Would Nominating Trump Put The House At Risk For Republicans?

If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, the GOP may have more to worry about than losing the White House and the Senate.

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial

Ever since it became likely that Donald Trump could actually win the Republican Presidential nomination, there has been much speculation about what impact this could have on down ballot races, and just how much damage a polarizing candidate like Trump could do to a political party that seems powerless to stop him. One measure of that potential damage can be seen in the head-to-head matchups in which Trump loses to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with one recent poll even showing Trump losing to either Democrat in deeply red Utah, which has not gone for a Democrat in a Presidential election since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide over Barry Goldwater fifty-two years ago. Understandably, numbers such as these have made Republicans very nervous about the impact of a Trump nomination and led them to plot last-minute and seemingly haphazard “Stop Trump” efforts that seem unlikely to succeed.

So far, most of the discussion of the down ballot impact of a Trump candidacy has focused on the Senate, which Republicans just managed to recapture in the 2014 midterms. With the present 54-46 split between Republicans and Democrats in the upper chamber, Democrats would need to recapture five seats to regain control of the Senate, although they could also accomplish that goal if they capture four seats and win the Presidential election thanks to the tie-breaking vote provided by the Vice-President. As I’ve noted before, there are Republican seats up for grabs in six states that President Obama won in 2008 and 2012 — Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Florida. If Democrats managed to win all of these seats and also not lose states that Republicans are targeting such as Michael Bennett’s seat in Colorado or the seat held by retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. In an ordinary Presidential election year, the odds of Democrats being able to flip that many seats would seem to be pretty low, but with the possibility of Trump, or even Texas Senator Ted Cruz, leading the Republican ticket, those odds are arguably increased significantly.

If the Senate is it risk, what about the House of Representatives? Republicans have held the House since the 2010 elections and even managed to increase their majority to an historic high in the midterms in 2014, and the conventional wisdom has been that it is generally unlikely that the party would lose control of that body any time before the redistricting after the 2020 Census. The reasons for this range from the general protection that incumbents get even in years where voters go strongly for one party or another, the impact of redistricting after the 2010 Census that was largely controlled by Republican dominated state legislatures, and the relative lack of competitive House seats compared to even just ten or fifteen years ago. Notwithstanding these caveats, though, David Wassermann at the Cook Political Report notes that there are some factors that suggest that the House could be more vulnerable than Republicans might want to admit:

Republicans are sitting on their largest majority since 1928 – 247 seats to 188 – meaning Democrats would need to pick up 30 seats, a daunting challenge given the GOP’s immense redistricting advantage and the vaporization of swing districts. But all cycle, Democrats have daydreamed about Republicans nominating an extremely polarizing presidential candidate, and suddenly it’s almost certain they will get their wish.

A Trump or Cruz nomination wouldn’t guarantee a down-ballot disaster for the GOP, but operatives on both sides admit it would inject much more uncertainty into races – especially if it were Trump. For one, given Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings and Trump’s willingness to adapt his message to fit changing political conditions, anything from an extremely close race to a total Clinton blowout seems possible in November.

Second, if November does turn into a Democratic rout, it’s impossible to know just how bad it could get for Republicans sharing a ballot with Trump or Cruz. On one hand, past presidential blowouts in years like 1964, 1972 and 1984 haven’t led to dramatic sea changes in House seats. On the other, there hasn’t been a true presidential blowout in 20 years. Today, rates of split-ticket voting are at all-time lows and House candidates are defined by their party and the top of the ticket more than ever.

So, what are House Republicans doing to batten down the hatches?

What’s more surprising than Trump’s rise has been congressional Republicans’ passivity and acquiescence at the prospect of nominating a candidate whose offensive statements about Muslims, Mexicans and others threaten to push the party’s brand further to the fringe. Aside from Speaker Paul Ryan’s condemnations, Trump’s behavior and statements have been met with deafening and puzzling silence from many House Republicans, including many in swing districts.

This week, GOP Rep. Tom Reed became the first House Republican from a swing seat to endorse Trump, noting “As the people vote, it has become clear more Republicans favor Donald Trump than any other candidate” and urging his supporters to unite behind the front-runner. It’s true that Trump will probably sweep the economically distressed Southern Tier district in the April primary, but it’s far from clear whether Trump can carry it in November and Democrats have a credible nominee in Naval Reserve Officer John Plumb.

A few Republicans from Democratic-leaning seats, including Reps. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26) and Bob Dold (IL-10), have drawn a line in the sand, saying they would never support Trump. It’s likely at least a dozen more will have to adopt that stance if they want to win reelection. But for the most part, Republicans haven’t taken a side.

“We can only control what we can control,” said one high-ranking House Republican, whose first pick clearly isn’t Trump but who believes that speaking out against Trump would only fuel voter backlash. Other House Republicans from northeastern states rationalize that whereas Cruz would be a rigid ideologue, Trump is a negotiator they could work with. As Cook Report National Editor Amy Walter has written, resignation and rationalization have been among Trump’s biggest enablers, and that’s certainly been true among House Republicans.

But it’s also true that Republicans’ prevailing indifference has both conferred legitimacy on Trump and made them more vulnerable to Democratic attacks. Right now, we rate only 31 Republican seats as at risk, meaning Democrats would need to win an impossibly high 97 percent of them – and hold all their own seats – to take back control. But filing deadlines still haven’t passed in a majority of districts, and it’s worth watching how many more Democratic recruits Trump and Cruz will entice in the coming months.

Among the types of seats Democratic strategists believe Trump or Cruz could put into play are: 1) high-Hispanic districts, 2) high-education districts and 3) high-income districts.

As things stand right now, it’s far to early to say that putting Trump or Cruz at the top of the ticket poses a realistic threat for Republicans. As Wasserman notes, the small number of real at-risk Districts means that Democrats would essentially need to run the table and win almost all of these seats to regain even a small majority in the House. It’s possible, of course, that the number of at-risk seats could expand, but that’s impossible to tell right now and not likely given the recent average number of toss-up seats per election. At the same time, of course, it’s impossible to tell what might happen with a Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket. For this reason, you’re likely to see Republican candidates for the House being just as cautious with Trump if he wins the nomination as Senate candidates are likely to be. The reaction of many will be to simply proceed forward with their own campaigns without any real reference to the man at the top of the ticket, but that’s going to be much harder than it might be under other circumstances. Some candidates will actively embrace Trump if they think it will help them in their re-election bids, of course, and others will actively seek to distance themselves from him even if it means speaking out against him. In the end, it still seems unlikely that even Trump could put the Republican’s House majority at risk, but it’s an unusual year and anything seems possible so this is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    If I called myself a Republican I would think long and hard about giving a clown like Trump a rubber-stamp Congress.

  2. C. Clavin says:
  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    While I find it unlikely the Dems will take back the house, it is a lot more likely that they start the 2017 term with an increased caucus. The teahadists have been quiet since Ryan picked up the speaker’s gavel, but does anyone think those that tried to shut down the government 50 odd times and pushed out Boehner are going to go away quietly in a post-Trump world?

    Ryan’s going to have to rely more and more on Democrats to get a single thing passed. Even without taking back the House, Trump’s going to empower the Democratic leadership in ways no one could have predicted just a year and a half ago.

  4. Tillman says:

    Definitely read the headline wrong on the first go. “At risk of Republicans? The house is goddamn infested!”

    As Cook Report National Editor Amy Walter has written, resignation and rationalization have been among Trump’s biggest enablers, and that’s certainly been true among House Republicans.

    A consequence of Manichean politics. If you can’t make a viable threat to vote for the other party, then you can’t be said to really oppose your noxious nominee. Cannibalizing the Libertarian Party won’t help. (please tell me that plan was a joke)

  5. Scott F. says:

    This is what I find the most fascinating about Trump voters. The animating force behind the Trump movement, based on what I keep reading on conservative blogs, is a desire to repudiate the GOP elite that has refused to deliver on all the promises made to the base over the last several years. So they’re going to stick it to the Republican leadership by nominating an outsider firebrand as their candidate for POTUS. But, considering who’s been president of late, the GOP elite that hasn’t been delivering is the Republican Congress, not a Republican administration.

    Yet, most GOP incumbents have little fear of being primaried from the right or defeated in the general from the left. Boehner got ousted, but all other players are the same and will remain so after the election.

    Trumpsters have the target all wrong.

  6. bookdragon says:

    @Scott F.: Given the grasp of reality, or lack thereof, evidenced by supporting Trump, why would you be surprised that they get their target wrong?

  7. CSK says:

    Actually, the Trumpkins are quite gleeful at the prospect of purging the House Republicans, whom they regard as traitors in league with Obama to sell us down the river.

    I think they believe President Trump will terrorize congress into submission.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    John Oliver tears down Trumps only actual policy.


  9. Scott F. says:


    Not surprised… fascinated.

    The Trumpsters have the wrong target on their economic plight (brown people vs. banksters) and their perceived cultural plight (same sex marriages and Hollywood vs. heterosexual divorce rates and materialism), too.

    Frankly, it’s the “grasp of reality” that makes the Trump phenomenon seem so dangerous to me. These people believe what they do with a religious fervor which means there’s no arguing with them based on reasoning and facts. The right wing noise machine has reinforced their certainty. But, eventually reality will exert itself. Who knows how they will respond.

  10. C. Clavin says:
  11. C. Clavin says:

    And Warren calls Trump out for being a loser…
    That’s the way to beat Trump…show everyone that he is not what he claims to be.

  12. CSK says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Nothing Warren says about Trump isn’t true, but that doesn’t faze the Trumpkins. Confront them with documentation of his various misdeeds, and they’ll respond that you’re a liar who’s smearing him.

    It will, probably, work with the majority of people who already can’t stomach the man.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    She is showing everyone the playbook.
    Then you just keep pummeling him with it.
    It’s how you beat Tom Brady. It was how you beat Dan Marino.
    Just keep getting up in their grille…and because they are insecure little children at their core…they will fold.
    You cannot convince the JKB’s, the Jenos’, the Jacks, the Guarneri’s. They come to their opinions from emotion not reason.
    But the rest of the country…they will get it.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin: If anyone can get in a bully’s face, Hillary should be able to. However, I think the primary tactic has to be not to make him look weak, but to make him look ridiculous. How hard can that be?

  15. CSK says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I don’t disagree. The Trumpkins themselves won’t be dissuaded by anything, as Trump himself knows.

    There’s a video on Youtube titled “Donald Trump–In His Own Words,” in which when an interviewer asks him what he has in common with his daughter Ivanka, he replies that he’d like to say “Sex.”

    If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, I don’t know what would.

  16. Facebones says:

    @gVOR08: Completely agree. We beat Trump with laughter and mockery. Petulant Trump is still smarting from Obama’s zingers at the WHPC Dinner in 2011.

  17. Tillman says:

    That’s the way to beat Trump…show everyone that he is not what he claims to be.

    We beat Trump with laughter and mockery.

    The Republicans have been playing these cards about as heavy-handed as possible and it hasn’t worked. Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly call out his fuzzy math (with graphics!) in front of a national audience: nothing. Cruz airs ads featuring toddlers laughing at Trump action figure antics and John Oliver has segments giving him pithy nicknames: nothing. The kind of people backing Trump now and the kind who will back him in greater numbers come November are sick of being condescended to and mocked by their own establishment, and it approaches a more visceral hatred when it comes from liberals.

    This latest Warren rant on Twitter comes off similarly ineffectual (the audience would be disenchanted Sanders supporters and I believe she’s misreading that group), and is a sure sign the Democrats have as little clue as the Republicans on how to combat Trump. With Clinton’s track record of going toe-to-toe with a candidate supported by people with massively-inflated ideas of what he was and could accomplish, and the sort of campaign run to date against a measly socialist crank who should have presented no challenge, no wonder Dems retreat to the comfort that demographics and the better nature of voters will save them.

  18. Grewgills says:

    Certainly the base won’t be converted, but that isn’t the audience for the mockery. If we win the middle, we win the election. Trump is winning with maybe 40% of maybe 40% of the general election electorate. Baiting Trump can work for the 10% of actual swing voters and maybe eat into more moderate Republican voters.

  19. Tillman says:

    @Grewgills: You’re still betting on the better nature of voters. You frame this as an ideological matter where appeal to moderates can secure victory. If Trump’s rise shows us anything, it’s the weakness of thinking ideology is a prime motivator for voters.

    He’s winning 40% of 40% in a primary contest. As I’ve heard repeated multiple times, primary results do not correlate to the general election. He may appear to be unpopular in the Republican party, but the inability of candidates and party movers to support Clinton over him is indicative that they’ll consolidate. Trump might dispense with conservative ideology, but the party can’t abandon its opposition to Democrats without dissolving.

  20. Grewgills says:

    Success among angry xenophopes that make up the republican base isn’t the same as success with the general electorate. Yes, I am betting on the better nature of the general electorate or at least betting that the nature of the general electorate is better than the nature of the republican base. If I’m wrong, dog help us all.