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The public response had clear effects in Congress. Congressional Republicans had been unified behind the president in the early stages of the shutdown, but cracks started to emerge as it dragged on. In public, this was demonstrated on Thursday by six Senate Republicans voting for legislation put forward by Senate Democrats that would fund the government without money for the wall. And, in private, disagreement with the president’s strategy extended beyond those six. A meeting between Senate Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday reportedly turned into a venting session, with some senators scolding Pence for the White House’s strategy. Among the critics was Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has the power to bring forward legislation, whether Trump likes it or not.
We don’t know much about the private discussions between McConnell and the White House, but it’s possible that Trump folded in part because McConnell suggested Senate Republicans would likely move forward soon with legislation funding the government without paying for the wall — with or without the president’s support. Although Trump, in a Rose Garden speech on Friday, acted as if it were his decision to end the shutdown, the decision to fold may not truly have been Trump’s to make, and the speech may have been McConnell allowing the president to save face and concede before the Republicans in the Senate fully broke with him.
To be clear, it’s not certain that Trump has lost the broader fight over the wall. It’s hard to see congressional Democrats offering much funding for it, but maybe they will agree to some kind of compromise that includes a few billion dollars. (I wouldn’t bet on this, as liberal Democratic opposition to the wall seems to be hardening.) Or, as he suggested on Friday, Trump could declare a national emergency and reallocate funds from other parts of the government to finance a wall. Such a move will almost certainly draw legal challenges. But Trump might win in the courts, as he (eventually) did on his executive order banning travel from certain countries into the United States.
For now, however, we’re back to where we were when the shutdown began. Trump and Congress have three weeks to figure out a solution. In public, at least, all sides are staking out the same positions they held when the shutdown started. Trump will likely need a different strategy going forward. The one he employed over the last month — shutting down the government (which is unpopular) to get the wall (which is unpopular) — could not keep his party united forever.
If at first you lose a Senate race … hope for an appointment! Despite a narrow defeat in Arizona’s 2018 U.S. Senate race, Republican Rep. Martha McSally will still be headed to Congress’s upper chamber next year. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced on Tuesday that he is appointing McSally to fill the state’s other Senate seat, formerly held by the late Sen. John McCain and currently held by Jon Kyl, who Ducey initially appointed to the seat; Kyl announced last week that he will resign on Dec. 31.
So what might we expect from Sen. McSally? Well, perhaps she won’t be too different from McCain. According to data from Voteview, a system that measures the political ideology of all senators and representatives based on their voting records, both McCain and McSally were more moderate than most other Republicans in the 115th Congress.1 In fact, less than a third of congressional Republicans were more moderate than McSally (29 percent) and McCain (30 percent). Both were squarely in the left wing of their party. However, despite having a relatively more moderate ideology score, McSally voted in line with President Trump in most cases, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score.
During her two terms in the House, McSally represented the Arizona 2nd, a R+1 battleground district that Democrats won in November. That purple electorate probably influenced her moderate approach. If we just look at McSally’s first term, she had an even less conservative voting record, so she has shifted a bit further to the right during her tenure, perhaps in anticipation of her Senate bid and the fact that she needed to beat staunch conservative challengers like Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio to win the Republican nomination. Still, Arizona looks likely to be a politically competitive state going forward, so if McSally mimics McCain’s record as a “maverick”, a less-than-hardline voting record might work out for her, electorally-speaking. He did win six Senate elections from 1986 to 2016, all by margins greater than 10 percentage points.
Then again, members of Congress sometimes shift ideologically when they move from the House to the Senate. Take Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, for example. She went from being one of the most moderate Democrats in the House to one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate. That shift can be partly explained by the leftward shift of the Democratic Party overall, as well as Gillibrand’s potential presidential ambitions. But it’s also reflective of her switch from representing a competitive Upstate New York district to serving a very liberal state. McSally might find herself subject to a similar pull, just in the opposite direction, moving from an R+1 district to an R+9 state. Electoral concerns certainly won’t be far from her mind. Provided McSally stays in the position, she faces a re-election bid in a 2020 special election, and if she wins that, she would then have to run in the seat’s regularly-scheduled election in 2022. McSally’s next primary could also be a real challenge given the dissatisfaction among some Arizona Republicans over how she handled her 2018 Senate campaign and subsequent defeat against Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
McSally’s record in the next Congress will be an important factor in that primary, as it could encourage or discourage a significant challenger.
What’s going to happen in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District? That’s a question currently without an answer. Republican Mark Harris was initially declared the winner, but after allegations of election fraud cast doubt on the integrity of the vote, the next steps remain uncertain. With The Washington Post now reporting that Harris personally directed the hiring of the operative at the center of the potential fraud — even after being warned of his suspect methods — it’s entirely possible that the state board of elections could order a brand new election.
Or, the new Democratic-controlled House could get involved. Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution states that each chamber of Congress “shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” What this means in the North Carolina race is that the House has ultimate authority to decide disputed House elections. The House could play a part if the losing candidate, Democrat Dan McCready, files a contest under the Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969, or if the House refers the matter to its Administration Committee for an investigation.
They’re far less common nowadays, but the House has a long history with contested elections. In fact, the first case dates back to the 1st Congress in 1789. According to a 2018 study by Jeffery Jenkins, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of Southern California, and Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, results in 594 House seats were contested from 1789 to 2012.1 Jenkins and Stewart wanted to examine the role contested elections played as the House matured. What they found was that although the number of contested elections had decreased, votes by the House to decide contested elections remained partisan over time. That is, whatever the merits of the dispute, if a contested election came to a vote, GOP-controlled Houses generally sided with GOP candidates while Democratic Houses backed Democratic candidates.
Contested elections used to be more common
Average share of U.S. House seats contested, by decade
Avg. number of seats for Decade
AVg. share of contested seats
The largest share of contested elections came in the late 19th century, during and after Reconstruction, when disputes often arose over election results in the South. At that time, the GOP often used contested elections to counter the disenfranchisement of black voters and fraud perpetrated by Democrats in the South. Republicans sought to overturn results in order to expand narrow governing majorities during a highly competitive political era and to better maintain a foothold in the South. But after 1896, the GOP became more electorally dominant nationwide and no longer had as much partisan incentive to vigorously contest elections in the South. An average of 4.7 seats changed hands per Congress between 1869 and 1898 thanks to contested elections. Since then, there have been relatively few contested seats, and even fewer that led to a seat actually flipping when the House took up the case. In fact, in an earlier 2004 paper, Jenkins found only five instances after the 67th Congress (1921-1922) where the person disputing the election was declared the winner.
As for why an election result has historically been disputed, Jenkins identified a number of categories, but the leading cause was allegations of criminal action, including fraud, corruption and/or bribery. The second-most common justification was charges of election irregularities that were not criminal, including the participation of ineligible voters or the mishandling of ballot boxes. If North Carolina’s 9th District were to become a contested election, it would likely fit into one of those two categories, depending on the findings of a criminal probe investigating the activities of local GOP operative Leslie McCrae Dowless.
Whatever the justification, contesting an election used to be far more commonplace and seen as a valuable partisan tool — a means of adding seats to bolster thin margins for the majority party in the House. This doesn’t mean that it was easy to overturn results — in most cases, the original winner has won a disputed election in the House. But when a contested election has advanced to the House floor, the resulting vote has usually been along party lines, according to Jenkins and Stewart. During the late 19th Century, this sometimes meant significant gains for the majority party. In the 41st Congress (1869-70), for example, the GOP majority increased by 10 net seats(!) through overturned results.
But it’s been more than 30 years since a contested election reversed an outcome. The last time it happened was in 1985, when the Democratic-controlled House voted to seat Democratic Rep. Frank McCloskey after an investigation and recount conducted by the House Administration Committee found him ahead by just four votes. GOP members cried foul as the Republican candidate had previously led the race and there were still a handful of uncounted absentee votes. The Republicans staged a walkout in response and the entire episode is often cited as an inflection point in creating a more partisan and rancorous atmosphere in Washington.
Jenkins told FiveThirtyEight that he’s curious to see if contested elections become a renewed flash point in the country’s hyper-partisan environment. In their 2018 article, Jenkins and Stewart wrote that contested elections could once again emerge as a way for a political party to secure stronger governing majorities in an environment where neither party is dominant. In the partisan arms race, we’ve seen ever-more furious wrangling over things like Supreme Court confirmations. So it’s not hard to imagine contested elections becoming a new battlefield in Washington if the parties decide these disputes can help them shore up their governing majorities.
George H.W. Bush, whose death at 94 was announced on Friday by his family, was a hugely influential figure in the Republican Party: chairman of the Republican National Committee, vice president, president and father of another GOP president. But the GOP has changed dramatically since it nominated Bush for the presidency in 1988 — a fact reflected in the ex-president’s strained relationship with the GOP’s new standard-bearer, President Trump.
So, I think Bush’s death is another moment to highlight what my colleague Clare Malone described in the summer of 2016 as “The End Of A Republican Party.” Let’s run through some of the big shifts that have occurred within the GOP:
The GOP was once a more moderate party
Ideology is complicated to measure. By some standards, the Republican Party has moved to the left. In a poll conducted last year, 42 percent of Republicans backed same-sex unions; it’s safe to assume that number was far lower during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. In 1992, one of South Carolina’s senators was Republican Strom Thurmond, who ran a 1948 presidential campaign featuring his opposition to civil rights for blacks. Today, one of South Carolina’s senators is Republican Tim Scott, who is African-American.
But by most other measures, the GOP is far more conservative than it used to be. The General Social Survey, for example, shows self-identified Republicans moving far more toward the “extremely conservative” end of its scale (as opposed to “extremely liberal”) over the past several decades.1
In Bush’s era, Fox News did not exist. Deeply conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and their allies had not created a huge network of right-wing groups that constitute basically an alternative political party. There was no tea party or House Freedom Caucus. Trump may be personally more conservative than Bush, but even if he weren’t, the forces that push a Republican president to the ideological right are stronger now than they were in the 1980s.
Bush himself famously signed a tax increase to help reduce the federal budget deficit, a move that angered the party’s conservative base. His two GOP successors (George W. Bush and Trump) never even really considered tax hikes, aware of the power of the party’s conservative coalition.
The GOP used to be more in line with the nation demographically
Trump’s rallies include lots of older white people, as the stereotype goes. But that is the Republican Party of today. The country has become older, more diverse and more educated. The GOP, meanwhile, has grown even more disproportionately old. And while its voters grew more diverse along with the country through the 1980s (though at a bit of a lag), that shift stalled in the party in the 1990s. Same with education: The share of non-Hispanic white voters without a college degree fell throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — in the electorate overall and the GOP. But beginning in the 1990s, it stopped falling among Republicans.
In 1992, according to the Pew Research Center, about 38 percent of registered voters who identified as Republicans were 50 years or older. By 2016, that number had grown to 58 percent. In 1992, 61 percent of Republicans were under 50, compared with 41 percent today.3
Republicans were once competitive on the coasts but weak in the South
The ideological and demographic shifts described above have corresponded with big changes in the GOP’s geographic coalition. In 1988, Bush won California — the sixth straight election in which the Republican presidential candidate carried the Golden State. Bush also won Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont. The Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate from that era included two members from New Hampshire, two from Oregon and one from both Delaware and New York. There were zero Senate Republicans from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee.
All but one of the 16 Senate seats I just described are now held by the opposite party that controlled them in 1992, as the GOP gained ground in the South but lost power on the coasts. Trump, reflecting the growing weakness of Republicans in California, lost there in 2016 by 30 percentage points. Bush lost West Virginia in 1988 by 5 percentage points. Trump’s 42-point win in West Virginia in 2016 was his second-biggest margin in any state.4
Let me not overstate the changes in the Grand Old Party. It still loves to cut taxes, like it did in the George H.W. Bush era. It’s still overwhelmingly white. The majority of its voters are still whites without college degrees. White evangelical Protestants are still about a third of the party. It still deploys negative racial stereotypes about non-white Americans to appeal to white voters. (Remember the Willie Horton ad of the 1988 Bush campaign?)
But the changes highlighted here have dramatically altered the power dynamics in Washington. Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush always had to share power with Democrats, who controlled the House from 1949 to 1994.5 But since the GOP won the House in 1994, the party has held the chamber for all but four years.6 (They won’t be in control in 2019, of course.)
When George H.W. Bush won 53 percent of the national popular vote in 1988, it was not that remarkable. Richard Nixon had won more than 60 percent in 1972, and Ronald Reagan breached 50 percent in both 1980 and 1984. But 1988 was a watershed moment for the Republican Party — it was about to start a measurable decline in terms of its national standing. In the seven presidential elections since then (including Bush’s 1992 defeat), Republicans have won more votes nationally than Democrats just once (2004).
The tensions between Trump and the Bush family, and between Trump and McCain, speak to this broader narrative. Trump is a different kind of Republican — and he is changing the party in his image in ways they don’t like. But he is also the product of a different Republican Party than the one that the Bushes and McCain ascended in. Trump got the GOP nomination in some ways by embracing what the Republican Party had become, not what the Bushes wished it were.
CORRECTION (Dec. 1, 2018, 1:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said President Trump’s largest margin of victory in any state in the 2016 election was in West Virginia. It was in Wyoming.