BY LISA MASCARO
TRIBUNE WASHINGTON BUREAU /TNS
WASHINGTON – Across the country, Republicans in contested races face a terrible bind: They have to run from Donald Trump to hold onto swing votes, even if that angers some core supporters.
But in secure, heavily conservative GOP districts, Republicans face the opposite pressure: to cleave fast to Trump, who remains popular despite statements that have alienated many voters.
The crisis in the Trump campaign has split the Republican Party in two, and, ironically, the gerrymandering of districts that helped build the GOP congressional majority is now working to make that fracture worse.
Conservatives vs. ‘swingers’
The division of interests between Republicans who represent solidly conservative districts and those who represent swing areas – or senators who must run statewide – has seldom been more stark.
Their battlefield was once confined mostly to Capitol Hill, crippling the Republican legislative agenda, fueling the tea party movement and leading to a government shutdown.
Now it is upending the presidential race. Trump’s anti-establishment message has unleashed a conservative grass-roots movement inside the Republican Party that leaders are finding they cannot control.
And as Trump’s nationwide support begins to slip amid his unconventional behavior and offensive remarks about women and non-White, Republicans risk not only missing their shot at the White House, but losing control of the Senate and handing Democrats an opportunity to shift the Supreme Court to the left.
Their own doing
The GOP infighting, in many ways, is no surprise and largely of the party’s own making.
A gerrymandering of congressional districts, completed six years ago, sought to secure a Republican House majority for years to come by packing Democratic voters into fewer, often urban and non-White districts and giving Republican candidates comfortable majorities in the ones they control.
But those tailor-made districts yielded a new crop of hard-right, often uncompromising Republican members of Congress, running safely in mostly White, older and rural districts, where Trump’s support is strongest.
These conservative House members are increasingly at odds with Republican senators, party leadership and a handful of remaining House swing-district lawmakers, who are wringing their hands over Trump because they still must appeal to a broader swath of voters, including moderates, independents and minorities.
“The Republican Party has drawn itself into an ideological cul-de-sac that bears no resemblance to the larger electorate,” said David Wasserman, House editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “The middle has shrunk dramatically.”
Trump’s candidacy is the latest and perhaps most consequential issue forcing Republicans to pick sides.
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found about two-thirds of Republicans, 67 percent, think GOP congressional candidates should stand by Trump, despite his comments and actions.
Senators don’t have the luxury of tailor-made districts as they run for office statewide, which is why so many more of them have abandoned Trump.
It’s rare to see a national political party come to this, but it isn’t hard to see how it happened. Early warning signs that the party was in trouble emerged as soon as Republicans won control of the House in 2010.
Initially, the Republican sweep of that year’s House midterm election looked like a reaction to President Obama’s agenda as voters rejected his economic stimulus and tried to stop the new health care law.
However, the outcome was by design. Republican-controlled statehouses had redrawn congressional districts to give the GOP all-but guaranteed seats, which by 2014 swelled the House majority to 247, the largest since President Herbert Hoover won the White House.
The takeover of the Senate four years later sealed the GOP majority in Congress.
Outside groups poured in campaign cash to shore up the dynamic, and the number of competitive districts dwindled to historic lows. Just 10 percent of the 435 House seats are seen as up for grabs this fall.
But the hardened lines also meant GOP lawmakers were left with little room to stray from partisan orthodoxy lest they face a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate. That’s what happened to former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, ousted in a stunning 2014 upset by a tea party challenger.
Led first by the tea party and later the Freedom Caucus, the new partisan warriors fueled the showdowns and shutdowns, and ultimately chased former Speaker John A. Boehner into early retirement.