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Death Spiral

June 12, 2016

This election year, I’ve asserted, most closely resembles 1964, when Lyndon Johnson walloped Barry Goldwater in spite of the loss of Southern conservatives to Johnson’s civil rights legislation. Presidents elected in landslides usually (but not always – ask Richard Nixon about 1972) have long coattails, bringing a whole lot of down-ballot victories with them.

Republicans representing blue or purple states in the Senate or blue or purple districts in the House are showing serious concern about the prospects of Donald Trump as the Republican Party standard bearer. And they have good reason for concern – on the Senate side, for instance, seven Republican seats are up for election this year in states that went for Barack Obama both times, but no Democratic seats are up in states that went against Obama either time. There is some chance that Democrats could win control of the Senate even if Trump wins election, but if Trump loses big, the likelihood is very high that New York Senator Chuck Schumer will be the majority leader come January.

The House is a bigger challenge for Democrats. Currently 26 Republicans hold seats in districts won by Obama in 2012, and Democrats need to pick up 30 seats to take back the Speaker’s chair.

Republicans who were elected in blue and purple states are most at risk; they are also likely to be the least conservative Republicans in Congress. If the more moderate Republicans lose in November, the next Congress will be more Democratic, but the Republican caucuses will be even more conservative, even less inclined to compromise with Democrats to govern, and even more strident in opposition to the second President Clinton. Since it’s unlikely that Democrats will win a filibuster-proof 60 seats, we’re likely to see – if this is possible – a Senate even more stridently deadlocked than this one.

But that’s just Trump’s impact on federal elections. If Trump loses big, the effects will be felt in state elections, too. LBJ’s 1964 landslide turned a number of red state houses blue. Given the number of blue and purple states with Republican-controlled legislative houses, we can expect 2016 to look like 1964 at the state level if Clinton clobbers Trump.

Twenty-three state legislative houses are run by Republicans in 15 states won by Obama twice. In nine of those houses, a shift of four seats or fewer would bring Democratic control. Democratic-controlled state legislatures will roll back restrictions on voting rights for future elections, ending some of the most egregiously partisan gerrymandering in our history.

If Republicans lose many seats in the blue and purple states and districts, the less extreme conservatives who represent those states and districts will leave Congress, and the remaining Congressional Republicans become more conservative, not less. An even more conservative Republican Party will double down on its anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-science positions to appeal to its aging white voter base.


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