Photo for Rozell column, July 3 op/ed page

Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock faces a tough re-election campaign in Northern Virgina’s 10th Congressional District.

By Mark J. Rozell

A little more than four months before the 2018 congressional midterm elections, at least some Virginia Republicans running for the House of Representatives probably are wishing the leaders of their party would just be quiet for awhile.

The dramas orchestrated by President Donald J. Trump and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart likely won’t hurt GOP congressional candidates in rural and western Virginia. But in wealthier, better educated, more suburbanized and more ethnically diverse parts of eastern Virginia — including Tidewater’s 2nd Congressional District — Trump and Stewart are damaging Republican prospects for the fall.

By now, it should be evident that Trump’s habit of manufacturing crises is no accident; it appears to be his primary operating strategy. As Trump’s mini-me, Stewart echoes the president’s messages, with a heavy dose of neo-Confederate rhetoric.

The president’s fiasco of ordering the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border — which appalled even many Republicans before he was forced to retreat — is just the latest example of his intentional theatrics. Trump has turned time and again to the immigration issue to make what seemed to be hastily conceived and often contradictory policy declarations.

But the president has also tossed numerous other policy bombs on issues ranging from gun control (yes, then no), to North Korea (no, then yes), to NATO (no, then yes, then who knows?) free trade (yes, then no), who pays for The Wall (Mexico, then who knows?), white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville (no, then “some very nice people”), Health Care (expand it, then kill it), America’s traditional allies (no), and foreign dictators (yes.)

***

Trump’s posturing and fulminating appeal to his base: those who feel left out from and threatened by the nation’s major cultural and economic shifts. And Trump has made it clear in recent political rallies that he aims to create a “red wave” to carry Republicans to victory in the fall.

Polls show Republicans are sticking with the president. Gallup says 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s performance. The only higher approval rating in modern times was GOP support for George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But partisans of all stripes should remember that fewer Americans identify with either of the major political parties these days. The last time more than a third of Americans identified as Democrat was March 2013. The last time a third of Americans identified as Republican was October 2014.

Perhaps turned-off by the hyper-partisan behaviors of both parties, more than 40 percent of Americans now routinely identify themselves as independent.

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Which brings us back to Virginia, where it now appears Democrats may recapture three of the seats they need to wrest control of the House of Representatives from the GOP. With Corey Stewart’s firebrand style of politics dominating the stage, Democrats’ chances are improving.

The 2nd Congressional District, which spans from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore, is now considered a toss-up as former Navy commander Elaine Luria (D) challenges freshman Republican Scott Taylor.

In the previously unassailable Republican stronghold of Virginia’s 7th District, stretching from the increasingly blue Richmond suburbs north and westward, the GOP’s Dave Brat now looks vulnerable to former CIA operative and Democratic candidate Abigail Spanberger.

And in Northern Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, identified by national Democrats as one of their top targets this year, incumbent Republican Barbara Comstock struggles to hold her seat against a challenge from Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton. The reliable Cook Report says the district, formerly a toss-up, now leans Democratic.

Between now and November, trying to hang onto their seats, Taylor, Brat, and Comstock will resort to “old school” political thinking by appealing to mainstream and independent voters. But it’s a safe bet that Trump and Stewart will overshadow their efforts with louder rhetoric directed to the hard-core right wing.

When you’re talking, it’s hard to be heard while the bombs are being thrown.

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Contact him at mrozell@gmu.edu.

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