In light of Trump’s consistent unpopularity among most of the country and the staggering losses the Republican party has already seen in special elections since the 2016 general, most seem to be anticipating a massacre for the Democrats in the 2018 midterms. This is ostensibly good news for anyone who wants to see the downfall of Trump and the GOP, but the GOP’s depraved behavior, Trump-supporting base, and expectation of closing doors will produce a toxic mix of incentives that should worry even the optimists.
Since the 2016 election, the GOP rank-and-file have shown a disturbing lack of willingness to stand up to Trump’s dismantling and reshaping of the federal government, and Trump in turn has made it clear that he will scratch their backs if they scratch his. Three of the four most outspoken Trump opponents in the Senate GOP, John McCain, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, cannot be expected to stay in the fray for long, as McCain is dealing with a highly aggressive form of brain cancer and Corker and Flake have announced their intention to retire at the end of their current terms. In Corker’s and Flake’s cases, their decisions were made in large part due to the intense resistance they expected to face in their respective primary races, specifically resistance from far-right challengers. The message for anyone running for the Republicans in 2018 is clear: opposing Trump doesn’t pay. If you don’t back the president strongly enough (and even Corker, McCain, and Flake overwhelmingly voted in alignment with him), you will be beaten by someone who does. Even Paul Ryan, whose flaccid opposition to Trump earned him scorn from both sides, is more than likely passing the Republican torch not to a moderate, but to white supremacist Paul Nehlen.
An incumbent who doesn’t get primaried will still have to face their general election opponent, likely a Democrat. Given the stark divide between Trump’s approval among Republicans (85% as of March 25, 2018) and his approval in the nation as a whole (39% as of the same date), it’s unlikely that a Trump-supporting Republican will be able to convince many independents or conservative Democrats to join his side merely by turning on the president, especially if they were just praising Trump a few months before to avoid getting primaried. There is still no reward for a Republican wanting to reach across the aisle—that time is long gone; contrary to what one might assume, distancing yourself from an unpopular president might actually hurt your chances of getting elected. Republicans are faced with a choice of remaining radicalized (or even becoming more so) and keeping their small-but-passionate base of support, or moderating themselves and losing even the base while gaining nothing.
In light of this, even before the 2018 elections occur, I would expect to see more radicalization, not less, occurring on multiple fronts. For current Republican officeholders, there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by opposing Trump. Will Ted Cruz suddenly bring over more independents and conservative-leaning Democrats just by edging away from Trump? There is no reward for a Republican wanting to reach across the aisle—that time is long gone. Republican candidates can either remain radicalized (or become more so) and keep their 35% support, or moderate themselves and lose even that. The only real hope for someone in that position is that their base is so fired up that their participation rate swamps that of their opposition.
Additionally, in certain cases the problem may actually be worse in competitive districts than in comfortably red areas. In districts with a smooth distribution of political views across the population, even if it leans right overall, most people’s views will likely rest comfortably near the center of that distribution, meaning that a leftward shift from a right-wing candidate still could appeal to much of the population on ideological grounds, even if the candidate has already burned goodwill for supporting Trump. Compared to that kind of district, one with a more powerful left wing will probably have fewer people residing in the center (especially if the district is red overall, indicating polarization). In this instance, there will be much fewer people brought over due to ideological agreement—probably less than can be gained by pushing even harder to the right.
This pressure will also manifest itself in a sort of political FOMO—officeholders who feel that their time may be running out, especially if they moderate themselves, may push extreme legislation much harder than they would if they felt comfortable in their chances of re-election. Again, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by extremifying yourself in a situation like this. Shifting rightward to shore up your base will increase both your chances of re-election and your chances of successfully accomplishing your agenda.
Those who are truly desperate may resort to increasingly dangerous measures to hold on, especially if the Mueller investigation threatens to bring down more than just Trump and his inner circle. Consider the decision-making process for someone who believes that they will face worse consequences from GOP losses (their own or someone else’s) than they will by using illegal or questionably-legal tactics to win. It might seem outlandish to predict such authoritarian maneuvers, but the if the incentives are aligned correctly, it’s not a ridiculous prospect at all. The Economist, in fact, has already reported that multiple Republican governors are blocking Democrat-leaning special elections until conditions are more favorable for the party:
Mr. Walker reacted [to a court ordering a special election] by asking Republican legislative leaders to recall lawmakers for an extraordinary session on April 4th, so they could pass a bill that would no longer allow special elections after the state’s spring election in even-numbered years. (This year’s spring election is on April 3rd). […]
[…] Two other Republican governors, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Rick Scott of Florida, are stalling on special elections. Mr. Snyder has decided to wait until November to replace John Conyers, a Democratic congressman who resigned in December because of allegations of sexual harassment, as well as Bert Johnson, a Democratic state senator who resigned after pleading guilty to charges of corruption. Mr. Scott, who like Mr. Snyder is term-limited, is refusing to hold special elections for two seats in Florida’s legislature.
There are still reasons to be optimistic about the 2018 election, as it seems unlikely that the handful of measures mentioned here will outweigh the overwhelming Democratic momentum, but it’s important to fight complacency. Equally important to avoid is a sense that America just needs to wait for the 2018 elections and everything will be fixed. A lot of damage can still be done between now and November, and carelessness and stupidity are unacceptable luxuries that will only speed it along.