It looks as though the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — the most expensive House race in history — will be a toss-up.
At any other time, Republican Karen Handel would likely be expected to win election by a decent margin, but the race has turned into the first domino in an elaborate resulting pattern.
If Handel beats Democrat Jon Ossoff, Republicans in close House districts will be able to breathe a little easier, knowing that a winnable race taking place under the cloud of a historically unpopular president could still be won. If Ossoff wins, though, Republicans worried about keeping their jobs next year have new cause for concern. And that dark cloud, President Trump, will have new reason to worry, since his fate lies in their hands should the investigation into his possible attempts to obstruct justice head south.
Fairly or not, that number, the results of the special election, will loom large in the thinking of Republicans in swing districts. But on Tuesday morning, another new number emerged that will make every Republican along Pennsylvania Avenue wary. A new poll from CBS News found that Trump’s job approval had fallen to 36 percent from 41 percent in late April. Of more concern, though, was the figure for Republicans: Only 72 percent of Trump’s own party thinks he’s doing a good job. That mirrors a recent poll from the Associated Press, which found that only three-quarters of Republicans held positive views of Trump’s job performance.
The last time CBS polled on Trump’s job approval, in late April, 83 percent of Republicans viewed him positively. That’s a decline of 11 points. Other recent polls have also shown a downward trend.
One point of concern unearthed by CBS is that Republicans are far less likely to approve of Trump’s handling of the Russia investigation than they are of his handling of the economy or terrorism. While two-thirds of Americans think that the Russia investigation is serious, most Republicans think that the investigation is little more than a distraction — though a majority think that the investigation should continue without Trump firing the special counsel.
Back to the original question, though: How serious a problem is this for congressional Republicans who may have to decide whether to defend Trump to their constituents?
Trump was inaugurated five months ago Tuesday. His approval rating among members of his own party tracked with President Barack Obama’s early approval ratings early in his tenure, but as time has passed, Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans have slipped lower while Obama’s approval ratings with Democrats held fairly steady.
Of even more concern to congressional Republicans in swing districts is that Trump is much less popular with independents than Obama was over his first five months.
Holding Republicans doesn’t mean much in a close race if you lose Democrats by a wide margin and if independents drift away.
We can look at that data another way. Trump’s numbers among members of his own party have been a bit lower than Obama’s; among independents, much lower.
The broader context here is important, though. Obama’s first few months in office included the traditional honeymoon period that new presidents get. Over the course of his two terms, though, a wide partisan gulf emerged, with Democrats viewing him positively and Republicans negatively. Most of the movement in his poll numbers stemmed from movement among independents.
If we compare all of Obama’s poll numbers to Trump’s over his first 150 days, there’s more overlap — including among independents. Among members of each president’s own party, Trump’s distribution is actually slightly better.
The implication is that Trump inherited a partisan pattern from Obama. But then, Trump should still be in his honeymoon period among Republicans. The CBS poll suggests that may be coming to a quick end.
One last note. Over the weekend, the blog Lawfare looked at President Richard Nixon’s approval ratings among Republicans as the Watergate investigation unfolded. Nixon’s approval was under 60 percent among Republicans for months before he actually resigned. That’s good news for Trump, suggesting that even in that less-partisan era, pressure on Capitol Hill Republicans to act against the Republican president wasn’t significant enough to force a vote on impeachment, even when that president was much less popular with the party than Trump is.
If Handel loses Tuesday and if Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans continue to erode — or if there’s a shift against the president in the investigation — the position of congressional Republicans will shift quickly. But if Handel wins, and if Trump can generally hold steady among Republicans, the 2018 calculus looks a bit different. Like Handel, most Republicans wouldn’t embrace Trump’s presidency on the campaign trail next year, but luckily for Trump, they won’t be pushing to campaign with President Pence, either.