Updated: Jan 4
April 18, 2016
Republicans in Washington are terrified of the peril Donald Trump poses to their grip on the Senate and, increasingly, the House, where a wave election could cripple their historic majority. Yet it’s hardly clear that nominating Ted Cruz would save them from the Trump debacle they fear.
Here are the options facing down-ballot Republicans:
A. Run with front-runner Trump, whose unfavorable rating hit 70 percent in a recent national poll.
B. Run with Texas Sen. Cruz, who wants to return to the gold standard, patrol Muslim neighborhoods, and ban abortion in rape and incest cases.
C. Run away.
Figuring out that choice “is one of the most important conversations going on now in Washington,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter that handicaps races.
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 08: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., talks with reporters in the basement of the Capitol before the Senate Policy luncheons, December 8, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
These same prospects tantalize Democrats and could influence the career choices of top California lawmakers.
If Sen. Dianne Feinstein were to regain the chair of the Intelligence Committee, she might be more inclined to run for a fifth term in 2018. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has shown no sign of leaving and almost certainly would stay if she again becomes speaker, only the second in more than a century to serve nonconsecutive terms.
Most Republicans are stalling. Trump has just one Senate and eight House endorsements. Cruz has 32 House endorsements, mostly from the Tea Party wing, and three from the Senate. Those include Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former presidential hopeful who famously compared the choice between Trump and Cruz as “death by being shot or poisoning.”
Democrats need a net gain of five seats to retake the Senate, where Republicans have a 54-46 majority. If a Democrat wins the White House, they need four because the vice president can break ties.
Republicans must defend 24 seats to 10 for Democrats, and swing-state Republicans are vulnerable: Mark Kirk (Illinois), Rob Portman (Ohio), Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) head the list.
Democrats have but one vulnerable seat, in Nevada, where Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring. Failed GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s Florida seat is up for grabs.
“Part of the problem for Republicans is that many of the swing seats in the Senate are in presidential battleground states,” foreshadowing long coattails from the top of the ticket, said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. Polarization has sent split-ticket voting to a 50-year low, he said, “so it’s going to be very hard if you are Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire to retain your seat if Hillary Clinton runs five points better than whoever the Republicans put up.”
In the House, Republicans have a historic 247-188 majority, their largest since 1929, made all but impregnable by gerrymandering. Democrats need a net gain of 30 to make Pelosi speaker, a hurdle everyone considered out of reach — until it became clear that Trump or Cruz would almost certainly be the nominee.
“Congressional Republicans are entering uncharted and potentially dangerous territory,” wrote House analyst David Wasserman in the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“There’s no doubt Trump or Cruz could cause Republicans huge problems in heavily Latino districts,” he said. Those include San Joaquin Valley Republicans considered safe, such as Jeff Denham of Turlock (Stanislaus County) and David Valadao of Hanford (Kings County).
Denham and Valadao have proved their resiliency by establishing alliances with both conservatives and Latinos. But landslides can topple even entrenched incumbents.
California political analyst Tony Quinn wrote Friday that Trump “has the potential to totally remake California politics by costing a third to a half of all Republican incumbents their seats this fall, thus bringing to an end the two-party system in California.”
Rep. Xavier Becerra, a top House Democrat from Los Angeles, said polls show that “both Trump and Cruz are toxic with a whole range of voters,” even Republicans. That could depress the GOP vote and motivate Democrats, “certainly Latinos, certainly women,” Becerra said. “You animate them enough that they come out in numbers that you could only hope for in a change election.”
Veteran California Republican consultant Kevin Spillane agreed.
Impact in California
Trump would be “particularly devastating” in California, Spillane said, “because he would spur an unprecedented Latino turnout, where you’d actually have Latino Republicans probably running 80 percent-plus Democratic,” damaging Republicans all the way down the ballot. Nationally, he said, Trump is “unpopular with everyone, but he’s extraordinarily unpopular with Latinos, women, younger voters, swing voters — all the people you want in an election.”
California had registered 560,000 new voters online as of March 30, and more than a third were young voters. New numbers will be out in a few weeks, providing a better picture of which California Republicans may be vulnerable, said Democratic consultant Andrew Acosta, who unsuccessfully worked to unseat Denham in the last election.
Analysts will be poring over the details of the registration surge.
“Is it younger, is it Latino, what does it look like?” Acosta said.
Many analysts on both sides think because Cruz is a more conventional politician than Trump, he’s less of a danger to incumbent Republicans.
“Cruz just plays the standard Tea Party Republican playbook,” said California Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo, leading to a more traditional Republican vs. Democrat campaign.
With Trump, everything is on the table,” said Trujillo, who sees Trump as the only Republican who gives Democrats “a plausible pathway to taking the House back.”
Yet Cruz has shown little indication of moderating his pitch to reach swing voters. On immigration, Cruz hardly differs from Trump, and on abortion and many other issues, he’s further to the right.
Republican strategist O’Connell said Trump flouts so many GOP orthodoxies that on issues such as trade he often sounds closer to Democratic populist Bernie Sanders, giving him potentially more appeal than Cruz to swing voters.
The nightmare scenario for Republicans is an implosion of their party in a convention battle where the Trump, Cruz and none-of-the-above factions split irrevocably.
Trump has a 31 percent polling lead in New York, where a primary win Tuesday would bolster his delegate lead and claim to the nomination. Wounded, however, by his own missteps and heavily funded stop-Trump forces, he faces a steep climb to get to an outright delegate majority at the Cleveland convention in July. That could lead to a second round, and even more, of balloting.
Cruz has abandoned New York for California, where Trump also leads, but Cruz plans to court delegates who are free to vote their personal preference after the first ballot. If this strategy works, Cruz could take the nomination while losing the popular vote — a recipe for the disintegration of the party.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead