It’s been just over a year and a half then since Trump took office. He’s arguably one of — if not the — most divisive President in the history of the United States. Indeed, he is so divisive that not only has he succeeded in dividing the country he is supposed to be leading, he has divided the very party he stood for when running, despite that fact that the Republicans, or ‘GOP’, control both the House and the Senate, as well as a majority of State Legislatures.
The coming blue wave
2018 will be a crucial year for the both the ‘Dems’ and the GOP, even more so for the latter due to the Congressional Elections scheduled to take place in November and the potential losses it could suffer.
Such elections could prove to be a defining time for the party, its legacy, and what shape it takes in the future.
Commentators are predicting that the party will likely lose much of its House seats to a ‘Blue Wave’: a surge in Democratic support powered by the momentum of a re-energised Democratic Party, as well as voters' distaste and even downright hatred of Trump. It may fair better in the Senate and hold on to its majority (if only by a thread), meaning that Trump’s last two years before the 2020 Presidential Election could be marked by the same legislative impasse seen during Obama’s time in office, especially between 2014 and 2016.
These potential losses, however, should not be the sole focus for political commentators, because whilst the GOP is likely to lose Congressional seats due to Democratic challengers unseating vulnerable candidates, the party will also be losing people due to their stepping down from the political scene. Figures like Jeff Flake come to mind, the Junior Senator for Arizona famous for his attacks on Trump and the President’s desire to further restrict immigration and undermine the free press, as well as others like Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior senator and oft-forgotten key player in the blocking of the attempt to repeal Obamacare in the summer of 2017.
Save the RINOs
There is a reason political commentators — as well as many GOP strategists — are concerned about the loss of people like Flake.
Alongside the loss of vulnerable moderate and establishment-friendly incumbents, the loss of Flake will prove incredibly damaging for the party’s identity and what party it will be in the future. Whilst he and others like John McCain, Arizona’s Senior Senator, have never totally seen eye-to-eye with Democrats, the Trump's divisive agenda has pushed more moderate Republicans to become ‘allies’ of sorts for many Democrats in both the House and Senate. Republicans like Flake have also acted as the voices of rationality and moral fortitude for a party that has seemingly been wandering the ideological wasteland since Mitt Romney’s failed Presidential bid in 2012.
McCain, whilst not up for re-election in 2018, is nonetheless being pressured to resign his seat due to some on the ever-louder party fringes questioning his mental capacity following a diagnosis of brain cancer in 2017. Meanwhile, Flake’s seat is likely to be fought over by relatively established Congresswoman and former US Airforce Col. Martha McScally and the populist, Steve Bannon-backed insurgent Kelli Ward - someone who has aligned herself closely to Trump and who, in 2016, tried and failed to unseat McCain at the party’s primary.
If a challenge from the fringes against Flake’s successor is successful this time around, the ideological direction of the GOP will shift even further to the right, especially given McScally will have resigned her seat in the House in order to run for the Senate, a seat some predict could go Democrat in 2018. That potential shift will be cemented if the party loses moderate Congressmen and women to Democratic challengers. And those that survive will do so either because they are in relatively safe seats, or because Trump supporters came out and saved them from a humiliating drubbing, forcing them to become ever more conservative in their voting and support of hard-right, populist policies.
Does a ‘Trumpkin’ GOP loom?
The GOP needs moderates like McCain. It needs rational conservatives like Flake.
As much as I, and many others, who are part of the centre-left and ‘liberal’ camps have disagreements with them on issues like healthcare provision and gun control, if Trump is to be wholly held to account it will continue to require cross-party scrutiny.
Brutal internal party struggles such as that which is likely to happen in Indiana (one of the few instances in the 2018 elections where the GOP can make a gain at the expense of Democrats) are likely to result in the candidates moving to the right in order to appease the party’s growing hard-line base. Such an ideological shift would likely see the GOP adopting even more conservative positions, de-selecting moderate candidates and incumbents and becoming a party associated with protectionism, regulation and an ever-insular, racially-fuelled nationalism - words that one feels many in the party would loathe to be associated with.
Whilst the Democrats do have their own internal battles between its more moderate Congressional party and more left-leaning supporters, the shared hatred for Trump has galvanised the party base and only succeeded in making Democrats even more likely to campaign and vote come the midterms. Like it or not, America needs a strong Republican party, one that will hold both Trump and the Democrats to account.
At this moment in time, it seems the party is unable — or maybe unwilling — to do either.