Why the GOP is stuck with Trump

  • As unpopular as President Trump is, Republicans who oppose him face a worse fate than they do if they stick with him.
  • A new poll in Arizona proves this in the starkest possible terms.
  • Incumbent Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has hit President Trump hard, and that's crushing him in his race for reelection.

The most important poll in America right now isn't the approval rating for President Donald Trump. Instead it's a new survey of Republican voters in Arizona that has a stunningly clear message for the rest of America. And that message is this: The Republican Party is stuck with President Trump.

The JMC Analytics poll came out Monday and it showed that incumbent GOP Senator Jeff Flake not only trails leading primary challenger Kelli Ward, but he trails her by a whopping 26 percentage points. It also shows that Flake only has a 22 percent approval rating among Republicans, and that those voters would like to see someone else be the GOP nominee in the 2018 Senate race by a 44 percentage point margin. Finally, 76 percent of the Arizona Republicans surveyed approve of the job President Trump is doing.

That's a lot of numbers to digest, but the final message is clear. And that message is that Flake's recent attacks on President Trump are coming at a hefty price, even though he represents a state that only tilted to Trump in the election by fewer than 100,000 votes and under four percentage points.

In other words, as bad as many establishment Republicans think publicly supporting President Trump may be for them and their electoral chances, publicly opposing him is worse. For all the pundits who insist, cajole, and even pray that the GOP make a clean break with the Trump team to preserve their political future, the best response is this poll.

Much of this is due to the establishment's very obvious lack of understanding the election results. Forget the general election of 2016 and focus on the GOP primary process and you see a much clearer result than President Trump's mixed victory over Hillary Clinton. In those primaries, candidate Trump broke records including gaining the most Republican primary votes ever even though he was facing an extremely crowded field of opponents. Just about all those opponents were from the GOP establishment ranks of the party, with the also mostly anti-establishment Senator Ted Cruz coming in second.

It's simply easiest to understand that President Trump won the election and the Republicans and Democrats lost, with the Republicans losing by a wider margin. Even though the GOP retained control of Congress, its "control" has been greatly diminished by its shifting inability and/or unwillingness to carry out the Trump agenda. That was extremely evident in its failure to pass an Obamacare repeal and replacement bill and is at the root of President Trump's recent public spat with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell, like Flake, is facing severe erosion of public support. He's not up for re-election next year, but his approval rating in his home state of Kentucky is even lower than Flake's at 18 percent.

The second most important poll in America today has a slightly similar message for Democrats. That survey by ABC News and the Washington Post last month found that 52 percent of Americans believe the Democratic Party doesn't "stand for anything" other than opposing Trump. That may be great for all the anti-Trump voters who will be motivated to vote for Democrats in 2018, but they may have a very muted effect considering so many crucial senate races are in states where President Trump enjoys strong support. Remember that America is still very much a state-by-state democratic republic, so even heavily organized anti-Trumpers coming out to vote for Democratic Party incumbents in mostly blue states may not have much of an impact.

None of this means Republicans and certainly Democrats can't push back on President Trump's policies or comments. But for Republicans like Flake, the opposing Trump at all costs strategy is no better than it was for the 16 or so Republicans who tried that in the 2016 primaries. It could cost him the election. And it could cost other Republicans their seats if they go up against this president.

Of course, none of this means that backing President Trump won't come with enormous risks as well. But no matter how much the Republicans try to distance themselves from this president, even refusing to renominate him in the 2020 primaries wouldn't necessarily free them from the public's general ire. The Republican Party and most importantly, its voters, brought Donald Trump to the White House in 2016. There will be no erasing that in 2020 or beyond, for better or for worse.

Right now, Senator Flake looks dead in the water. He may still have time to find a way to reverse his course, but he's facing an enormous polling gap and an opponent with name recognition in Arizona because Ward just finished running statewide against McCain in the 2016 GOP primary. Those double hurdles are exceedingly unusual for most incumbents in congressional elections. Flake may just end being the sacrificial lamb who serves as a lesson for his fellow Republicans hoping to avoid his apparent fate.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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