One year ago, as Donald Trump was preparing to take the oath of office, Democrats were in disarray. Supporters of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were pointing fingers at each other, the Democratic National Committee was in disgrace, and Democratic voters were demoralized.
Now, Trump has succeeded in doing something extraordinary, something neither Clinton nor House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could do — he has united and energized Democrats.
Moreover, if national polls are accurate, the president has taken his own party to the edge of a political cliff, the 2018 midterm elections.
This has occurred in spite of a growing economy, a booming stock market, a shrinking unemployment rate and tax cuts intended to stimulate even more growth.
While economic dislocations and low wage growth certainly played a role in boosting Trump’s presidential run, it was his view of America that mobilized key voters behind his anti-establishment candidacy.
Trump voters were angry about how the country has changed. They saw liberals encouraging diversity (through same-sex marriage, transgender rights and immigration) at the expense of traditional values, roles and institutions (e.g., traditional religious beliefs and organizations).
Even worse, Republicans were unable to roll back or stop the tide of change. Trump’s cultural populism was an important part of his campaign message, and it continues to underlie his appeal to older, less educated, white voters, particularly those in rural areas.
His anti-elitist message resonated with Americans who regarded diversity and political correctness as threats to their traditions and way of life.
His promise to replace “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” may seem trivial, but it encapsulated an important part of his message and allure, which essentially involved his promise to turn back the clock.
But while those themes certainly struck a chord with conservatives and older voters in 2016, they have also — for a very different reason — now energized the young, people of color and more liberal voters, who see Trump’s America as a threat rather than an ideal.
Like Trump, President Barack Obama’s great appeal was not his issue positions — though, of course, liberal Democrats agreed with him about health care, government spending and foreign policy.
Instead, it was Obama’s vision for the country — diversity, equality, fairness and bipartisan cooperation — that made him so attractive, even to nonideological voters.
While many Americans remain outraged by Trump’s judicial appointments, efforts to repeal the 2010 health care law, support for corporate tax cuts and decision to open up drilling off the nation’s coasts, his critics have been most offended by his vision for America.
Trump’s inauguration address, comments after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and insensitivity toward gays and blacks galvanized liberals, immigrants and the young, many of whom were lukewarm about Clinton’s candidacy and failed to vote during the Obama midterms in 2010 and 2014.
This new energy produced an electorate in Virginia in 2017 that looked significantly more like the national electorates of 2008 and 2012 than those of 2010 or 2016.
That is politically dangerous for the GOP, as it was in 2006, when a Democratic electoral wave swept the country.
Trump and congressional Republicans began this election cycle with little room for error heading into the midterms. After all, Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 points in 2016 even though key Democratic demographic groups underperformed.
But since his election, Trump has made little effort, either substantively or symbolically, to reach out to voters outside his political base.
Yes, his base is loyal, but it remains dangerously small.
The trouble for Trump and his party is that last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election saw strong turnout among younger voters (ages 18-29 and 30-44) and nonwhites.
The surge was particularly strong in suburban areas, where white women with a college degree helped Democrat Ralph Northam sweep to an unexpectedly strong victory.
Trump’s voters went to the polls and supported Republican Ed Gillespie, but he was crushed by almost 9 points by a larger-than-expected Democratic turnout.
The outcome in Virginia revealed the long-term problem for Republicans in general and Trump in particular: the America of Donald Trump isn’t one that is inclusive and welcoming.
It is an America tied to cultural values and behaviors of the 1950s, not the 21st century. That has proved appealing to older white voters, evangelicals, the less educated and those living in rural America, but not so to the rest of the country.
Other elections in 2017 and most national polls have also shown greater Democratic energy and opposition to the president, even with the nation’s good economic numbers.
The Democrats don’t have Obama at the top of the ticket, but they have someone almost as good — Donald Trump.
So, while the president can (and inevitably will) brag about some of his accomplishments, perhaps his greatest accomplishment may be his success in reviving and revitalizing the Democratic Party. And for that, Democrats should thank him.
This column was originally published by Roll Call on January 10, 2018.
Responses to the “generic ballot” poll question suggest a partisan electoral wave is building. But the fight for control of the House isn’t a single national election. It will be fought district by district, and national Democrats face challenges on the ground even with the generic ballot favoring them.
In Michigan, according to America Votes 2007-2008, the statewide congressional vote shifted noticeably from 2004 to 2006 — from 49 percent Republican and 48 percent Democratic to 53 percent Democratic and 44 percent Republican — but that popular vote surge for the Democrats didn’t translate to a shift of even a single House seat.
GOP strategists had done a good job drawing district lines to protect Republicans. Most political junkies look to past election results to see which incumbents and districts could be at risk in the next election. This year, the focus has been on 23 House Republicans sitting in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That’s certainly a good place to start, but it’s a bad place to stop, especially in an electoral wave. Where else should you look for vulnerable House Republicans?
Incumbents who win with nearly 60 percent are often categorized as “safe,” but a quick glance at recent election results finds that Republicans who won by 20 points in 2004 weren’t slam dunks for re-election two years later during a Democratic electorate wave, especially if those House members had not faced a serious test in years.
Republican Sue W. Kelly, first elected to Congress in 1994, drew 70 percent of the vote in 2002 and won re-election with 67 percent two years later in New York’s 19th District.
President George W. Bush carried her district comfortably, 53 percent to 45 percent, when he was re-elected in 2004. Those percentages suggested Kelly would win in 2006, but she was upset by Democrat John Hall.
Hall initially was regarded as a songwriting political lightweight with little chance to win. But Kelly’s 67 percent showing in 2004 plummeted to 49 percent two years later — a drop of almost 18 points.
Her 33-point victory margin in 2004 turned into a 2-point deficit in 2006. And Kelly was not alone in feeling the impact of the electoral wave.
Nancy L. Johnson, an influential GOP moderate from Connecticut, drew 60 percent in 2004 but less than 44 percent in 2006.
Melissa A. Hart, an up-and-coming conservative Republican from western Pennsylvania, won with 65 percent in 2002 and 63 percent in 2004 but lost with only 48 percent two years later.
In the Philadelphia suburbs, Curt Weldon’s 59 percent showing in 2004 plunged to 44 percent in 2006.
California Republican Richard W. Pombo’s 61 percent showing in 2004 fell to 47 percent in 2006.
And Arizona’s J.D. Hayworth, a political bomb thrower who eventually challenged John McCain in the 2010 Arizona GOP Senate primary, coasted to re-election with around 60 percent of the vote in 2002 and 2004 but drew just 46 percent in 2006, when he was defeated by Democrat Harry E. Mitchell.
And there are others.
Florida’s E. Clay Shaw Jr., New Hampshire’s Jeb Bradley and Kentucky’s Anne M. Northup all won with over 60 percent of the vote in 2004 but lost two years later.
A wider playing field
The same thing is likely to happen this year.
Seats that looked safe before the wave will eventually be categorized as endangered.
Potentially vulnerable incumbents can initially appear entrenched because of their weak opponents or because the national environment favored their party or all incumbents. But a political wave creates an entirely different dynamic, exposing hidden weaknesses. The 1994 defeat of powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, a Democrat, is all the proof you need of that.
So, some GOP incumbents who won comfortably in the past are at risk this year. I would certainly keep an eye on Trump districts that went for Barack Obama twice.
Those 11 districts include four in the Empire State — New York’s 1st (Lee Zeldin), 2nd (Peter T. King), 19th (John J. Faso) and 21st (Elise Stefanik) — and two in the Garden State: New Jersey’s 2nd (left open by retiring Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo) and 3rd (Tom MacArthur).
That list also includes two seats in Iowa — the 1st District (Rod Blum) and 3rd (David Young) — and one each in Illinois, Maine and Minnesota — Illinois’ 12th (Mike Bost), Maine’s 2nd (Bruce Poliquin) and Minnesota’s 2nd (Jason Lewis).
Beyond that are six districts that Obama carried once and Donald Trump won with less than 50 percent of the vote. That list includes two in Illinois — the 13th (Rodney Davis) and 14th (Randy Hultgren) — and one each in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Washington — Michigan’s 11th (left open by retiring Rep. Dave Trott), Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon), Pennsylvania’s 8th (Brian Fitzpatrick) and Washington’s 3rd (Jaime Herrera Beutler).
Even more challenging districts already offer Democrats opportunities. Trump took just over 50 percent of the vote in Michigan’s 8th, and Obama carried the district only in 2008. But Republican Mike Bishop’s Democratic challenger this year, Elissa Slotkin, is receiving rave reviews because of her credentials — she has held posts at the White House, Defense Department, State Department and CIA — and her fundraising.
Additionally, Democratic challengers in Utah’s 4th (Mia Love), Kansas’ 2nd (left open by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins) and Kentucky’s 6th (Andy Barr) have put Republican districts in play.
Finally, make certain a handful of other GOP-held seats are on your watch list, given their past performance: Pennsylvania’s 15th (left open by retiring Rep. Charlie Dent) and 16th (Lloyd K. Smucker), Virginia’s 2nd (Scott Taylor), New York’s 22nd (Claudia Tenney) and 23rd (Tom Reed), Ohio’s 10th (Michael R. Turner) and even New Jersey’s 11th (Rodney Frelinghuysen).
When this cycle began, we repeatedly heard how few House districts were competitive and how difficult it would be for Democrats to make substantial net gains. But political waves tend to create a much wider playing field, and that is an increasingly dangerous development this year for GOP campaign strategists and House members.
This column was originally published by Roll Call on January 3, 2018.