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.
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.
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.
Nobody should be surprised that evangelical voters are sticking with the GOP.
I’ve been watching evangelical voting behavior since I worked for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation in the 1980s, and I’ve come to believe that, in most cases (though certainly not all), white evangelicals get their religion from their politics, not their politics from their religion.
That is, many evangelicals are first and foremost political conservatives drawn to a church (or a pastor) that confirms their worldviews and, in turn, their political views.
They gravitate to evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches that are spread across the American landscape, particularly in rural and small-town America, because those churches hold views about the Bible and human behavior that are traditional rather than pragmatic. Not surprisingly, most of those church members are politically conservative, particularly on social/cultural issues but increasingly also on the role of government.
There are, to be sure, socially and economically liberal evangelicals, and they gravitate to progressive churches or to groups like the Sojourners, a social justice evangelical group that looks at the exact same scripture as Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Pat Robertson but emphasizes very different values and takes very different political positions.
While the Falwells and Roberstons focus primarily on abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners focuses on the poor and those marginalized by society. All are “evangelicals,” but they have very different concerns and agendas.
Of course, the tendency to affiliate with religious institutions that are consistent with one’s political views and priorities isn’t limited to evangelicals. Most people of faith pick a religion, a denomination, a particular house of worship, a clergyman and a level of observance that is consistent with their world view – and therefore with their core political beliefs.
You aren’t going to find very many political conservatives in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, just as you aren’t going to find many extremely liberal Hasidic Jews or pragmatists who attend fundamentalist churches.
The Catholic divide isn’t as easy to see, but it exists, with the religious travels of Paul Weyrich a good example of divisions in the Catholic Church.
Weyrich, a leading figure in what was called the New Right and the person who probably was most responsible for bringing evangelicals and conservative Catholics together after decades (really centuries) of distrust, grew up in Wisconsin as a Roman Catholic. But after Vatican II, he switched to attend St. Gregory of Nyssa Byzantine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.
Many Eastern Rite Catholic churches were more traditional than their Roman Catholic brethren, retaining time-honored liturgical rites and ancestral languages. Those elements fit Weyrich’s traditional religious orientation and his overall conservative instincts.
Then, one day during a sermon, a priest referenced the Vietnam War in a context that was critical of U.S. involvement. Weyrich and his family walked out of St. Gregory’s, eventually joining a Melkite (Greek) Catholic church that was even more traditional than the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic church they had been attending.
Weyrich looked for a church in which he was comfortable, and that led him to more orthodox denominations, churches and clergy who followed traditions more closely and were not at the forefront of change.
Not everyone is as clear as Weyrich was in searching for a house of worship that reflected his values, principles, trappings and priorities. And certainly, some evangelicals, like former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, have chosen to follow their moral imperatives rather than their partisan and ideological instincts.
But many religious denominations — or branches, in the case of Judaism — reflect a worldview that goes well beyond strictly religious views (such as, the divinity of Jesus or the observance of kashrut, for example).
They tend to be politically conservative or liberal, on social issues, foreign policy and even economic issues, depending on the denomination and the individual church or synagogue. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, including my own synagogue, which tends to avoid matters of public policy except for Israel.)
For many white evangelicals, their religious and political views are so strongly intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. When their views of religion and morality collide with politics, politics often wins out. That’s why it’s naïve to ask why so many white evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump or Roy Moore.
Remember physician Scott DesJarlais (R-TN 4), the pro-life, tea party conservative first elected to Congress in 2010?
DesJarlais admitted pressuring his mistress to have an abortion and acknowledged he had multiple sexual relationships with patients and co-workers. His wife had two abortions. And yet, the Family Research Council, which promotes “traditional marriage and family and advocates for policies that uphold Judeo-Christian values” (according to the Almanac of American Politics, 2016), gave the congressman a 100% rating for 2014. Even more amazing, voters re-elected the Republican in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
The congressman’s hypocrisy is obvious, but no more so than the political behavior of his conservative, evangelical supporters.
If you have any doubt that white evangelicals are as much a political category as a religious one, you need only look at recent elections and exit polls.
In 2016, Donald Trump received the support of 80% of white evangelicals and born-again Christians, while Hillary Clinton drew just 16%. Clinton, on the other hand, won 60% of non-evangelicals. One year later, in the Virginia governor’s race. Republican Ed Gillespie carried 79% of white evangelicals, compared to Democrat Ralph Northam’s 19%. Northam carried a stunning 67% of Virginians who were not white evangelicals or born-agains.
Obviously, I have painted with a broad brush here. Religious institutions are changing all the time – witness Pope Francis’s priorities and comments. And the increasing partisan polarization we have witnessed surely is impacting how people evaluate the behavior and beliefs of others.
What does all of this mean for Roy Moore’s Senate race next month? Given their politics, I expect the overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals in Alabama to vote for Moore, so his prospects depend on turnout by establishment Republicans, Democratic voting groups and Republican women.
If Moore does win – and he is more likely than not to defeat Democrat Doug Jones – it will be because white evangelicals find his politics more important than his morality.