Republicans had watched Donald Trump unleash powerful forces inside their party for more than a year. On Election Day last year, the question for many inside the GOP was how to deal with those forces once Trump had lost.
Few had figured out what it would mean for the party if he won.
Democrats were planning. There were lists of cabinet secretaries and the challenge of breaking the deadlock that set in between President Obama and the GOP Congress once President Hillary Clinton was in office.
Few had figured out what it would mean for the party if she lost.
Over the past year, Republicans have struggled to come together and govern effectively. Democrats have struggled to unite around a common cause, or move on from bitter infighting. But both parties may finally be figuring out how to exist in the Trump era.
‘No if, ands or buts,’ it’s Trump’s party
New York Rep. Chris Collins made the smartest bet of his political career when he became the first House Republican to endorse Trump during the 2016 campaign.
“My constituents love Donald Trump,” the Republican said in a recent interview, noting that his loyalty is not lost back home in his suburban Buffalo, N.Y., district. “The number of people that come up to me all the time — and I’m most surprised by how many have young kids — and say, ‘My 8-year-old son, my 12-year-old daughter, they love Donald Trump!’ ”
Collins’ enthusiasm and support for Trump is in striking contrast to the national political climate, where Trump’s approval rating hovers around 38 percent.
The 2016 presidential election divided the nation, and at the one-year mark after, those divisions endure. But inside the Republican Party, in the halls of Congress, and among the party’s base activists, Trump’s command over the GOP is nearly cemented.
“Here on Capitol Hill, people respect him immensely,” Collins said, “and he is setting the tone. Some politicians think of themselves as setting the tone, but they’re not setting the tone anymore, so [Trump] has got them on the edge of their chair. But they all want to go on Air Force One. They all want to go to the Oval Office … Who’s in charge? There’s no if, ands or buts about who’s in charge — it’s Donald J. Trump.”
Enacting the most significant overhaul of the federal tax code since the Reagan era could eliminate any lingering doubt that the GOP will stand unified behind him.
Trump is not without high-profile GOP detractors, like Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who have laid plain their concerns about Trump’s character and tilt toward more nationalist, protectionist politics.
That shift has been the most notable realignment under Trump, and the toughest one for many traditional conservatives to embrace, said Hans Noel, who studies political parties at Georgetown University.
“What seems to be changing on the Republican side is that the anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist identity element is much, much more central than it had been,” Noel said. “If anything, it had been slowly fading over the last several decades as an important part of what it means to be conservative, and it is reasserting itself in both the ideology and in the party that is most aligned with that ideology.”
Flake and Corker have offered blistering critiques of the president, but their voices are fading in the party because both have opted for retirement over reelection campaigns in 2018.
Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Republicans need to continue to work on expanding the party tent. Like many Republicans, Cantor believes Trump’s victory was due in large part to Clinton’s unpopularity and her flawed campaign.
In other words, Republicans can’t take for granted that the Trump coalition is enough to deliver future victories.
“Our system is a binary one — it’s one or the other, and when the choice on the other side is so bad, the base-only play that Donald Trump’s been about is going to succeed,” said Cantor, who himself lost a historic 2014 GOP primary in a loss that many attribute to a sign of the future rise of Trump.
Unlike Flake, Cantor still sees a home for himself inside the GOP, but he warns that Republicans could still lose core portions of their coalition, like suburban, college-educated voters, if Democrats can put up candidates with cross-party appeal.
“They’re the ones, if given a viable choice on the other side, they’re going to opt for that viable choice if the Republican Party doesn’t adopt more of an inclusive, expansive mantle,” he said.
Full control of D.C., with little to show for it
Republicans are candid that this first year has been an uneasy one between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
For most of this year, “the president and Republicans in Congress were just kind of circling each other like wary boxers trying to figure out what the other one is going to be like and how to get the drop on them,” said Steven Law, who runs the GOP superPAC American Crossroads and is a long-time ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Law said the health care bill’s failure, while demoralizing, was also a lesson in how to work together. Like practically all Republicans, Law said the more important test of this governing majority will be if the the party can enact its major tax overhaul.
“If they fail at tax reform, after their failure on health care, then I think their majorities are in peril next year, because a lot of voters who gave them a chance, gave them these majorities, gave them the presidency, will feel like they didn’t make any use of it,” said Tim Phillips, who runs the Charles and David Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group whose single biggest legislative priority is to pass this tax bill.
Failure on tax legislation could derail the relationship between Trump and the Republican establishment, and the White House has already made clear they are willing to take aim at Republicans almost as easily as Democrats.
Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, a co-chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said this is where Trump has the upper hand over the establishment. Their voters are more loyal to the president, and lawmakers don’t like being on the wrong side of their voters.
“Those who say they’re for the president, when they say they’re for the president, they are really for the president, which is a good thing,” Jordan said. “I think the intensity factor for President Trump is probably as strong as anyone than in modern political times.”
Part of what’s fueling that intensity is the mainly white, working-class voters in places like Jordan’s congressional district, where many felt forgotten by the political system. In a shake up that took even the Republican establishment by surprise, Trump has challenged the image of the Republican Party as the party of corporate America, into a party that fights for working America.
“I think they see him as what they want the Republican Party to be,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., whose district delivered Trump his highest vote share of the nation’s 435 congressional districts. “I think for far too long the establishment has had its way, and I think the establishment side of it is losing.”
Long-time Republican operatives like Law, said that could fundamentally be a very good thing for the GOP, to realign itself from the party of corporate America to the party of struggling, working-class America. “Donald Trump was not the president the Republican Party expected in 2016, but he may just end up being the president the Republican Party needs,” Law said.
— Susan Davis
Simply show up
Democrats have mostly been bystanders in Washington this year. Their challenge has been figuring out what went wrong out across the country. But initially, at least, that involved a lot of dwelling.
Over the past year, Democrats all over America have rehashed the minute-by-minute tick-tock of where they were, and what they were thinking, at the exact moment when it became clear that Donald Trump was on his way to the White House.
Chrissy Houlahan is no different. Sitting in Reading, Pa., one year later, she recalled how she and her daughter spent the morning of Election Day doing some last-minute door knocking for Hillary Clinton in suburban Philadelphia.
“We went back home and scrambled into outfits to vote in,” she said. “I put on a pantsuit and my daughter put on white clothes to represent the suffragettes. And we were so excited at the possibility that we may have just ushered in a first woman president.”
They watched the returns, champagne at the ready. “And the night, as we know, kind of went sideways, at least for me, when Pennsylvania fell and turned red,” Houlahan said.
The night before the election, Clinton had rallied with 33,000 people in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. But then she became the first Democrat to lose the commonwealth since 1988.
That upset in Pennsylvania — as well as similar surprises in Wisconsin and Michigan — put Trump in the White House. And while Trump’s combined margin in all three states was small enough to have fit in any of the Big Ten football stadiums in those states, the loss knocked Democrats off-kilter, and led to a year in which, electorally speaking, they didn’t trust themselves to be too confident in pretty much anything.
This week’s Democratic wins in Virginia and New Jersey provided Democrats with their first political boost since then. The party’s strong showing in statehouse races, in particular, validated a theory that Houlahan and other Democrats across Pennsylvania have been circling around as their main theory for how the Keystone State could possibly have slipped from their grasp: that Democrats have to put in the time and effort to simply show up outside of the cities and suburbs.
“In my view, it is completely insufficient to do what some Democratic strategists want us to do and just focus on getting 90 percent of the vote in a very small area and then ignoring the rest of the population,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents part of Philadelphia and some suburban areas. “That math may work for a statewide race, but is death for all the single-member districts out there.”
And it didn’t work in 2016. Clinton got the vote totals Democrats typically need to win in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. But a surge in Republican support in the rest of the state allowed Trump to claim a narrow victory.
In the wake of the election, Boyle helped found a Democratic “Blue Collar Caucus” aimed at helping reconnect the party with the working-class voters that, for so many decades, formed the core of its base.
“It’s not exactly telling a secret to say that the Democratic Party has drifted away from working men and women being the backbone of the party,” he said.
Democrats at all levels of party leadership think an economic focus is one way to reconnect with working-class and rural voters who felt championed by Trump in 2016. House and Senate leaders have rolled out an economic agenda they’re calling “A Better Deal.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, one of several Democrats running for reelection next year in suddenly red states, argues an economic focus is also a strategic way to avoid some of the infighting that characterized Democratic politics in 2017.
“I think, even as we’re a diverse party, we do tend to come together, I think, on jobs, raising wages, economic opportunity,” Casey said. “If I have a criticism of my party, and frankly, myself, we haven’t talked enough about those issues.”
But Boyle worries that simply pivoting the talking points isn’t enough.
“In some ways, the closeness of the presidential election actually papers over the extent of our challenge,” he said. “We are, numerically speaking, at our lowest point either in 90 years or ever as a party since being founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. So, in my view, it would be malpractice to think that all we need is a tweak, or just presenting the message in a slightly different way.”
Hope in the suburbs
Democrats regained a governor’s mansion this week, and seized control of one — possibly two, depending on Virginia recounts — state-level legislative chambers. But they’ll have to wait another year for an opportunity to make a substantial change in the number of seats they hold.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, many Democrats seemed paralyzed with dread. But, in interviews over the past year in Pennsylvania and across the country, rank-and-file Democrats repeatedly pointed to Jan. 21 as a galvanizing moment that shook them out of their stupor. That’s the date of the record-setting Women’s March in Washington and other cities around the nation and world.
Houlahan helped organize a bus to carry her and other Philadelphia-area protesters down I-95.
“And in that journey down with 53 women and two men, I had the opportunity to learn that we all had different reasons to be standing there and marching, and all of them were issues that really mattered to all of us,” she said. “And it occurred to me that I had the background and the experience” to possibly run for office.
She’s now running for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District.
In fact, Houlahan is one of the Democrats’ top prospects in Pennsylvania. She’s an Air Force veteran and a longtime business executive — and she’s running in a district that went for Clinton, but also reelected Republican Ryan Costello to Congress.
Democrats see their best shot at a House majority as winning districts like hers — suburban seats that split their results for Clinton and Republican representatives.
For Houlahan, there’s one big problem with that district — its shape. Many people see it as resembling a dragon.
“It basically snakes its way and arches its way across southeastern Pennsylvania, and westward toward Reading,” she said. “And that dragon, basically, has a bunch of bites in it. And anywhere that you see a bite taken out of the back or the stomach of the dragon, I would argue that those are where Democrats are.”
And Democrats only have one real fix for this problem — winning these districts, in spite of their built-in Republican advantages and taking back legislatures and governors’ seats, so they can be the party drawing them after the next census.
That’s easier said than done, because, as Boyle points out, Democrats dug themselves a deep hole over the past decade or so.
The party is, however, seeing a flood of first-time candidates. Many, like Houlahan, are women with military experience. At the same time, many Republicans in competitive districts have announced their retirements. All this is happening at a time when President Trump is suffering record-low approval ratings.
All of these signs are hallmarks of coming wave elections. Casey was first elected in 2006, and he sees similarities between that year’s climate and next year’s midterms.
“I think that the frustration with Washington is even more pronounced than it was,” he said — a striking observation, given that Democrats seized control of the House and Senate that year at the height of the Iraq War, and in the midst of a wave of Republican corruption scandals.
But there are far fewer competitive districts in play today than in 2006, as those district boundaries are a major challenge for Democrats, especially in states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office at the time the lines were drawn in 2011.
That’s why grassroots activists like Jamie Perrapato are trying to erase them. She’s the director of a group called Turn PA Blue, which has organized canvassing events, candidate forums, and educational workshops all aimed at flipping Republican-held state and local offices in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“We’re trying to mobilize the people within the gerrymandered blue areas and move them out and put support in these red areas,” she explained, sitting in the back row of an empty high school auditorium just outside Philadelphia. “Generally, in these areas the Democrats have a registration advantage, but don’t always show up.”
Like Houlahan’s congressional candidacy and so many other progressive organizing efforts, Turn PA Blue was an initiative that began in January.
“All these little groups popped up after the election,” Perrapato said. “I don’t know if they were mini-support groups or lots of things that people wanted to do.”
She’s ended up working with many of them — state, county, and municipal Democratic parties that have been around for a long time, and newer, Trump-era grassroots efforts like Indivisible.
“I’m a good, Italian girl,” she said. “I never show up unannounced, and I don’t show up without food.”
All the organizing paid off this week. Democrats won county-level races in Delaware County, southwest of Philadelphia, for the first time ever.
Still, Trump remains in the White House, and Republicans control all aspects of the federal government. And even after a night of big local wins, Democrats are wary of feeling too confident — after 2016 turned out so horribly wrong for them.
“I’m wondering who we’re talking to,” Perrapato said about all her organizing efforts. “Are we talking to each other? Who’s listening?”
This week’s elections provided the first clue that Democrats may be reaching voters outside their bubble. But they won’t know for sure until 2018 and 2020.
— Scott Detrow