Two vices Washington just can’t kick: Trump’s sway and reconciliation dreams

A weakened Trump could still be the GOP’s lone true kingmaker

Former President Donald Trump speaks May 6 during a rally for Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Greensburg, Pa.  (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks May 6 during a rally for Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Greensburg, Pa. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Posted May 20, 2022 at 10:45am

ANALYSIS — Vices and habits, in life and politics, can be tough to give up. This week offered examples aplenty.

Republicans just cannot kick their Donald Trump habit — nor will he let them. And Democrats just cannot quit the idea of an amorphous reconciliation package, perhaps their final shot at winning back voters who blame them for the economic malaise.

When it comes to the “Trump effect” on congressional and state-level campaigns, Tuesday’s busy primary night yielded one clear conclusion: It’s complicated. And when it comes to congressional Democrats pining to pass a bill — any bill — that might convince voters they are trying to make Americans’ lives better, it’s even more complicated.

There are reasons to review Tuesday’s Republican primaries and conclude that Trump’s grip over the GOP is weakening.

But, when coupled with previous primary wins, Trump resembles a professional baseball star who has hit for average methodically remaking himself into a slugger — able to park one and drive home runs in big at-bats.

Take North Carolina: When Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd, the 13th District congressman was polling in the single digits. Then came 45’s endorsement. The trajectory of Budd’s primary race poll numbers, culminating with capturing 58.6 percent of the GOP vote, had a neck-breaking launch angle.

Budd’s win was a mammoth game-winning blast into the second deck for Trump.

Trump’s endorsement also helped Pennsylvania GOP state Sen. Doug Mastriano capture his party’s gubernatorial primary. Mastriano got a late Trump nudge, with the former president deciding the state lawmaker’s support for his false claims about the 2020 presidential election made him just MAGA enough.

But with Trump, it’s never black and white.

North Carolina also brought him a defeat: scandal-plagued Rep. Madison Cawthorn lost despite an endorsement from Mar-a-Lago. And in Idaho, Trump-backed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin lost big-league to Gov. Brad Little in their primary fight.

It was a mixed night for the self-described GOP kingmaker. He could still get another win as the political world, at publication time, was still awaiting the final result in a Senate GOP primary nail-biter between Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz — television’s Dr. Oz — and hedge fund guru David McCormick.

‘Clearly has impact’

But just because Trump’s influence might be diminishing does not mean he has lost all his political power — nor that his endorsement and involvement in a primary or general election race won’t make a big difference in one state but backfire in another.

Retiring GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri on Wednesday suggested there are more pros than cons for most Republican candidates to secure a Trump endorsement.

“What happens in Pennsylvania might be one element of the state of his influence,” Blunt said. “One takeaway is that candidates still matter.”

“Trump clearly has impact within the party,” he added. “If you were running in a Republican primary, I think you would always rather have his endorsement than not.”

When it comes to the former reality show host-turned-president, one thing is for certain: Not much is ever really certain. A sharp elbow thrown at a fellow Republican today could be followed by an endorsement next week.

Some Republicans see a changed party, suggesting some conservative voters have a case of Trump fatigue — for now, at least, until their choices are a Trump-backed Republican and a (gasp!) Democrat.

“You take the gubernatorial primary in my state: Trump waited until it was obvious Mastriano was going to win to endorse him,” retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., said Wednesday. “He jumps on the bandwagon so he can take credit for what was going to happen anyway.”

“He has some influence, no question,” Toomey said. “It appears to have mattered significantly in Ohio.” That’s a reference to Trump endorsing memoirist/hedge fund guy J.D. Vance and propelling him to a Senate primary victory in the Buckeye State.

Toomey’s assessment of the Trump effect: “It’s probably a little idiosyncratic.”

Meantime, Democrats are hoping Trump remains the one true GOP power player.

That’s because GOP midterm general candidates likely wouldn’t feel comfortable venturing too far from his “Make America Great Again” agenda. It’s why President Joe Biden in recent weeks has tried shoving the entire Republican Party, and each one of its incumbents and challengers, under what he derisively calls the “ultra MAGA agenda.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland is a Democrat in a state that regularly elects Republican governors, meaning he has long had to study the GOP.

“We know he has a base. We think it’s a diminishing base,” Cardin said. “Primaries are difficult to analyze under the most perfect of circumstances.”

While Democrats are eager to drag Trump onto the ballot this year, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee chairman said his party favors a smaller MAGA base so that “both political parties represent the basic values of this nation.” Part of that is accepting the outcome of elections. Trump continues to struggle with that.

“Here we go again,” Trump wrote on his social media site Truth Social, according to multiple media outlets. “In Pennsylvania, they are unable to count the Mail-in Ballots. It is a BIG MESS.”

“Dr. Oz should declare victory,” he added. “It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that ‘they just happened to find.’”

Democrats are hoping the former president is playing into their hands and that new stolen election claims will drive swing voters to their candidates.

‘Malpractice’

Such hopes are among the few things to which that party is clinging.

Democrats’ negative rating is at 50 percent, higher than Republicans’ 46 percent, according to an NBC News poll released earlier this week. The blue team managed to come in with a higher “very negative” rating, 33 percent, compared to Republicans’ 29 percent.

Any congressional Democrats hopeful to hitch a ride on Biden’s presidential coattails in their primary or general election races in the coming months should call their campaign strategists. Forty percent of those polled said they hold a “very negative” view of the Democratic chief executive — just two points better than Trump’s 42 percent.

Without many paths to 60 votes, meaning 10 Republicans would support their economic-themed bills, Democrats have few options. But their paper-thin majority is not stopping some friendly fire from raining down on them.

“Democrats got to stop sleeping at the wheel. … Democrats got to go back and create communities and remind people what the Democratic Party is doing to help them,” longtime strategist Donna Brazile said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

She spoke to Biden’s and Democrats’ shared messaging problem, for which the president took blame last week during a fundraiser in Chicago.

Of course, there is one path: Reconciliation. Democrats could use the special legislative rule — complete with its 51-vote Senate threshold, which Democrats could clear with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris — to pass a bill aimed at helping heal the battered economy before Election Day.

Reconciliation has become something of a dirty word in Washington and among Democrats after the collapse of Biden’s “Build Back Better” domestic spending plan, which Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona drove a dagger through.

But some Senate Democrats are clinging to the “R word” even as one of them, granted anonymity to be candid, said the caucus has to abandon the “BBB” moniker and dream — things Biden and White House officials did months ago.

“I think we’ve got to do a reconciliation bill. I mean, it would be malpractice for a Democratic majority that could do a reconciliation vote with 50 votes to not do it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “Now, we have to make it one that all 50 can accept. That means we have to set aside some things that I or others want to do.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, D.N.J., said he and other Democrats should be “open to the art of the possible as long as the art of the possible is a good thing.” The Foreign Relations Committee chairman did mention trying to bring down the cost of child care, college costs and energy prices.

Notably, he never used the “R word” during a brief interview.

But when asked if reconciliation is the only remaining option for his party amid myriad forecasts of a GOP Senate takeover, he replied: “Our Republican colleagues want the issues more than they want the solutions. … At the end of the day, if you want to join with us on any of these things, then join with us.”

But the GOP, so close to taking over Congress, has little, if any, political incentive to give Democrats such a win. There’s a better chance of a snowstorm on Memorial Day in Washington.

Portions of this article first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.