December surprise.

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The Trump Effect Begins to Hit Congress

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Some Republicans are now worrying that Donald Trump could cost them the Senate -- or even put their seemingly solid House majority in danger.

Republicans have long known they were vulnerable in the Senate in 2016. They currently hold a 54-46 majority, but far more Republican seats are up in this cycle than Democratic seats, and several of those are in tough states for Republicans to hold (such as Wisconsin and Illinois). In the House, Democrats stand to gain here and there because Republicans won so many competitive seats in 2014, but few analysts have considered the GOP's majority at risk.

If Trump actually wins the Republican nomination, the question would be the scale of the disaster for the party. The best-case possibility is that Trump tones things down enough to be able to run as a mainstream conservative Republican and the party can unite behind him. If that’s the case, the party would still likely do unusually badly with the groups Trump has insulted so far, but the losses might be contained. Trump might have little chance to win but he wouldn't excessively drag down Republicans in races down the ballot. Democrats would likely make modest gains in the House and Senate.

Let's suppose, however, that Trump wins the nomination while still proving unacceptable to many Republican elected officials and other party actors. Then, yes, huge GOP losses in Congress, state legislatures and other races are quite plausible. If high-visibility Republicans denounce their own nominee, plenty of GOP voters will wind up staying home in November. Some might even cross party lines at the top of the ballot and vote for Hillary Clinton, and won’t cross back to vote Republican for other contests. Republican candidates will face a choice of pledging loyalty to a damaging nominee or risk adding to the chaos in their party.  

If Trump is long gone by November 2016, Republicans still could have difficulties with Hispanics, Muslims and some other groups, but that was going to be the case even if he had never entered the contest.  And concerns that Trump will harm the overall party image are probably overblown, even if he wins a few primaries. Memories are short. So I wouldn't expect any direct effect on the vote.

One potentially significant indirect effect, however, is possible. Important decisions in House elections are being made right now. Suppose disgust with the party or fear that 2016 will be a Republican debacle pushes some House Republicans into retirement or hurts Republican recruitment for quality candidates for seats that are open or currently held by weak Democrats. The Trump factor could also be affecting Democratic decisions today as well, possibly encouraging better candidates to jump into congressional races. 

The upshot of all this is that Republican politicians and all those who care about continuing Republican control of Congress have strong incentives to ramp up their efforts to defeat Trump. Now.

  1. A Trump independent run? It might  cost Republicans the White House because even if he receives only a small percentage of the vote, it would come overwhelmingly at the expense of the Republican nominee. But it’s harder to see how it would be a significant factor in House and Senate elections.

  2. One safe prediction: Assuming Trump isn’t nominated, social scientists and pundits will argue for years about the extent to which his campaign changed anything. My own view is: So far, very little; Harsh stances on immigration and against Muslims were likely from some Republican candidates, Trump or no Trump. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net