Will Trump’s candidacy help Democrats in Congress?

Trump scandals have put many Republicans in a difficult place, affecting the party’s chances in the legislature.

Democrats have the chance to retake control of the Senate on November 8 [Getty Images]
Democrats have the chance to retake control of the Senate on November 8 [Getty Images]

The spectre of Donald Trump’s highly unorthodox presidential campaign has put many of his Republican colleagues in a difficult political position.

But it is still hard to say what effect he will have on the chances of Republicans in Congress, or whether Democrats will be able to fully capitalise on his unpopularity, analysts and poll-watchers say.

Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House, the most powerful person in his party in Washington DC, is the clearest evidence of the fear that many on his side have expressed in terms of the negative effect that Trump could have on Republican election fortunes.

After a video tape from 2005 emerged in early October showing Trump bragging about groping women, Ryan said he would no longer publicly defend Trump and encouraged Republicans in close election races to make up their own mind about how best to associate with him.

While the presidential race has since tightened according to polls, especially in the aftermath of FBI Director James Comey’s announcement last week that the bureau is investigating emails from one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides, Clinton is still the odds-on favourite.

But can the Democrats take power in the two chambers of Congress, too?

Senate and House

Just days before the November 8 election, the Democrats are tipped to recapture the leadership of the Senate, the important body whose leadership they lost control of in the 2014 mid-term elections, for the first time since 2007.

According to FiveThirtyEight, a prominent statistical website that analyses national polling, the Democrats have a 68.9-percent chance of recapturing the Senate. (In the case of an even 50-50 split, the deciding vote is cast by the vice president of the United States, who would be either Trump’s running mate Mike Pence or Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine.) The Democrats will secure that majority if they gain five seats, or four if Clinton wins the presidency.

While analysts believe that many races have tightened after the FBI announcement about emails, it has not wiped out the significant challenges that Trump has presented for other Republicans.

READ MORE: Trump splits the Republican Party

“Republicans have some challenges that will be difficult to overcome by Election Day,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan organisation that tracks US electoral politics.

“Since Trump hasn’t been running a campaign as much as a concert tour complete with merchandise, many of the programmes that usually help down-ballot candidates are bare bones or missing entirely.”

Two branches of Congress:
It is comprised of 100 senators, with each of the 50 states getting two members. The Senate was conceived by the founders of the US constitution as the more aristocratic body of the legislature, seen as a check on the whims of popular sentiment. Its members are elected for six-year terms, with a third of the seats staggered in elections every two years. Among its powers is the power to ratify treaties and confirm presidential appointments to the Cabinet or Supreme Court.

House of Representatives

The House has 435 members, with each state apportioned members based on population. The most populous state, California, has a total of 53, while the seven least populous states have only one each. Its members represent much smaller districts than senators. Representatives serve two-year terms, and each member is up for re-election every two years.

But making a clear correlation between Trump’s candidacy and the effect it has on Republicans’ chances is still difficult.

“There is no universal trend with Trump with these down ballots,” Spencer Kimball, a pollster and adviser for the Emerson College Polling Society, told Al Jazeera. “You’re seeing a lot more ticket splitters in some states [than others],” he said.

Trump’s unpopularity does not mean that voters are alienating Republicans en masse, because they recognise that the “Trump brand is quite distinct from the Republican brand”, said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and president of North Star Opinion Research.

“Consequently, most Republican incumbent senators running for re-election are polling ahead of Trump in their states,” he said.

Unpredictable House

The House of Representatives is more difficult to predict accurately, partially a result of more sparse polling. Republicans currently have their largest majority in the House, 246 to 186, since 1928, and the body has been a constant thorn in President Barack Obama’s side on a number of issues.

But two of the most widely respected forecasters suggest that a Democratic takeover in the House remains very unlikely.

According to the Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election-watching project hosted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, the Democrats are likely to gain between 10 and 15 seats next Tuesday.

The Cook Political Report expects a range of between 10 and 20 pickup for Democrats.

“With just a few days before Election Day, there is almost no chance Republicans will lose the House majority, and they may even keep their losses to a minimum,” wrote Nathan L Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Report, a nonpartisan organisation which forecasts Congressional races.

Gonzales added that Trump had been “a mixed blessing” for House Republicans.

“He is hurting some GOP incumbents in the suburbs but doing better than [2012 Republican candidate] Mitt Romney in rural areas, and hurting Democratic chances of winning certain seats needed for them to get the majority.”

Gridlock going forward?

The most likely scenario, based on available polling and analysis, is that Clinton will win the White House, the Democrats will retake the Senate, and the Republicans will hold on to the House, albeit after losing some seats. That would leave the US with a national political balance of power that defined four of the eight years of Obama’s presidency.

In that situation, Congressional gridlock, or the difficulty to pass legislation for a president to sign, remains a likely reality.

In the case of a Clinton presidential win, even a divided government is likely to benefit the Democrats in a number of ways, including the status of the unfilled Supreme Court, which Republicans have thus far refused to allow hearings on.

A Clinton presidency would probably at least be able to see a hearing held on a new nominee. And Clinton in the White House would more generally be able to continue to defend executive orders issued by Obama.

READ MORE: Why is the Supreme Court an election issue?

Largely as a result of legislative gridlock and Republican unwillingness to compromise, Obama used his so-called executive authority to pursue certain aspects of his legislative agenda irrespective of Congressional legislation, despite Republican ire and some legal challenges in US courts.

After Congress failed to reach a broad cap-and-trade programme, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency issued a Clean Power Plan to encourage states to reduce fossil fuel use. His administration also tried to shield the deportation of illegal immigrants after efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform failed in the House of Representatives.

In the event of a divided Washington again, Clinton would probably defend these policies, and similarly consider pursuing aspects of her legislative agenda from the executive branch.

But Clinton’s team acknowledges that it would not be possible to merely legislate from the presidency.

“We’re going to need Republican votes in Congress for things that we want to do for the good of the country,” Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, told the Associated Press last month.

What the prospects are for compromise between Democrats and Congressional Republicans remains an open question, especially since the rise of Trump has largely been based on upending the establishment and rejecting traditional bipartisan deal-making. 

Source: Al Jazeera


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