It was the worst day of the worst month of the worst season in years for Republicans hoping to mitigate political damage in this fall’s midterm elections. And Texas political operatives were left stunned as they processed the ramifications.
In one Tuesday afternoon, a Virginia jury found President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty of financial crimes, Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to his own financial and campaign law violations, and a GOP congressman – U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California – found himself indicted on a slew of charges.
But instead of serving as some sort of seminal turning point of the 2018 cycle, operatives from both parties interviewed by The Texas Tribune viewed these events as merely a further deterioration of an already grim situation for Republicans. The damage to the GOP brand is now at a crisis point, and many in politics wonder if the party might salvage its control of the U.S. House.
"It's a drip, drip, drip," said Beto Cardenas, a Houston lawyer and political insider with connections to both parties. "At what point does your pond turn into a lake?"
Washington Democrats have long pushed back against comparisons to 2006, when Democrats swept away Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. Back then, the Democrats faced less of a disadvantage due to gerrymandering. And those were the pre-super PAC days, meaning the Republican financial advantage was less daunting.
But now the battle cry of of 2006 – “culture of corruption” – and the comparisons are back. And Democrats are showing signs of confidence.
Texas is, in part, why.
“Every day, the dark cloud hanging over the Republican Party grows more ominous," Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, emailed to the Tribune.
"House Republicans must answer for the Trump administration’s scandals – and often their own ethical issues, while Democrats continue to focus on lowering the cost of healthcare, increasing wages and bringing upstanding, ethical leadership to Washington.”
Operatives on both sides of the aisle say Republican U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas and John Culberson of Houston are in increasingly dire political straits. But strategists who traffic in polling suggest that Texas’ other most vulnerable member, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is holding his own in his re-election bid.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texan and the second-ranking Senate Republican, downplayed Tuesday's news, saying the verdicts against people tied to Trump had no bearing on any presidential ties to the Kremlin.
"If Manafort and Cohen did things that [they] shouldn't have done, which it sounds like they did, I think they ought to be held responsible for it but I don't see any of this having anything to do with the president and Russia," he said, according to CNN.
At the same time, the president’s escalating legal troubles put an issue to the fore that most Democrats would prefer to avoid until after the midterms: impeachment.
But given the gravity of the Manafort guilty verdict and Cohen’s guilty plea, which included a suggestion that he violated campaign finance laws at the direction of Trump, impeachment is now an unavoidable topic. U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, was one of the first Democrats to bring up impeachment soon after the verdict on Tuesday.
Could these developments have a reverse impact on Democrats — in effect, forcing Senate and House candidates to discuss an issue they’ve danced around all year?
U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat who is challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz of Texas, has a mixed answer on impeachment. But most House Democratic candidates are eager to avoid the topic. Still, Democratic operatives who spoke with the Tribune on Wednesday shrugged off worries about the issue, suggesting that their candidates have been long-prepared for the impeachment question.
Meanwhile, some in conservative circles early Wednesday aimed to shift the political conversation to a bleak circumstance in Iowa, where college student Mollie Tibbetts was found dead. Multiple news outlets reported that the suspect in her slaying was in the country illegally, though the suspect's lawyer says that's not true. In the aftermath, some conservatives blamed the nation’s immigration policies for her death. One Texas GOP strategist suggested that the report could fire up the Republican base over immigration – the most potent issue within Texas conservatism.
Sessions tweeted about the case Wednesday afternoon:
American college student Mollie Tibbetts was murdered by an illegal immigrant who never should have been anywhere near her or in the US to start with. Stopping criminal aliens before they claim another innocent life must be a priority to protect Americans. https://t.co/BuPSYqniv1— Pete Sessions (@SessionsforTX32) August 22, 2018
But over course of Wednesday, even that story shifted. Tibbett’s aunt appeared to push back against the politicization of the woman’s death, writing on Facebook that “Evil comes in EVERY color."