SUPER BOWL FOR SCALLYWAGS
The Republican Party has been synonymous, at least notionally, with political and cultural conservatism for two generations. Now it is synonymous with President Donald Trump – not “Trumpism,” because there is no such thing beyond the president’s reflexive love of tariffs and dislike of immigrants. Trumpism is whatever Trump tweeted this morning. The coming election is about little else than Trump. Not the growing economy, not the trade wars, not even such golden oldies as gay marriage. It’s about Trump and what voters think of him, which isn’t great news for the elephant.
For most of the year soothsayers have seen the possibility – occasionally the likelihood – of a Democratic wave this November, sweeping Democratic majorities into both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It’s an unusual moment in political time: The economy is humming, consumer confidence is high, and Gallup says 90% of Americans are “satisfied with their job security.” Meanwhile, a solid majority say the country is on the wrong track. Despite ups and downs, Trump’s approval rating always regresses to a mean in the low to mid-40s, though some polls weeks before the election show his approval dropping several points below 40%. More ominous is the notable lack of intensity among the people who do like Trump. Fully 90% of Republicans approve of the president, but fewer than 50% of them “strongly approve.” Nationwide, according to a recent CNN survey, nearly half of potential voters “strongly disapprove” of him – meaning if you don’t like the president, you really, really don’t like him and will happily share this opinion in the voting booth. That imbalance in enthusiasm is likely to hold until November 6 and beyond.
You’d think Democratic candidates on the campaign trail would be flogging Trump like a rented mule and make him issue No. 1. Some are, but most are keen on the principle of letting sleeping dogs lie. Democratic voters don’t need any more motivation, and a candidate who loudly made Trump the issue, even in a district that leans Democratic, might rouse enough Trump voters to make an election closer than it should be.
The great exception to this is a band of candidates, including a few incumbents, who vow to pursue impeachment proceedings against Trump if Democrats take the House. The alleged impeachable offense varies from the president’s imagined violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause to the still-unproved charge of collusion with the Russian government. But the reason for impeachment doesn’t matter. The House of Representatives can impeach the president over an unpaid parking ticket if it wants to, so long as a majority of members persuade themselves it’s a “high crime and misdemeanor.”
The political class has taken to insisting that a Democratic House majority will lead inevitably to impeachment. The leadership’s long memory makes that unlikely.
Any impeachment drive would have to proceed next year over the objections of the Democratic leadership in Congress. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have both been in Washington long enough to have witnessed the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 by the Republican-controlled House, and they remember the result in that off-year election: Expecting to gain 30 or more seats in the House, Republicans instead lost five and put their majority in jeopardy. Schumer and Pelosi also remember that the ripples from Clinton’s impeachment toppled not one but two Republican congressional leaders, Speaker Newt Gingrich and his anointed successor Bob Livingston. As the 2018 election heats up, the political class has taken to insisting that a Democratic House majority will lead inevitably to impeachment. The leadership’s long memory makes that unlikely. They remember Napoleon’s famous axiom: Do not interrupt your enemy when Robert Mueller is in the process of destroying him.
Trump and his advisers hope the same voters who lifted him to victory will reassemble this November to save the day. He’s scheduled more than a dozen rallies in key states to make sure they do. But even he’s expressed doubt. (I will pause for a moment so you can recover from that sentence.) “There’s a real question whether [Republicans] are even going to vote if I’m not on the ballot,” Trump said not long ago.
This is the most self-centered and inside-out way of expressing a real insight. Trump won’t want to admit it, but in 2016 he benefited massively from “ABH syndrome,” the bug that struck large numbers of voters who decided to vote for “Anybody But Hillary.” Whatever her other virtues – I’m thinking, I’m thinking – Clinton was not only one of the most familiar personages ever to run for president but also one of the most intensely disliked. (A cynic would even say those two facts are related.) Political scientists argue how much of Trump’s vote can be attributed solely to ABH. Another affliction undoubtedly helped him as well: “EDT,” afflicting voters who decided they would vote for “Even Donald Trump” if it meant defeating Hillary Clinton. Which is to say the Trump coalition wasn’t entirely, or even mostly, about Trump the man. It is unlikely to gather again with Clinton safely retired.
Then Republicans must face the pitiless matter of math. As happens every two years, every one of the 435 House seats is on the ballot. Incumbency is a virtual guarantee of reelection in the House, but a record 38 Republicans decided not to run again this year. Professional prognosticators like the Cook Political Report or Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball think that more than 60 Republican House seats are in serious danger of flipping from red to blue. Democrats only need to flip 23 to make a majority. According to Gallup, the party of a president whose approval rating sits below 50% loses an average of 36 House seats in an off-year election. [Keep reading for a few crucial races to watch.]
For Republicans, the numbers are much better in the Senate, where only three GOP senators decided to retire. Thirty-five Senate seats are on the ballot, and 25 of them are in the hands of Democrats. Ten of those Democrats represent states that Trump carried two years ago. This disparity between the number of states Democrats and Republicans have to defend has been the “Fun Electoral Fact” for Republicans all year, consoling them amid all the talk about a blue electoral wave. The Senate, split 51-49, is the Republican dike. Ask any Republican. Go ahead.
Others aren’t so sure. In politics, a “wave” is a term of art with no fixed definition. A large number of Democratic gains in the House – say, 40 seats or more – would almost certainly mean that enthusiasm and voter turnout among Democrats were so great that all the close races would break their way and the Senate would flip too. A wave election lifts all boats: Races that seemed all but lost become victories.
As the year has gone on, the blue wave has seemed more and more plausible. Less so in the Senate than in the House, but consider those three retiring Republican senators. Each represents a Republican state – Tennessee, Utah, Arizona – yet this year only Utah is all-but-certain to stay Republican as the other two are real races with strong Democratic challengers. Once upon a time, most of those Democratic Senate seats in Trump states were considered ripe for Republican picking, and most still are, but several – West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, and Indiana – are trending blue. The battle for the Senate, says Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will be a “knife fight.”
What are the stakes? Very high, for Democrats and Republicans alike. A Democratic Senate would stop Trump’s single most consequential achievement dead in its tracks: Not another federal judge (much less a Supreme Court justice) with conservative leanings would take the bench until at least 2021. Meanwhile, impeachment aside, a Democratic House would become a dizzying cineplex of round-the-clock hearings and investigations into executive branch malfeasance, real and imaginary. Already Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee say they have a list of 22 investigations they hope to undertake.
The mischief that can be done during a standoff between the executive and legislative branches is hard to calculate. But it’s enough, certainly, to paralyze whatever reforms are being enacted in agencies and departments under the Trump administration. We’ve seen it happen before. Bill Clinton arrived in Washington in 1993 with a Democratic Senate and House, and when both chambers fell into Republican hands in the next off-year election, the agenda that Clinton had campaigned on – an energy tax, nationalized health care – was as dead as the dodo. Democrats will not be any nicer.
But before Republicans leap out the window, they might want to consider what happened next. In response to his rebuke at the ballot box, Clinton famously moved to the political center, and while painting his opponents as right-wing terrorists in public, he quietly worked with congressional Republicans to lower the capital gains tax, reduce the rate of growth in government spending, and balance the budget for the first time in more than 30 years.
I doubt Donald Trump is capable of the same cunning and political dexterity that was second-nature to Bill Clinton, and I’m pretty sure Pelosi and Schumer, with a left-wing caucus burbling beneath them, won’t get away with the kind of moderate maneuvering shown by congressional leaders circa 1995. But it would be a happy ending to a wildly unpredictable election on November 6.
Of course, Trump won’t forget that for all Clinton’s successes with an opposition Congress, the Republicans impeached him anyway…
An electoral wave may first appear like the storm that descended on Elijah and Ahab: a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand rising from the sea. Political scientists have been busy building statistical models that consume raw numbers on one end – polls, economic data, demographics – and then spit out a prediction on the other. Nearly all show the Democrats taking the House with a relatively slim majority. Most show the Republicans keeping the Senate and gaining a seat or two or three in the bargain. Here are a few key races to watch as the election day approaches.
Senate Races to Watch
The incumbent Republican Ted Cruz faces a two-term Democratic congressman improbably named Beto O’Rourke. (In college he was content to call himself “Rob.”) Democrats and their allies in the political press corps have been predicting for several elections now that deep red Texas is about to become Democratic, even though it has voted for Republicans in every gubernatorial, Senate, and presidential race for 25 years. The last telegenic Texas Democrat who was supposed to pull off this magical transformation from red to blue was a feminist icon and state senator named Wendy Davis in 2014. Well-funded and boosted by an adoring press, she ran for governor and lost to her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, by 20 points.
The extremely popular Abbott is on the ballot again this year, and Republicans hope his big lead will spill over to help the much less popular Cruz. O’Rourke has lots of campaign money to spend on identifying and exploiting previously neglected pockets of liberal voters, and he is drawing large, enthusiastic crowds. His press coverage is as giddy as Davis’ was.
The Republican leads in every poll but almost always within the margin of error, too close for Cruz’s comfort. If Texas does finally send a Democrat to the Senate, it will be a cruel irony. The trending liberalism of the state reflects an influx of millennials, the most statist age cohort in the country, who are drawn by jobs created under the conservative economic policies they oppose.
Republican Bob Corker, who declined to run for a third term, exemplifies a moderate conservatism that has been popular in Tennessee at least since the days of the legendary Howard Baker. Lamar Alexander, Corker’s partner in the Senate, is in the same mold. Marsha Blackburn is not.
Blackburn, who has represented central Tennessee in Congress for 15 years, won a contentious GOP primary this summer to face the former governor Phil Bredesen, a mild-mannered Democrat, for Corker’s seat. Blackburn’s more robust and ideological conservatism may be a better fit for Tennessee in the age of Trump, who carried the state by 26 points two years ago. That’s why polls showing a dead heat deep into September has Republicans worried about a race they should win easily.
But Bredesen, at 74, is the strongest candidate the Democrats could hope to run this year. If you see Bredesen pulling ahead in the polls as November approaches, reach for the floaties. A wave is on the way.
In a state Trump carried by nearly 20 points, Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly looks like a fluke. And he is. Long-serving establishment Republican Richard Lugar lost the 2012 GOP primary to a tea party candidate, Richard Mourdock, who went on to prove himself, like so many tea party favorites in the early part of this decade, a comically inept candidate. (Remember Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who lost an easy race despite announcing, “I’m not a witch.”) Not even the Hoosier state’s deep reservoirs of Republican sentiment could save Mourdock. And Mr. Donnelly went to Washington.
There, to everyone’s surprise, he earned lots of goodwill with the folks back home. Donnelly has bucked his party leadership and even sided with Trump on key votes on immigration and regulatory rollbacks. He started the summer with a healthy lead over his opponent, a businessman named Mike Braun, but the race has since tightened. If Braun passes Donnelly and pulls ahead, it will suggest that the rumors of a wave have been greatly exaggerated.
House Races to Watch
Twenty-five congressional districts represented by Republicans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and only 13 districts held by Democrats went for Trump. The realclearpolitics.com average of national generic polls – asking voters whether they are more likely to vote for an unnamed Republican or Democrat – gave the Democrats an edge of 8 points at the end of September. Combined with the drag of Trump’s unpopularity, that’s a big enough spread to strike terror into the heart of any swing district Republican.
Virginia’s 10th District
Portions of the 10th District of Virginia stretch from the banks of the Potomac all the way west through the Shenandoah Valley to the West Virginia state line, encompassing a patchwork of federal employees, well-heeled suburban professionals, horse farmers, first – and second-generation immigrants, and working-class whites. Since the district was drawn nearly 70 years ago, it’s been in Republican hands for all but three congressional terms. That may be about to change.
The incumbent is Barbara Comstock, a former congressional aide who since her election in 2014 has tried a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallendas. While the district, like Virginia itself, has been trending steadily blue, Comstock managed a close reelection victory in 2016 even as Hillary Clinton won the district by 10 points. Trump is unpopular here and Comstock has tried to keep her distance – opposing him especially on issues dear to her constituents, such as a proposed wage freeze for federal workers.
Comstock presents herself as a sensible, right-leaning pragmatist. Her newly conceived catchphrase is “Results not Resistance.”
Her opponent is State Senator Jennifer Wexton. She’s hit Comstock, a NRA favorite, on gun control and social issues. Comstock presents herself as a sensible, right-leaning pragmatist. Her newly conceived catchphrase is “Results not Resistance.” She boasts of her vote against the Republican leadership’s failed repeal of Obamacare, but also of her support for Trump’s tax bill, which killed the individual mandate and most likely doomed former President Barack Obama’s signature accomplishment.
But in this sprawling district, Trump is taking a back seat – if you’ll forgive me – to local transportation issues, especially funding for the local Metro system and a sputtering Dulles Airport. The only nonpartisan poll, from this summer, shows Wexton with a near double-digit lead. Given Comstock’s political skill, nobody doubts that this race, like most races, will tighten. But even the Wallendas fell off the wire once in a while.
California’s 39th District
There are still patches of red in blue-as-the-sky California. Of the state’s 53 congressional seats, 14 are Republican. Several of these are in or around Orange County, artifacts from the days when Reagan Republicanism dominated the state. The 39th District captures California’s demographic changes well: Once home to mostly white workers from the vanished aerospace industry, today it’s a “majority minority,” though the precise ethnic mix might make a difference. Two-thirds of residents are either Hispanic or Asian.
Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a pillar of House Republicans, announced his retirement this year after holding the seat for 26 years. Korean-born Young Kim worked for Royce for 20 years before being elected to the state assembly. She faces a Frito Lay employee turned philanthropist, Gil Cisneros, who was a registered Republican until 2008. Two years later he won $266 million in the state lottery. Experts differ on whether the two events
While Young talks taxes and education, Cisneros talks Trump and immigration. Historically Asians, especially Young’s fellow Korean Americans, have taken a harder line on immigration than Hispanics, which may work to the benefit of Young, who stresses border security. Cisneros, like Trump, boasts that he’s not a politician, though he’s been delighted to accept cash and endorsements from the Democratic establishment, including President Obama, who starred in a boisterous Cisneros rally this summer. A poll in mid-September showed the race within the margin of error and most analysts rate it a toss-up. Even if Republican Kim wins, the longer-range question for the changing 39th is whether she’s the last of a dying breed.
Illinois’ 6th District
Trump lost the 6th District of Illinois, covering the west and northwest Chicago suburbs, by 10 points. Somehow the incumbent Republican congressman, Peter Roskam, won re-election by nearly 20. But the margin of Trump’s loss was enough to raise the hope of Democrats, who are now treating Roskam as one of their most vulnerable Republican targets. Analysts uniformly rate the race a toss-up.
Roskam is a four-term veteran of Congress and one of the architects of Trump’s tax bill. His opponent, Sean Casten, a “green energy” entrepreneur, has made opposition to the bill a centerpiece of his campaign. It’s probably good strategy in a high-tax state that may suffer under the bill’s change in state and local tax deductions. Casten has also made the mistake (for politicians, as for everyone) of using Twitter. Citing the need for civility in politics, the mild-mannered Roskam has happily quoted some of Casten’s intemperate emissions, comparing Trump to Osama bin Laden, for example, and the White House staff to Nazis.
In the “Land of Lincoln” the party of Lincoln is a limp and ineffectual thing, but the Democratic majority in the state legislature isn’t much more popular. Roskam runs ads linking to Casten to Michael Madigan, the hugely unpopular speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, implying Casten will favor the same high-tax, low-service model of governance that has made Illinois a fiscal basket case. Casten counters with accusations of Republican fiscal irresponsibility in Washington. Both are right but only one can win. Going into October, polls showed the race too close to call.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.