WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s trip to the U.S. Congress will bring the glare of media attention Thursday to an issue that has so far loomed in the background of this election year.
That’s whether his Republican party will retain control of the Senate and one of its critical powers: the ability to shape the makeup of the Supreme Court.
Republicans sound nervous.
Fundraising letters sent out in the last week refer to the presidential election only in passing while pleading for donations to keep the Senate from slipping away.
“No matter what happens with the presidential race, Republicans must maintain their Senate majority,” said one such letter for the party’s congressional fundraising effort.
The letter explained the basic problem: In 2016, Republicans are playing defence.
They’ve got the calendar working against them. Senate elections occur in six-year cycles and Democratic turnout tends to be highest on dates that coincide with a presidential election.
It so happens that the seats being contested now, in a higher-turnout presidential year, are the same ones Republicans won in the landslide, lower-turnout midterm election of 2010.
They have only a four-seat margin in the Senate.
And that cyclical quirk has them defending seven seats in Democratic-leaning states which supported Barack Obama in 2010. Their opponents, meanwhile, are defending in only one state that picked Mitt Romney.
Now Trump’s been added to the equation. He has historically bad polling numbers for a fresh nominee. He starts the race with a disapproval rating of 65 per cent, according to an average of surveys.
The editor-in-chief of a congressional newspaper says this creates a dilemma for Republican lawmakers.
Embrace him, or not?
Shunning him could anger his many fans within the party, while enthusiastically endorsing him could turn off an unusual alliance of moderates-and-ideological-conservatives who can’t stand him.
“I think people are really not going to want to be tied to Trump, but neither can they say —- I don’t think very many of them will say — ‘This would be really bad for the republic,’ because they fear the backlash from their own people,” said Melinda Henneberger.
“So they’re in a pickle.”
That’s the backstory behind Trump’s meetings in Washington.
He’ll run into a mixed crowd.
The top Senate Republican has endorsed him. The top House Republican, Speaker Paul Ryan, hasn’t — at least not yet. The rest of the leadership is split.
Some have tried the Voldemort approach. A few say they’ll support their “nominee” — but avoid using his name.
That endorse-but-don’t-mention approach is being taken by New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. That hasn’t stopped her campaign opponent, a Democratic ex-governor, from campaigning against her as a Trump surrogate.
The same is happening in Wisconsin. The Republican incumbent there, Henneberger said, is being tied to Trump’s offhand, later-retracted remark that women should be punished for having abortions.
Ryan is keeping his distance for now.
He says he wants to hear more from Trump. Reports suggest Thursday’s meeting won’t produce a definitive announcement, but will be a starting point for a discussion about how Trump intends to campaign.
In style and substance, they clash. Trump expresses little interest in the party mantra of cutting social programs he professes disdain for state-of-the-art digital voter targeting and he’s definitely not the candidate party brass had in mind when they proposed a new strategy after the 2012 loss, based on winning more of the fast-growing Latino vote.
“We have an obligation to merge and to unify around our common principles to offer this country a choice,” Ryan said Wednesday.
“We just finished probably one of the most gruelling primaries in modern history. It’s going to take some work and that’s the kind of work we’re dedicated to doing.”
The good news for Ryan is that his party’s majority is likely safe in the House of Representatives. District boundaries are shaped to protect incumbents and Republicans have a 30-seat advantage.
The bad news is that it’s the Senate that approves presidential nominations to the courts and cabinet positions. Conservatives fear a more liberal court will thwart them on gun rights, social issues, campaign spending, and voting rules.
And right now that’s what’s at risk for them.