Congress Forecast Post-November: Power Struggles in Both Parties

(Bloomberg) -- Former Republican congressman Tom Davis is pretty sure he knows at least one outcome of the November congressional elections.

“The answer is more gridlock,” said Davis, who headed the House GOP campaign arm from 1998 to 2002.

Whether Republicans manage to cling to a majority in the House or Democrats sweep them out of control, power struggles and divisions within both parties along with the polarizing effect of Donald Trump’s presidency are a recipe for a chaotic period ahead with little legislation making its way out of the Capitol.

“If the Republican majority shrinks, it puts further pressure on their ability to perform at all. Because they have trouble performing with what they’ve got,” said Davis, who represented a district in Northern Virginia. If Democrats take the House, Davis said, they’re likely to be consumed with investigating the president. “He’s going to be on defense with a lot of congressional hearings in the House, which right now he’s getting a pass on.”

On top of that is the possibility of split control of Congress, with Republicans holding their narrow Senate majority, as well as Trump’s shifting demands and threats to force a government shutdown if lawmakers don’t meet his demands on a border wall and cuts to legal immigration.

Republicans Threatened

Republicans are swimming against the tide in trying to keep their House majority -- Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win control. They confront the history of the president’s party losing seats in midterm elections, as well as surging Democratic enthusiasm and fundraising.

The most recent signal was delivered Tuesday in primaries in Vermont, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Minnesota: In all four states, Democratic voters turned out in greater numbers than Republicans. In the aftermath, the non-partisan Cook Political Report last week rated the races for 37 Republican-held seats as toss ups or more favorable to Democrats. In January, the number was 20.

Dramatic losses in Congress likely would inflame a power struggle already underway within the GOP that will widen the divide between those who are lining up behind Trump’s brand of nativism and trade protectionism and more traditional business-oriented Republicans.

Leadership Race

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement at the end of this term opens the top Republican leadership post. His designated heir, California Representative Kevin McCarthy, is being challenged for the top job by Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. While Jordon isn’t likely to have the votes to take the leadership position, the three dozen or so votes of the Freedom Caucus could deny McCarthy the job.

In a letter to colleagues, he took a thinly-veiled shot at the party leadership, vowing to "change the way this places operates" and fight harder for conservative issues because "many believe that our congressional majorities have let them down."

The power struggle "highlights the challenge not just for leadership, but for a lot of the rank and file, as well, who want to be seen as pro-Trump but have serious qualms with some of the policies, a lot of the rhetoric," said Doug Heye, a former House leadership aide and Republican National Committee spokesman.

Party Division

There also is a broader schism between Trump and the GOP old guard that favors immigration and opposes tariffs.

It broke into the open earlier this month when the political network led by by billionaire Charles Koch said it wouldn’t back a Trump-endorsed Republican Senate candidate in North Dakota because of his votes on spending and other legislation that run counter to Koch’s pro-business, small government philosophy.

Although the Koch network has funneled millions to conservative candidates and causes, Trump didn’t hold back.

‘‘The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade," Trump tweeted. "Their network is highly overrated, I have beaten them at every turn."

The Republican National Committee followed up by warning the party’s candidates to steer clear of the Koch network, drawing expressions of surprise and disbelief from some GOP candidates and lawmakers.

Tight Grip

Throughout, Trump has kept a firm grip on the party’s voting base that makes it more difficult for Republicans to compromise on their agenda.

"The president’s following among Republicans is almost cult-like," Davis said. "More and more it’s just a very personal following that Republican voters say speaks for their value structure."

Democrats are facing an identity crisis of their own between the older, entrenched leadership apparatus and a younger, energized activist base that is seeking to overhaul the party’s platform and message. One thing that unites them is opposition to Trump, and a Democratic House majority would be hungry for confrontation with the president.

Still, the struggle among Democrats could impact their ability to govern the House. It may materialize early in the form of a leadership battle facing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who features prominently in Republican attack ads on Democratic candidates.

Taking Sides

That’s forced some Democrats to take sides early, and some of the candidates running in more conservative districts that the party needs to win have distanced themselves from her.

The party is also dealing with an insurgency from the left. Candidates backed by independent Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressive groups have had a mixed record in Democratic primaries. But there have been notable exceptions, including the surprise defeat of 10-term New York Representative Joe Crowley, a member of Pelosi’s leadership team, at the hands of 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic socialist.

If many of the younger, more progressive candidates win in November there may be rising demands for the party to pursue causes such as Medicare-for-all or abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Those ideas have been dismissed by centrist Democrats such as Connecticut Representative Jim Himes and Tennessee Senate nominee Phil Bredesen. But they’ve been embraced by some prominent congressional Democrats who may have presidential ambitions, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Howard Dean, a former governor and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who focused on the youth vote, said many of the newer progressive candidates are “not committed Democrats in any way” and will bring more of a mixed ideology with them into office.

“The younger generation is taking over the party, and it’s badly needed," Dean said in an interview. "There’s no need to have a bloody battle," he said. "But you’re going to have a transition whether you like it or not."

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