Commentary: GOP Prospects

May 9, 2017

In the wake of the House passage of Obamacare repeal and replace legislation and all the premature triumphalist rhetoric coming from some Republicans I want to explore where the Republican Party is heading.

To quote Charles Dickens, for the GOP it is the best of times and it is the worst of times.  They are in the best shape nationally since Warren Harding was president.  As an aside, since he is considered one of the worst presidents ever, using him as a benchmark may be ironic.  But I digress.

Republicans have their largest House majority since the 1920s – and it took every bit of that majority to pass Obamacare repeal and replace.  They also control more state legislatures and governorships than they have since the 1920s.

To give an example of how party fortunes have shifted: In 1940 the Republican candidate for president, Wendell Willkie, got four – that’s single-digit four – percent of the two-party vote in South Carolina.  In 2004 the Republican candidate for president, George Bush got 70 percent – that’s seven-zero.

Here’s a local example: Howard County, in the heart of Little Dixie, voted 72 percent Democratic in the 1964 presidential election.  Last year it voted 26 percent Democratic.

The GOP owns the South and the rural areas of almost everywhere else.  And the GOP farm system is brimming with future candidates for higher office, often because they successfully targeted rising Democrat stars.  Again a local example: Missouri Democrats had big plans for John Wright, who won the northwest Boone County state legislative district in 2012.  Chuck Bayse, who is from a family that settled Howard County in the early 1800s, knocked him off in 2014.  Wright’s political career is probably over.

And the left continues to make unforced errors.  What was the University of California-Berkeley thinking when it canceled a speech by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter?

So what could possibly be the bad news for the GOP?  The bad news comes in three parts.

The first is history.  Whenever a party gains control of the presidency and both houses of Congress in an election, it gets trounced in the midterm election that immediately follows.

The second is what’s going on in the GOP itself.  The intraparty civil war that was certain to be fought had Trump lost has merely been postponed.  There is a bitter struggle going on between the Steve Bannon wing and the Mitch McConnell wing of the party.  Its outcome is uncertain -- though I would never bet against Mitch McConnell – but the conflict is sapping a lot of the energy needed to fight Democrats in 2018 and beyond.

Finally, and most importantly, is President Trump.  Right now Republicans are riding the tiger.  Their concern should not be what the tiger will do when they have to dismount.  Their concern should be what the large pack of jackals closely following will do.

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.