiring spree for plugged-in House Democrats who want to lobby. So, downtown is already planning on the Democratic takeover; the bets are on how big the flip will be.”
Democratic operatives aren’t being snapped up by K Street at quite the same rate as two years ago. Lobbying shops were chastened by Trump’s victory in 2016 and are awaiting more evidence to confirm what appears to be a surging blue tide. But professional Washington is not unconvinced. They’re privy to much of the same data being poured over by dialed-in Republicans, and believe an end to one-party rule is on the horizon. Whatever bump the Republicans enjoyed earlier this year, during the brief period of normalcy after Trump signed the historic, $1.3 trillion tax overhaul into law, appears long gone. So is the goodwill House Republicans anticipated when they pictured a fall campaign with a national economy growing at an annual clip of 4 percent, and an unemployment rate that had plummeted below 4 percent. “I’m advising clients to start covering their bases with would-be chairs,” said another Republican lobbyist, referring to the Democrats who are likely to take over powerful House committees, such as Energy and Commerce or Ways and Means.
The political forces battering the G.O.P. aren’t hitting the two houses of Congress equally. As I reported for the Washington Examiner and discovered during a summer swing through the Midwest, 2018 is essentially a tale of two campaigns, reflective of the balkanization gripping our politics. As bad as the midterms look for House Republicans, with dozens of seats in danger, their Senate colleagues begin the fall chase better positioned. The party’s 51-49 Senate majority, propped up by a battleground that runs right through the heart of Trump country, could actually expand, if Republicans can navigate a few molehills, and if those molehills don’t grow into mountains. Rep. Beto O’Rourke might upset Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, granted that has as much to do with the Republican’s own image problems as the Democratic Party’s Senate prospects.
Democrats are on the defensive in a handful of ruby red states a world away from restless, upscale suburbia. It’s territory the president captured in 2016 and that, counter to his very real problems elsewhere, remains quite supportive—of him personally and his nationalist agenda. But Democratic candidates are making Republicans work for it, and G.O.P. insiders are beginning to fret that the party is about to squander an underlying environment in these states that should favor the G.O.P. Still, Democrats would have to draw a Trump-like inside straight to pull off in the Senate what they appear on the brink of doing in the House. A Republican consultant with House and Senate clients explained the unusual atmospherics this way: “The electorate is very engaged this year—probably more than ever before. But their brain is all on Trump. He gets a ton of mental space for every American. That’s good for Democrats in House races, and very good for Republicans in Senate races.”
It’s one of the cruel ironies of midterm-election waves that the first to go are usually the most pragmatic and least responsible for the excesses of the ruling class driving the winds of a change. And so the brewing storm is most likely to cast out of Washington precisely those Republicans most resistant to Trump and his darkest impulses, a changing of the guard hastened by the death of John McCain, the Republican icon who passed away in late August, not to mention a slew of retirements, among them influential figures like House Speaker Paul Ryan. Consider this: if things go right for Republicans in the Senate, the party could see an infusion of new Republican blood precisely because the party’s candidates tethered themselves to Trump (heck, even “Lyin’ Ted” might owe his re-election to his former tormenter). On balance, what was left of the Reagan-era party after Trump’s massive 2016 gut job could be finished off by the voters just two short months from now.
As one House Republican’s chief of staff pointed out, it’s the establishment rank and file that has essentially forced Trump to govern as a “conventional conservative.” Tax cuts, deregulation, banking reform, chipping away at Obamacare, stricter economic sanctions on Russia—these are all priorities of the Ryan-era House. With many of them gone—and with the possibility of a larger, more Trump-friendly majority in the Senate—there will likely be far fewer intraparty restraints on Trump, be it on international trade, attacks on the media, or long-standing norms of governance, both at home and abroad. That means more Republican unity, but on the president’s terms. “If the House flips, Trump will be more of a factor because there will not be a figurehead like Ryan to counter him—and House Republicans will be focused entirely on defending the president against hearings and impeachment, so they’ll be one and the same,” the chief of staff said.
It’s not hard to imagine how the next Congress will quickly reorient itself in relation to Trump. The president is prone to shifting responsibility for failure, and he has “a few knuckleheads around him,” as one knowledgeable Republican described it, that haven’t made clear to him the headache that awaits if Democrats win the chamber. Initially, Trump might figure that he’s better off with a House minority that is at least more unified around his unique leadership. Practically speaking, there’s little else a powerless House G.O.P. minority could do beyond tying themselves to Trump and doing their best to disrupt an avalanche of politically charged investigations. The president might even appreciate this new, more homogenous group. As Trump booster Matt Schlapp, a Republican lobbyist and the organizer of the Conservative Political Action Conference, told me: “If you’re kind of a summertime soldier, and your heart really wasn’t in the Trump agenda, I’m glad they left.”