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CQ Roll Call Survey of Hill Staff Finds Cruz, Trump on the Rise

Republican staffers on Capitol Hill still are hoping Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will win the GOP presidential nomination, but more of them are having doubts that he’ll be able to do it.

Six in 10 of those who responded to CQ Roll Call’s Capitol Insiders Survey this month said Rubio would be the most formidable candidate for the Republicans. But only half think he’ll actually be the nominee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump are on the rise.

Trump and Cruz both doubled their tally from December when it comes to who aides believe will be the nominee. Twenty-one percent of the GOP aides surveyed said it will be Trump, while 17 percent think it will be Cruz.

It’s a prospect about which they aren’t enthused. Only 5 percent of the Republican staffers said Cruz would be the most formidable candidate, while 7 percent said Trump would be.

CQ Roll Call posed questions about the coming election, by e-mail survey, to 6,734 Capitol Hill aides of both parties from Jan. 14 to Jan. 21, and 279 responded.

Trump, Cruz Ascendant

“Hill staff are looking at those polls and thinking it’s getting late for a major switch in the electorate,” says Sam Geduldig, a partner at the CGCN Group lobbying firm and former aide to ex-Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

The January survey marks the first significant shift in the aides’ opinions on the presidential race since CQ Roll Call began its Capitol Insiders Survey in October.

Back then, 60 percent said Rubio would be the nominee, while Trump only garnered 9 percent of the votes and Cruz 3 percent. When CQ Roll Call again posed the question in December, the Republican aides who responded were feeling even more confident in Rubio: 67 percent said he’d get the nomination, while Trump remained at 9 percent and Cruz jumped to 8 percent.

Still, while they’re moving closer to alignment, the aides’ prediction about who will be the nominee remains far off from voters’ apparent preference. The national polls have for months showed Trump holding a commanding lead, with Cruz lately on the rise. Rubio has not yet emerged.

The RealClearPolitics polling average projects that 35 percent of voters prefer Trump versus19 percent for Cruz and 11 percent for Rubio.

Among lawmakers, there’s no apparent enthusiasm for Trump. He’s garnered not a single endorsement, according to Roll Call’s endorsement tracker. A plurality of lawmakers prefer former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush right now. He has 31 endorsements, compared with 27 for Rubio and 17 for Cruz. Most GOP lawmakers have not endorsed anyone yet.

Replace McConnell?

The coming election also could have major implications for House and Senate leaders, according to respondents to the Capitol Insiders Survey. A slight plurality of Republican aides who answered the question, 47 percent, said Republican senators should replace Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell as their leader if the party fails to retain the Senate.

Since tea party activists and their conservative allies in the House deposed Boehner last year, they’ve turned their sights on McConnell, whom they accuse of being insufficiently conservative. But former aides doubt that Republican senators feel the same.

“McConnell has a lock on the job,” says Jim Manley, a former spokesman for McConnell’s Senate rival, Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “He’s a highly skilled tactician and insider. I don’t think anyone would blame him necessarily if the Senate were to flip.”

With 24 Senate seats to defend, compared to 10 for the Democrats, including some in competitive states such as Illinois, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Senate Republicans have a tough fight on their hands. Democrats need a five-seat gain to control the Senate. GOP aides are unsure how it will turn out.

Only 53 percent of GOP respondents to CQ Roll Call’s survey said they thought Republicans would retain control, compared to 28 percent who said the Democrats would win a majority and 19 percent who said they didn’t know. Meanwhile, two in three Democratic aides said their party would win the Senate back this year.

Gains by House Democrats?

In the House, no one is expecting Democrats to retake the chamber, but aides from both parties think Democrats will gain seats. 

The current Republican majority of 246 is the biggest the party has enjoyed since 1929.

If their gains aren’t big, Democrats’ discontent could grow. Forty-three percent of the Democratic aides who responded said their leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, should go if Democrats failed to pick up a “significant” number of seats. At the same time, 44 percent said they saw no cause for her to step down, even if the gains aren’t significant.

On Capitol Hill, there’s no sign of a coup and for good reason, says Brendan Daly, the senior director for communications at Save the Children Action Network and a former Pelosi spokesman.

She’s “the best party strategist the Democrats have,” he says, while House Democrats’ ill fortune in recent elections is the result of a backlash against President Barack Obama and state-level redistricting that has favored Republicans.

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