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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

The secret weapon of the Republicans is loyalty – but it will be sorely tested with the midterm elections just six months away

The big question is whether Republicans sensing defeat in November might be more open about distancing themselves from a president with a bizarre leadership style, incompetent White House staff and dubious personal morality, writes Gavin Esler

US President Donald Trump at the White House. Saul Loeb / AFP
US President Donald Trump at the White House. Saul Loeb / AFP

It’s always election season in the United States. Elections in southern California are like breaking waves on a surfing beach. Each one tells you the next one can’t be far behind. The next presidential election is not until 2020, but candidates will start emerging next year, while this November, Americans will elect a new Congress in the midterms. That means within six months, every member of the lower House of Representatives is up for re-election, along with a third of the US Senate. Both houses are currently Republican. If current polls are correct, both could fall to the Democrats in an anti-Trump wave.

Well, maybe. But more interesting right now is the prospect of a re-alignment within the Republican Party itself. Ronald Reagan used to say that the secret weapon of the Republican Party was loyalty, but that loyalty is being tested by Donald Trump — tested, at times, to destruction. There is growing anxiety about the post-Trump era and the desire to find a different Republican candidate who might win the presidency in 2020.

Every Republican seeking re-election this year talks about the future of America. But every one of them is thinking about his or her own future too. That means, whether in Los Angeles or Phoenix or Houston, deciding the best strategy is to remain loyal to an unpopular president many of them dislike or to move away.

A small rebellion surfaced last week. Four Republican senators on the judiciary committee sided with Democrats to force a vote on a bill to protect Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the US election from White House interference. The big question is whether Republicans sensing defeat in November might be more open about distancing themselves from Mr Trump. Privately, many fret about his bizarre leadership, incompetent White House staff and dubious personal morality.

One likelihood is that many Republican candidates in November will simply not mention the president at all. It’s a tradition when a president is unpopular for candidates from his own party to run on their own merits on local issues without mentioning either the president or the party to which they belong. But Democrats scent blood. Painting a Republican opponent as a “Trump-lover” will undoubtedly work in some districts.

A peculiarity of US elections is that a sitting member of Congress might first have to avoid being unseated as the party candidate by someone from his or her own side. That means Republican incumbents have been worried about losing out in a primary challenge to a maverick Trump supporter. When that danger is past, we will be able to judge more clearly Republican scepticism of their president.

Some notable Republicans have already taken a stand: they quit. In Arizona, where in a recent special election there was a strong anti-Republican surge, Republican senator Jeff Flake — a vocal Trump critic and traditional conservative — decided to step down.

The most powerful Republican in Congress, house speaker Paul Ryan, has also quit, no doubt to avoid being blamed for any Republican bloodbath in November. Mr Ryan and Mr Flake could emerge as Republican challengers to Mr Trump in 2020.

Another potential Republican presidential candidate is the current US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. She may be a Trump appointee but she is far from being a Trump stooge. At times, it’s as if she is carving out an independent foreign policy. It would be remarkable if after all the wishful thinking about Hillary Clinton as the first US woman president, Ms Haley or another strong Republican woman candidate were to claim the White House for their party rather than the Democrats.

There are, however, two caveats: predicting American elections is a fool’s game. Two years before his election, no one would have given Mr Trump much of a chance. Secondly, even if there is a Democrat landslide in November, presidents have survived such setbacks before.

One distinguished commentator said in November 1994 that it looked like “curtains for Clinton” when a Republican landslide captured both the House and Senate. Yet Bill Clinton remained president for six more years and survived impeachment proceedings.

Nevertheless, if Democrats perform well enough to take back either house in Congress, Mr Trump’s woes will increase substantially. Democrats will initiate congressional inquiries into areas ranging from his political friendships to his ties with Russia and any business dealings which appear to compromise his position as president.

But the key is whether his own side, the Republican Party and its candidates, begin to view Mr Trump as a loser. Mr Reagan was correct about the secret weapon of his party being loyalty, but traditional Republicans find it difficult to believe Mr Trump is truly one of them.

His attitude to protectionism over free trade, his relationship with a porn star and other matters are most definitely not in tune with traditional American conservatism. Above all, Republicans like to think of themselves as hard-headed, problem-solving people. Mr Trump himself is a problem that the party eventually will need to solve.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

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