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Congressional Republicans Don’t Owe Their Triumph to Donald Trump

November 10, 2016, 6:49 PM UTC
Paul Ryan
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. crosses his fingers while speaking at a campaign rally in Janesville, Wis., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya—AP

As Washington adjusts to a new and uncertain balance of power, a key question remains how president-elect Donald Trump will get along with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Congressional Republicans who were lukewarm on his bid.

To answer it, pols are looking to the election results to see whether Trump helped or hurt down-ballot Republicans. And the quickly-congealing wisdom on the right suggests that Trump—rather than acting as an anchor around the necks of GOP candidates, as many expected he would be—in fact salvaged Republican majorities in both chambers.

In the most competitive Senate contests, some have noted, the only Republican candidates who lost were the three who distanced themselves from their standard-bearer—Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Joe Heck in Nevada and Mark Kirk in Illinois.

And Ryan himself added credence to the theory on Wednesday by declaring in his first post-election news conference that Trump had been a boon to those who shared the ticket with him. “We won more seats than anyone expected,” Ryan said. “And much of that is thanks to Donald Trump. Donald Trump provided the kind of coattails that got a lot of people over the finish line so that we can maintain our strong House and Senate majorities.”

A closer look the numbers, however, reveals that disavowing Trump probably didn’t sink those candidates. Trump himself lost all three of the states where the competitive GOP candidates came up short. And of the three, only Heck in Nevada underperformed Trump. (Ayotte outstripped Trump in New Hampshire by nearly 8,000 votes and Kirk beat him in Illinois by nearly 32,000 votes.) The other six close contests offer a split decision. Trump ran ahead of the Republican candidates in Indiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania but trailed them in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Overall, Trump eked out a slight edge over the Republican Senate candidates in the nine most closely contested races, winning 17.83 million votes in their states to their combined total of 17.36 million.

The results suggest Congressional Republicans can skip the thank-you cards to Trump. But each will make an individual determination about how much fealty they owe their new party leader.

In that regard, Speaker Ryan has the most consequential decision of all. Data on which way House districts broke in presidential voting aren’t yet available, thought it’s safe to assume the Wisconsin Republican, who won 65% of the vote on his way to reelection in what should be a swing district, finished far ahead of Trump in his own backyard.

More pressing for Ryan is the dynamic he faces in Washington. The low-key ideologue angered fellow House Republicans committed to Trump by waffling in his support of the nominee. To keep his position atop the House, as Ryan has said he intends to, he needs to repair that damage ahead of internal Republican leadership elections next week and the early January vote in the full House to elect the next Speaker. At the same time, Ryan is poised for a showdown with Trump over the future of conservatism, since the two are odds on a range of definitional debates, from entitlements to trade to immigration. If that happens, Ryan may be looking to trim his assessment of Trump’s coattails.