Wednesday, May 04, 2016

5 Thoughts on Last Night's Primaries

I actually had two different articles planned for today, but with the shock of yesterday's primaries in Indiana still sort of reverberating through me, I figured it was appropriate to postpone them until tomorrow (so we'll be finishing up our AFI blitz tomorrow afternoon), and focus on what happened yesterday, as it feels like a deeply historic moment for the nation and I couldn't let that slide by.  As we usually do the morning after primaries, here are five of my thoughts on last nights elections.

1. Donald Trump is Now Reality

I actually wrote a pretty extensive piece on this yesterday (check it out if you haven't!), but with Ted Cruz withdrawing from the Republican primary this has become official: Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.  Yes, John Kasich has not dropped out of the race, but at this point Kasich mirrors what Ron Paul usually ended up being in Republican primaries (something I never thought I'd say)-an afterthought that is there just for late-state primaries to be able to cast a protest vote.  This started to dawn on a number of prominent Republicans last night, and prominent officials ranging from Lindsey Graham to Ben Sasse all let out their voices of disgust that Trump would be their party's nominee.  In the case of Sasse, he point-blank said he would not support Trump if he were the nominee.  The question for the upcoming weeks is-does this stick?  It's easy to say in the heat of the moment you won't back your party's nominee, but when elections actually start, what do you do?  The bigger question is for senators who are going to have to run on the same ticket as Trump, especially those in blue states.  People like Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, and Pat Toomey-will they embrace the Republican frontrunner and potential spell their own doom if he collapses?  We've seen what's happened to John McCain so far in that circumstance, and it isn't pretty.

2. Ted Cruz's Future

With Cruz now out of the race, one wonders what his future entails.  While it is a time-honored tradition for senators to come back to the chamber with their tales between their legs, but unlike John Kerry or John McCain in the past no senator has come back to an institution that he ravaged on the campaign trail quite like Cruz, as he frequently tried to make things as difficult as humanly possible for his fellow senators.  It's hard to imagine Cruz, after raging against Mitch McConnell and being called "Lucifer" by John Boehner, is going to get a free pass from his colleagues.  While it won't matter in Texas more-than-likely, if Cruz wants to at least appear somewhat effective for the next few years, he's going to have to find a way to make amends with his fellow senators.  It's also worth questioning for a man who has spent almost all of his public life wanting to be president, where does he go when he loses, especially in such a large fashion, to a man like Donald Trump (this is a question for the likes of Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as well, for the record)?  Do the Republicans basically cast aside (permanently) the men who lost in 2016 and make that a litmus test in future elections?  If so, does Cruz either try to be Trump's VP or retire, hoping to get on the federal judiciary?  It seems unlikely he wastes decades in a body that despises him.  None of these are the options he wants, but he's going to have to make some very quick decisions in order to maintain something that, by losing so publicly, he risks destroying even though it's the most powerful currency a politician can hold: relevancy.

3. Hillary Clinton Screwed Up...But Bernie Sanders is Going to Pay For It

Hillary Clinton's surprise loss in the Hoosier State is arguably the biggest defeat of her primary calendar since Michigan, and she really only has herself to blame here.  After a series of major wins in New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Clinton kind of just jumped ahead, knowing mathematically that Bernie Sanders can't win the nomination and started a general election tour through Appalachia to road-test some pitches to voters that are more hesitant to her.  This was a brilliant strategy assuming the Republican race stayed in pandemonium, but that is no longer the case and suddenly Clinton is now in a very precarious position-Trump can now pivot to the general election and she's going to have to sustain attacks from both her left and right.  Lest we forget, this is how Mitt Romney's defeat in 2012 started-he couldn't handle being beaten by both the Tea Party and Obama, and his approval ratings suffered.  Had Clinton gone full-court press in Indiana (that, Ted Cruz, is how you make a basketball metaphor in Hoosier territory), she might have beaten Sanders, pushing him to the point where he had to genuinely consider getting out of the race for the good of the party.  It's hard to convince Sanders that he needs to drop out when he just won a state and upcoming primaries (Like Oregon), seem to favor the Vermont senator.

However, it is critically important that Clinton get Sanders out of the race, and soon.  Trump now has the tactical advantage in that he can spend all of his money going after Clinton, while she is answerable to two sides, and every day Clinton isn't attacking Trump is a day that she could start seeing her poll numbers slip; she needs to quickly assemble her left flank and then start pushing hard for moderates who are going to be susceptible to a change after getting the Trump gut-punch.  Expect a major push from lawmakers for Sanders to get out of the race.  I wouldn't be stunned if we see an avalanche of superdelegates coming to Clinton's side in the next week or so as reality sets in and they realize that Trump could be the president.  It's highly possible that Barack Obama (or one of his surrogates, like Joe Biden) will endorse Clinton in the next week or so, and the Clinton camp will almost surely start negotiating with Sanders on what his terms are to get out of the race (I suspect campaign finance and banking reform on the platform will be chief amongst the concessions).  However, every day Bernie Sanders is in the race now hurts Hillary Clinton-that's going to be a tough fact for a man who reviles Donald Trump's positions to endure.  No one wants to be Ralph Nader. 

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE)
4. Is a Third-Party Challenge Possible?

The question on a lot of Republicans' minds is going to be: is a third-party challenge possible?  People like Sen. Ben Sasse and Gov. Rick Perry have both had their names thrown around as a possible conservative challenger for vulnerable Republicans like Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk to rally behind, and likely help save the party's chances in Congress, which could depress quite a lot if moderate Republicans simply don't show up at the polls or go for Clinton.  However, the deadlines for a believable run for the White House are coming up, and they're hard to get past: the deadline to get on the ballot as a third-party candidate in Texas is next Monday, and it's not feasible to imagine a candidate emerging in that short of time, getting 80,000 valid signatures, and getting on the ballot.  And any run for the White House where the conservative challenger isn't on the ballot in Texas (which is a state the Republicans can't mathematically win without) would be just symbolic.  Other states like North Carolina and Arizona (both states that are critical to a Republican win for the White House), have very steep thresholds in order to gain ballot access, likely making mounting a third party bid relatively difficult, bordering on the impossible.  The party could theoretically back a Libertarian or Constitution Party candidate, but that comes with its own bag of problems-as a result, this seems like a more compelling solution on paper than anything else, though don't expect the conversation to go away.

Rep. Todd Young (R-NE)
5. Donald Trump Has Few Coattails

In what has to be a relief for Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, Donald Trump's candidacy at the top of the ticket hasn't really had much of an effect on down-ballot races so far.  Last night proved that, with Rep. Todd Young crushing Club for Growth/Tea Party-backed Rep. Marlin Stutzman in the primary to succeed Sen. Dan Coats.  In 2010/2012, the Tea Party movement randomly took down many more electable Republicans in states like Indiana (who can forget Indiana's own Richard Mourdock), but Trump's brand of politics doesn't appear to be catching on with similarly bombastic candidates down-ballot.  While there's still room for that now that he's the official nominee (I'm looking at you Nevada, where Joe Heck and Sharron Angle could cause a major screw-up for the NRSC), I am wondering if the Republicans are in a cult of personality situation that isn't catching on anywhere else-Donald Trump's narcissism and brand of tossing everyone aside but himself is, appropriately, not benefiting anyone but himself.

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