Why 2018 Isn’t Already in the Bag for Democrats

With the president’s job approval ratings sitting in the mid-30s, why isn’t a Democratic House takeover next year a slam dunk?

The answer doesn’t have anything to do with the low unemployment rate, the growth of the gross domestic product over the last two quarters, or the soaring Dow Jones Industrials average. Nor does it have anything to do with the Republican tax cut plan or ISIS, or with the fact that “anything can happen.”

In spite of Donald Trump’s poor job approval numbers, his meanspirited denunciations of the media and the FBI, his exaggerations and untruths, his endorsement of Roy Moore, his attacks on honorable public servants like Bob Corker, Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake, and his repeatedly unwise statements that undercut or embarrass America’s allies in Europe and Asia, the president has not yet cost his party control of the House of Representatives.

The reason involves campaign dynamics and partisanship.

Just as Senate hopeful Moore has tried to rally his base in the final weeks of the Alabama Senate election, Donald Trump, his cheerleaders at Fox News, and Republican strategists will try to turn the 2018 midterms away from being a referendum on Donald Trump’s character, integrity and judgment and into a referendum on party and ideology. And if they are able to do that, Republicans can limit their damage eleven months from now.

Moore was at his weakest when the public focus was on his behavior and his character. Polling in Alabama showed Democrat Doug Jones pulling ahead when that was the case. But as the focus in Alabama changed to Jones – to his party label, position on abortion and overall ideology – Republican voters started to “come home.” (Whether enough have come home is still an open question.)

That’s only natural, since election results reflect the voters’ agenda.

Trump’s post-inauguration speeches, like the recent one in Pensacola, Florida, are campaign rallies intended to play to his base and rally his supporters. He often portrays his opponents as “evil.”

These rallies rarely seek to convince Americans about his policy proposals. Rather, they offer red meat to people already committed to Trump – and to those whose support has started to wane.

Sure, campaign rallies are often about mobilizing supporters, but they rarely are as narrowly targeted as Trump’s are. The president doesn’t seem to care at all about broadening his appeal, no matter how narrow his existing support.

Trump is betting that by the time the midterms roll around he will be able to bring back into the fold voters who were turned off by his style and language but who distrust the national media, liberals and Democrats more.

Given the states with Senate races in 2018 and the relatively few competitive House districts, that’s a calculated gamble by Trump and his allies.

Democrats need to net 24 seats next year to take back the House. That’s a challenging number considering that only 23 Republicans sit in districts that went for Hillary Clinton last year. Moreover, some of those Republicans are proven vote getters with demonstrated political skills, including John Katko (NY), Barbara Comstock (VA), Erik Paulsen (MN), Pat Meehan (PA) and Jeff Denham (CA).

If many of those talented Republicans can retain their seats, and if GOP strategists can get Trump voters to turn out next year and vote Republican, the party will have a chance to keep the control of the House during the midterms. That’s not close to a sure thing, of course, but it’s possible.

That’s why the president’s poor job approval numbers are a giant headache for his party but they don’t yet guarantee the House will flip. Stay tuned.

A Political Tactic I’ve Never Seen Before

I’ve spent more than three decades watching campaigns for Congress, but I never encountered a situation like the one I experienced last week, when I attended what amounted to a campaign event in my neighborhood’s clubhouse.

Maryland Democrat David Trone, who is running for Congress in the 6th Congressional District, came to my Potomac community to talk about his candidacy – and he brought plenty of wine for residents to sample while they chatted with neighbors before turning their attention to the candidate.

Trone, who owns Total Wine & More, a large beer, wine and spirits national retail chain, spent over $13 million of his own money during his unsuccessful primary run for Congress in Maryland’s 8th District. Now, he is again running for the House, this time in the neighboring 6th, which is being left open by retiring Democrat John Delaney.

What made all the politicking odd is that my community is not in the 6th District but rather in the 8th, currently represented by Democrat Jamie Raskin, who beat Trone in the Democratic primary last year. In other words, Trone touted his credentials, talked about his views and supplied wine to a roomful of people who could not vote for him next year.

Before Trone spoke, I asked a young campaign staffer whether he was sure the community was in the 6th C.D. After saying he certainly thought it was, his expression changed from confidence to hesitation.

Trone’s mistake is understandable, of course. In the last round of redistricting, Maryland Democrats chopped up a Republican district in the northwest part of the state, diluting the Republican vote by distributing it among two districts (the 6th and the 8th) dominated by the D.C. suburbs.

Potomac was split. While part of that suburb was placed in the western district (the 6th), which includes North Potomac, Gaithersburg and Poolesville, my neighborhood ended up in the 8th, which encompasses cities and towns further east (Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring and Wheaton).

Still, it’s relatively rare that a candidate for Congress spends his time campaigning for votes among voters who live outside his district – to say nothing about supplying attendees with free wine. (I’m not opposed to other candidates from around the country underwriting my neighborhood’s wine parties, though I do wonder about the ethics of it.)

Anyway, during the Q-and-A period after Trone’s speech, I asked two questions.

First, did the candidate think that Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken should resign form Congress?

“Yes,” Trone shot back enthusiastically. No hesitation. No obfuscation. No mealy-mouthed response to avoid alienating anyone. It was as refreshing as it was unequivocal. Of course, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had already called for Conyers’ resignation, so Trone was not really breaking from the party. (Earlier today, Conyers announced he will resign from the House.)

The second question involved my doubts that he is suited to being a lowly freshman who would have little influence. I noted his self-funding and his previous race, as well as the fact that he had flirted with running for county executive before deciding on a second race for Congress. I also noted that his earlier comments about leadership, about the county government and about his experiences in the private sector suggested he would be more effective in an executive position.

Trone seemed to dislike the question. He turned away from me and addressed others in the audience, insisting that his wealth was an asset not a liability, emphasizing that he would be politically independent, and promising that he could bring change. He was passionate, certainly, but he didn’t address my concerns about his temperament, district-shopping and suitability for a legislative office.

Trone took another question but suddenly had to run. He never stressed his Democratic label, instead embracing the “no labels” movement in response to a question and talking about his pro-business bent.

Oddly, that was not the only time I encountered Trone last week. Two days earlier, I saw him at a Suburban Hospital event in Bethesda. Trone and his wife received an award recognizing their family foundation’s $2.5 million gift to the hospital. He spoke briefly after receiving the award, giving what sounded a lot like a campaign speech.

Trone is one of a handful of Democrats who have already entered the June 2018 Democratic primary in Maryland’s 6th C.D. State Sen. Roger Manno and state Delegate Aruna Miler have also announced they are running.

On the GOP side, Amie Hoeber, who drew 40 percent of the vote against Delaney in the 2016 general election, is running again. But given Donald Trump’s performance in the White House and the Republican Party’s standing, it’s difficult to believe that Hoeber or any Republican will have much of a chance in this district next year.

So, the Democratic nomination will be hugely valuable. Trone’s previous run and his personal wealth automatically make him a serious contender. His odds will improve if he campaigns among voters who actually live in the district where he is running.