President Trump kicked the political week off to an early start with a provocative late-afternoon Sunday tweet taking congressional Republicans to task for their insufficiently zealous defense of, well, President Trump.
It's very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2017
It’s highly unusual to see a president publicly feuding with members of his own party, even though he didn’t name names. A tweet like this would suggest he’s a wildly popular president who is targeting members of his own party who might worry about their political futures — but the reality is closer to the opposite.
It’s easy to confuse Trump’s ability to defy expectations by winning the presidency and shock the world with the idea that he was an extraordinarily effective candidate. Had Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) put in a couple more solid debate performances and won the GOP nomination, people would have expected him to beat Hillary Clinton and he probably would have lived up to those expectations. Democrats playing the 2016 blame game would do well to remember that the fundamentals that year favored the GOP, and what Trump did in essence was come close to squandering that edge.
It’s easy to imagine a normal, less scandal-ravaged GOP nominee wiping the floor with Clinton — maybe adding New Hampshire and Nevada to the Electoral College haul, saving these two Senate seats for the GOP, and winning a real mandate in the popular vote.
Though Trump’s surprise win in 2016 might make him seem like a kind of political savant, the reality is he was a drag on his party, a president who didn’t help anyone get over the finish line — offering nothing but anti-coattails.
Trump underperformed in 2016
The 2016 election left the national GOP in an extremely powerful position, but it was, paradoxically, a fairly underwhelming performance. Republicans lost two Senate seats and half a dozen House seats while their presidential candidate lost the popular vote by 2 million.
And critically, Trump did worse than GOP Senate candidates in the key battleground states. Trump finished about half a percentage point behind Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and almost 3 points behind Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
And he did a lot worse than Rob Portman in Ohio, who outperformed Trump by over 6.5 points; John McCain in Arizona, who outperformed Trump by nearly 6; and Marco Rubio in Florida, who beat Trump by 4. What’s particularly telling is that Trump was at odds with those three senators to an unusual degree — Rubio, particularly, opposed him in the primary and once said Trump was a “con artist.” Distance from the Republican nominee clearly helped them, even in three states Trump won.
Trump also ran way behind Mike Lee in Utah, thanks to significant defections to Evan McMullin’s protest campaign.
Trump had two good states in the Midwest — but that may have had nothing to do with him
Trump did outperform GOP Senate nominees in two Midwestern states, Indiana and Missouri, where he ran ahead of the Senate candidates by 4 and 7 points, respectively.
Common sense says this is because Democrats had unusually strong nominees in these two states, Evan Bayh and Jason Kander. Both Democrats had won statewide office before and found ways to distance themselves from coastal liberal cultural tropes.
Most importantly, these wins both came in what have become pretty solidly red states. And ultimately the races weren’t all that close. There’s no particular reason for Roy Blunt to feel that he somehow owes his seat to Donald Trump.
Overall, Republicans owe Trump very little
All of which is to say that even though Trump’s semi-hostile takeover of the institutional Republican Party ended up working out a lot better than most observers (myself included) thought it would, there’s very little reason to believe that it actually worked well. In tight Midwestern races, generic Republicans did better than Trump. In a few red-leaning states, Republicans who distanced themselves from Trump did way better than he did.
Nobody in the Senate particularly owes Trump anything. Which means that in reality, the remarkable thing is just how far congressional Republicans have been willing to go to protect Trump. There’s large substantive overlap in policy agendas, and thus a natural shared interest in Trump being popular. But there’s also a fair amount of reason to believe that the whole conservative agenda might be better served by a less-manic, less-conflict-prone leader than the one they ended up stuck with.