Republicans in the Biden Era

The Biden era begins with Democrats narrowly in control of Congress. Some actions can be taken without Republican support. Nonetheless, big change requires the votes of at least a few Republicans. How likely is this?

To answer this question, it’s necessary to dissect the current political environment.  In the 2020 presidential-election exit polls: 37 percent of respondents identified as Democrats, 36 percent identified as Republicans, and 26 percent as Independents.  (94 percent of Democrats voted for Biden and 94 percent of Republicans voted for Trump; 54 percent of Independents voted for Biden.)

In the presidential election, Trump had the support of 94 percent of Republicans.  Of the 158 million voters, 57 million were Republicans voting for Trump — 34 percent of all voters.

Since the election, and the January 6th insurrection, Trump’s support has eroded.  The latest Pew Research report (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/20/how-we-know-the-drop-in-trumps-approval-rating-in-january-reflected-a-real-shift-in-public-opinion/ ) indicated that only 29 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s job performance.  Trump’s support among Republicans had deteriorated and only 60 percent approved of his performance, as he left office.  Based on this finding, let’s assume that, at the moment, only two-thirds of Republicans who voted for Trump, on November 3rd, would vote for him today — 38 million (roughly 25 percent of all voters).  That’s the hard-core Trump base.  This aligns with a recent Monmouth University Poll (https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/MonmouthPoll_US_012721/ ) that found: “Most Americans (71%) would rather see Republicans in Congress find ways to work together with Biden than to focus on keeping Biden in check (25%).”

In a recent Washington Post commentary (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/nixon-trump-rebranding-rehabilitation/2021/01/22/603ecca4-5c29-11eb-b8bd-ee36b1cd18bf_story.html), legendary political observer, Elizabeth Drew, speculated on whether or not Donald Trump could “rehabilitate” himself as Richard Nixon did — after leaving the White House.  Drew summarized: “[Trump] lacks discipline, intellectual rigor and the doggedness Nixon used to pull himself up from the bottom. But Trump has one advantage Nixon didn’t … a large and fanatically devoted following.” (Emphasis added.)

It’s possible to allocate congressional Republicans into three groups –depending upon their devotion to Donald Trump.  The first group is the Trump cultists.  In the Senate, an example is Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville; in the House of Representatives, an example is California Congressman Devin Nunes.  The second group is the “transactionalists;” that is, Republicans who support Trump only when they see it to be their personal advantage.  In the Senate, an example is Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell; in the House, an example is House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy.  The third group is the “constitutionalists;” that is, Republicans who place following the Constitution over fealty to Trump.  In the Senate, an example is Utah Senator Mitt Romney; in the House, an example is Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger.

To understand the near-term prospects for congressional action, it’s necessary to factor in the fragmentation of the Republican Party.  (Theoretically there’s also a split in the Democratic Party between liberals and moderates; I’m ignoring this because, at the moment, Dems are reasonably unified.)

Trump’s Impeachment: On January 25th, The House (Democratic) impeachment managers delivered the paperwork for Trump’s second impeachment to the Senate.  The Senate trial begins on February 8th.  It would take 67 votes to convict Trump; assuming all 48 Democratic Senators and 2 Independents voted for conviction, 17 Republicans would have to vote for impeachment.  How likely is it that enough Republicans would vote to convict Trump?

A recent survey by the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/25/us/politics/senate-impeachment-whip-count.html?referringSource=articleShare) indicated that 27 of the 50 Republican Senators indicated they would not vote for conviction.  Some of these are Trump cultists, for example, Senator Tuberville.  Others, like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley are transactionalists; they’re voting in what they perceive to be their self-interest.

It’s a tall order to expect 17 Republicans to vote to convict Trump.  Early indications are that only a handful will do this.  On January 26th, Republican Senator Rand Paul forced a trial vote, based upon the (erroneous) notion that Trump’s (second) impeachment trial was unconstitutional — since Trump is no longer in office.  45 Republican Senators went along with this.  The five that voted agains Rand Paul’s motion were a group we might call Republican constitutionalists: Collins (Maine), Murkowski (Alaska), Romney (Utah), Sasse (Nebraska), and Toomey (Pennsylvania).  (Note that the transactional Republicans are hiding behind the chimera that Trump’s impeachment is illegal.)

Biden Economic Relief Plan: In addition to impeachment, the other major February Senate vote will be on the Biden Economic Relief package — an omnibus bill that will provide assistance to individuals, businesses, and governments impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic.  Once again, we can expect that 48 Democratic Senators and 2 Independents will support this.  The questions is: how many Republican votes will it get?

I’m assuming there are ay least 10 Republican Trump cultists, who will oppose anything that Biden/Democrats propose.  That leaves 40 Republican senators who are somewhat open to Democratic initiatives.  I’m going to hazard a guess that there are 10 that will generally go along with their Democratic counterparts: Burr, Collins, Grassley, Lankford, Murkowski, Portman, Romney, Sasse, Scott, and Toomey.

Looking ahead:  In 2022, there are four Republican Senate seats that are up-for-grabs: North Carolina (Burr — retiring), Ohio (Portman — retiring), Pennsylvania (Toomey — retiring), and Wisconsin (Johnson).  If Trump remains a power in the Republican Party, then he will support Trump cultists to run in North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  (In Wisconsin, Johnson is a transactionaist and ,therefore, will tred softly to retain Trump’s support.)

In the majority of contentious House races, Republicans will propose Trump cultists.   This means that some of the House seats that Republicans won in 2020, will likely flip to Democratic control.  For example, in California Republicans control 11 seats, districts 1, 4, 8, 21, 22, 23, 25, 39, 42, 48, and 50.  The Republican occupying CA 25 is Mike Garcia, a Trump cultist — who won by 333 votes; he should be vulnerable in 2022.  Three seats won by transactional Republicans (21, 39, and 48) were won by narrow margins.

Summary: At this stage, we can expect a handful of congressional Republicans to support the Biden agenda.  The remainder will stay loyal to Trump and oppose most everything Democrats propose.  Capitol Hill won’t be in gridlock but on the edge.

How long this situation goes on depends upon the duration of Trump’s hold on the Republican Party.  This will depend upon three things: First, Trump’s access to social media; at the moment he cannot use Twitter and Facebook and, therefore, has no convenient daily way to communicate with his followers.  Second, Trump’s support from Republican donors; Trump will need money to continue to be the major GOP power — at the moment he isn’t getting support from big donors.  Third, exogenous factors such as the status of Trump lawsuits and the state of Trump business affairs; at the moment, Trump looks to be on shaky financial ground but time will tell.

We’re all sick of talking about Trump but, for the near future, we’re going to have to pay attention to him.  His “illness” has infected the Republican Party.