Steve Bannon Is Right About the Midterms — Until He Isn’t

Former Trump campaign chief executive and White House strategist Steve Bannon recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the midterm elections will be “an up or down vote” on the president. He also asserted that it’s imperative that Donald Trump nationalize the midterm elections.

“Trump’s second presidential race will be on Nov. 6 of this year. He’s on the ballot, and we’re going to have an up or down vote. Do you back Trump’s program, OK, with all that’s good and all that’s bad? Do you back Trump’s program, or do you back removing him?” Bannon told Zakaria.

Bannon surely is correct that the November elections will largely be about Trump. The incumbent president and his administration’s performance have almost always been the single most important factor in midterm balloting.

But in a number of ways, Bannon is dead wrong about the midterms.

No choice at all

First, he suggests that the election essentially will be a “choice” between Trump and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, or between Trump and impeachment.

Those scenarios are unlikely.

While Republicans would prefer to make the upcoming midterms into a choice, most midterm elections are referendums on the occupant of the White House.

I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to make the midterms “about” something other than the sitting president, but the burden of proof is on the GOP to do that.

Presidential elections inevitably involve choices, but midterms usually don’t, since the out-party rarely has a de facto leader who is salient enough to be an alternative to the president.

Indeed, this year, some observers have criticized the Democrats for not having a leader or even a coherent, unified message.

Republicans tried to make the special election in Pennsylvania 18th District about Pelosi, and the results suggest they had little success. Trump carried that district by nearly 20 points in 2016, but Democrat Conor Lamb, a self-styled pragmatist, won the March contest even though Republicans repeatedly portrayed him as a tool of liberal Pelosi.

Bannon certainly is right that making the midterms into a referendum on impeachment would be desirable for Trump and the GOP. And some Democrats, particularly those in the most liberal and Democratic areas, are unwisely talking about impeachment.

But Pelosi has made it clear that she opposes such talk, and Democrats in competitive states and districts surely will go out of their way to defuse impeachment as a possibility.

Clearly, the most partisan and ideological Republicans believe that impeachment is a real issue, but those voters are already Trump’s strongest supporters and likely to turn out in the fall. Again, the burden is on the GOP to make 2018 “about” impeachment in those states and districts that matter most.

All politics is local

Second, Bannon is also wrong when he says it is imperative that Trump and the GOP nationalize the midterm elections.

It would be much better for Republicans in Democratic and swing districts to localize the elections.

Those Republicans could then run on their records rather than have voters see the midterms as about Trump, with all his personal baggage.

But it is difficult to take the sitting president out of the midterm equation, which is why so many past officeholders have been swept out in partisan waves.

A minority bump?

Third, Bannon is dealing in wishful thinking when he suggests that Trump and the GOP are making major inroads with minorities, in large part because of decreasing unemployment and immigration.

So far, there is little evidence that Trump’s standing among minorities is surging (though some improvement certainly is possible) or that minority voters are focused only on jobs.

The economy’s strength could boost Trump’s approval numbers and his party’s midterm performance among some, but opposition to the president rests more on his cultural agenda, his false statements, his efforts to undermine crucial American institutions, and his contempt for widely held American values.

Oddly, in a Washington Post column based on his CNN interview, Zakaria called Bannon’s recommendation to nationalize the midterms, apparently around immigration, “a brilliant electoral strategy,” since it has both economic and cultural appeal.

Take a moment to imagine what Election Day 2018 would look like after Trump spent three or four months hammering away in tweets and at campaign rallies about “the wall,” NFL players, sanctuary cities and immigrant gang members.

Imagine what he might say when he goes off-script. Add to that Bannon’s prediction that Trump will “shut down the government” in the fall if Congress doesn’t fully fund “the Southern wall.”

That kind of campaign would only add to the current impression that Trump is mean-spirited, intolerant, divisive and even racist.

Doubling down on that reputation might help him energize his base, but it would not help him with African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans or younger voters.

More importantly, it would almost certainly add to his growing problems with the key group of this year’s midterms: white, college-educated women, particularly those in the suburbs.

That doesn’t sound “brilliant” to me.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 5, 2018.

Why You Should Focus on Independents

I don’t trust anyone who tells me they already know the makeup of the midterm electorate. We can’t possibly know who will vote in the fall, let alone how they will cast their ballots.

If I were going to focus on a handful of variables to understand how the cycle is unfolding, I’d certainly pay close attention to partisanship. But instead of focusing primarily on the percentage of Republicans and Democrats among voters, I’d pay more attention to the attitudes (and then the behavior) of self-identified independents.

I looked at recent national exit polls going back to the 2000 presidential race and found that the electorate’s partisan makeup doesn’t always explain an election’s outcome.

Sure, there were many more Democrats than Republicans in the 2008 (+7 points) and 2012 (+6 points) exit poll samples, when Barack Obama won the White House and was re-elected comfortably. But the 2006 exits showed Democrats making up only 38 percent of the electorate — to the GOP’s 36 percent — while riding a 31-seat wave to take back control of the House.

And four years later, in 2010, exit polls showed Republicans and Democrats each making up 36 percent of voters at the same time the GOP was netting 63 House seats in one of the biggest electoral waves in history.

In 2000 and 2016, both presidential election years, there were more self-identified Democrats than self-identified Republicans in the exit polls (by 4 points in 2000 and 3 points in 2016). But both times, the GOP nominee won the White House while losing the popular vote.

Independent thinking

Obviously, if Democrats constitute a much larger percentage of the November electorate than Republicans — 6 or 7 points, for example — that would be great news for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. But how independent voters behave could well be the more useful indicator to watch.

One reason is that the percentage of self-identified independents has been inching up recently. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential contests and the 2006 midterms, independents constituted 26 percent of the electorate. But in 2012, they were 29 percent, in the 2014 midterms 28 percent, and in the 2016 presidential election 31 percent.

Obviously, those numbers change, depending in part on the appeal of the presidential nominees and the image of the parties. Some of the 2016 independents could well have been Republicans and Democrats who didn’t like the two presidential nominees, both of whom had unusually high negatives.

But the more important reason to pay attention to independents is that they often reflect the direction and magnitude of partisan changes.

The two big wave elections of the last 20 years were both driven by independents, who voted Democratic by a margin of 18 points in 2006 (57 percent to 39 percent), Republican by an equally large margin in 2010 (59 percent to 41 percent). During Obama’s second midterm, in 2014, independents also went Republican by a substantial margin (54 percent to 42 percent).

In 2016 and 2000, independents voted narrowly for Donald Trump (by 4 points, 46 percent to 42 percent) and for George W. Bush (by 2 points, 48 percent to 46 percent). Given how close those two contests were, it probably isn’t a stretch to say that the two Republican nominees might not have won without their pluralities among self-identified independents.

The 2004 election was a bit of an outlier, I suppose. The presidential election was very close, and the electorate (according to the exit poll) had equal percentages of Democrats and Republicans. Democrat John Kerry won 49 percent of independent voters to incumbent Bush’s 48 percent. And yet, Bush won re-election narrowly, by just over 2 points.

Still, the competitiveness of the overall race and the closeness of the vote among independents does seem to confirm the usefulness of looking at how these voters perform to understand the kind of election we will have.

Watch the polls

Recent polling suggests the GOP has reason for concern about independent voters in the fall. An April 8-11 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found independents currently preferring Democratic control of Congress by 11 points, 38 percent to 27 percent. That’s a big margin.

May 2-5 CNN/SSRS survey found independents preferred Democratic nominees for Congress over Republicans by a much closer 3-point margin, 43 percent to 40 percent. But since the 2016 exit poll showed Trump carrying this key group by 4 points, a Democratic advantage of 3 points would constitute a 7-point swing toward the Democrats.

Finally, Quinnipiac University’s April 6-9 national survey offers the strangest numbers. It found Democrats with a 3-point advantage on the generic ballot among all voters but Republicans with a 2-point advantage among independents, 41 percent to 39 percent. The idea that independents are more inclined toward the GOP than the overall electorate seems difficult to accept.

The attitudes of independent voters toward the president and control of Congress should provide a window into the midterms. Keep watching those numbers, especially when they come from national media polls.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 30, 2018.

Rothenberg’s Dangerous Dozen Open House Seats

Yes, it’s time for another of my “dangerous dozen open House seats” columns, which I have been writing since shortly after the establishment of the Jamestown Settlement (or so it seems).

This cycle’s version has a plethora of seats to choose from, given the 38 Republican and 19 Democratic seats where an incumbent is not seeking re-election, either because he or she is retiring or running for a different office. (The number does not include those districts where a special election has already filled a vacancy or will be held before November.)

Those 57 total retirements are the second largest since 1930, surpassed only by 1992, which had a total of 65 open seats.

Here is my list, in descending order of vulnerability.

The first 10 districts on the list look very likely to flip party control.

After that, things get a bit murkier.

1. Pennsylvania’s 5th (Patrick Meehan, R)

Meehan’s suburban Philadelphia district has been completely redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, going from a very competitive district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 2 points in 2016 to one that would have backed her by 28 points under the new lines.

Meehan, who recently resigned from Congress, had his own problems anyway, but the new lines guarantee the Republican will be replaced by a Democrat.

2. Pennsylvania’s 14th (Conor Lamb, D)

Pennsylvania’s old 18th District has been chopped up a number of ways. Lamb has decided to run in the redrawn 17th District, where Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus will also be seeking re-election.

That means that the redrawn 14th, much of which is in now in Lamb’s district, won’t have an incumbent on the ballot in the fall.

The redrawn seat went for President Donald Trump by 29 points, making it an almost certain Republican takeover in the fall.

3. Florida’s 27th (Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R)

Ros-Lehtinen proved her political appeal in 2016 when she won re-election while Clinton was carrying her district by 20 points. But now that the Republican congresswoman is retiring, the heavily Hispanic district looks poised to flip party control.

4. Pennsylvania’s 6th (Ryan A. Costello, R).

Costello went back and forth about seeking re-election under the new lines. Clinton carried the old district by a single point but took the redrawn seat by 9 points.

The congressman finally announced that he would not seek re-election, and that almost certainly ended GOP chances of holding this suburban Philadelphia seat.

5. New Jersey’s 2nd (Frank A. LoBiondo, R)

LoBiondo’s district is a contradiction. Trump carried it by 5 points, but President Barack Obama carried it twice, by 8 points each time.

The Republican incumbent lost his first bid for Congress in 1992 but hasn’t had a close contest since he won the open seat in 1994.

The favorite for this year’s open seat is Democrat Jeff Van Drew. National Democrats have wooed the moderate state senator to run for years, but he waited until the seat became open. Smart move.

6. Arizona’s 2nd (Martha McSally, R)

McSally is running for the Senate in what could be a terrible Republican year, both in her state and nationally. While she is a strong candidate, her exit creates a huge hole for Republicans in a district Clinton carried by almost 5 points.

Divisions within the state GOP and a relatively weak Republican showing in Arizona’s 8th District special election last month suggest serious problems for McSally’s party.

7. California’s 49th (Darrell Issa, R)

Issa barely edged out Democratic challenger Doug Applegate two years ago and decided not to try his luck once again. Both parties have multiple hopefuls running, and the top-two open primary complicates any analysis.

But the district has been moving toward the Democrats, and Trump’s unpopularity — Clinton carried the seat by more than 7 points — and Democratic enthusiasm makes this district a prime takeover target. If a Democrat makes the top two, the district will flip.

8. California’s 39th (Ed Royce, R)

Clinton carried Royce’s district by 9 points so it isn’t surprising that this open seat is at great risk. Uncertain GOP turnout in the state, partially a function of Trump’s weakness, adds to Republican woes. Again, if a Democrat makes the top two, the district is likely to flip.

9. Pennsylvania’s 7th (Charlie Dent, R)

Dent has been an extremely popular and savvy officeholder, which has masked the competitiveness of this district. His retirement, and a redrawn district map, combine to make this vacant seat a Republican headache. Trump carried the old 15th District by 8 points, but Clinton carried the redrawn seat by a point — which is why the eventual GOP nominee will be an underdog.

10. New Jersey’s 11th (Rodney Frelinghuysen, R)

Frelinghuysen was first elected to Congress in 1994, a huge Republican “wave” year, and he is retiring in what could become one of the larger Democratic waves in recent memory.

The pragmatic Republican hasn’t been tested in years, but Trump carried his educated, upscale Republican-leaning district by less than a point.

The likely Democratic nominee, Mikie Sherrill, is a Naval Academy graduate, former Navy pilot, former federal prosecutor and a woman. Looks like a giant migraine headache for GOP strategists — and a Democratic pickup.

11. Michigan’s 11th (David Trott, R)

This suburban district located northwest of Detroit usually leans Republican, but Obama carried it in 2008. Trump won it by a bit over 4 points, hardly an overwhelming margin. Both parties have crowded primaries that include current and former candidates and B-team hopefuls.

12. Minnesota’s 1st and 8th (Tim Walz, D/Rick Nolan, D)

Trump carried both of these districts by about 15 points, but both voted for Obama twice. They both have a substantial chunk of rural and blue-collar voters, giving the eventual Republican nominees the opportunity to flip a Democratic seat even while the national trend is going very much in the opposite direction. But since I’m not certain which is more likely to flip, I’ll put both on the list for now.

This list almost certainly will change as primaries play out, general election races engage and polls show how voters are reacting to the nominees and the broader political environment.

Honorable mentions

Keep an eye on a handful of races that just missed being included on my list but could be added later.

Those open districts include Washington’s 8th (Republican Dave Reichert), North Carolina’s 9th (Republican Robert Pittenger) and Kansas’ 2nd (Republican Lynn Jenkins). And even the open seat of Speaker Paul D. Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District bears watching.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 10, 2018.

The Trump Agenda’s Unintentional International Consequences

President Donald Trump, who preaches pro-business policies at home and more favorable terms for the United States in trade deals, may well help elect more anti-American leaders around the world and leave the United States more isolated and embattled.

We could see the first manifestation of this in Trump’s confrontational approach with Mexico. His positions on trade (particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement) and immigration, and his characterization of the people of Mexico, have boosted the prospects of presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico’s July 1 election.

López Obrador, who has talked about possibly granting amnesty to drug traffickers, is widely viewed as a nationalist, left-wing populist who favors restricting foreign investment and protecting his nation’s domestic economy.

Earlier this year, López Obrador promised to put Trump “in his place.”

In the area of energy, for example, The New York Times recently reported that López Obrador “wants to reverse policies that have tied a knot between Mexico and the United States in recent years in energy production and consumption. And he has promised to make sure that oil never falls ‘back into the hands of foreigners.’”

Polls conducted in April and May have shown López Obrador holding leads of 10 to 20 points in the multicandidate presidential contest. (Mexico does not have a runoff system, so the first-place finisher is elected, even with only a plurality of the vote.)

French flattery

Meanwhile, in France, Emmanuel Macron has faced a torrent of criticism for his obsequiousness to Trump. The French president’s poll numbers are down, as critics from both ends of the ideological spectrum have blasted Macron for allegedly humiliating himself during his meetings with the American president.

Macron, like some other foreign leaders, has tried to flatter Trump to ingratiate himself with the president — and to convince Trump to change his positions on trade, the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and other crucially important issues. So far, those efforts have failed.

France is not alone in its disdain for Trump. The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes and Trends annual survey shows respondents have a less favorable view of the United States than they did before Trump was re-elected, and they have less confidence in the president doing “the right thing regarding world affairs.”

The declines have been most notable in Western Europe and Japan — including in countries that have been among America’s closest allies for decades.

Pew Research polling in Latin America showed the same general trend, with a dramatic drop in the public’s view of the United States and in the public’s confidence that Trump will do the right thing.

Although Trump’s standing is down throughout Latin America, the drop is most pronounced in Mexico. Only 5 percent of respondents in Mexico in a spring 2017 survey said they had confidence that Trump would do the right thing in world affairs.

Enemies of his friends

One of the few places around the globe where Trump’s standing has improved is Israel, but that improvement masks a dangerous development.

For decades, Israeli political leaders and American advocates for Israel have sought to portray the relationship between the two countries as above partisan politics.

Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives could all support the Jewish state. It was one of the few things on which most Americans, regardless of party or ideology, could agree.

But Trump’s strong support for Israel, which includes moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, carries some risk for the Jewish state.

Trump is such a polarizing figure at home that his support for Israel could actually undermine bipartisan support for the country.

In particular, weakening support for Israel among nonwhites and Hispanics in the United States has concerned Israeli officials for years, and they have been looking for ways to connect with the minority community.

But Trump’s rhetoric and actions could make that more difficult. The combination of Trump’s support for the Jewish state and his historic unpopularity among some Americans could undermine support for Israel among younger voters, progressives and minority voters, who don’t have the same connection to or affection for Israel as most Jews and Christians.

In other words, if Donald Trump supports Israel, some voters automatically cannot.

Indeed, a Pew Research survey conducted earlier this year showed a sharp drop in support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute among Democrats. While part of this change almost certainly can be traced to Israeli actions, Trump’s possible impact shouldn’t be ignored, considering the animosity that many hold toward him.

Many Republicans complained that Barack Obama “led from behind” and weakened American power around the globe. But Trump seems to be encouraging America’s critics and alienating its friends, weakening America’s standing and unleashing forces that could do additional harm in the future.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 22, 2018. 

Famous Names on the Ballot? Sure, We Got ’Em

Every election cycle, at least a few “semi-celebrities” (or those with connections to semi-celebrities) run for office. This cycle is no exception.

Actress Cynthia Nixon of “Sex in the City” fame is running for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York, while Greg Pence, the vice president’s brother, won the Republican nomination in Indiana’s 6th District.

But there are other semi-celebrity candidates — or relatives of semi-celebrities — running for Congress this year who are also worth noting.

Here are a few:

Scott Wallace

Democrat Scott Wallace is hoping to win his party’s nomination in Pennsylvania’s 1st District, where GOP incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick is seeking a second term.

Wallace is the grandson of Henry A. Wallace, who served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president during his third term. Roosevelt eventually dropped Wallace, a left-wing populist, from the ticket when he sought and won a fourth term, replacing Wallace with Missouri Sen. Harry S. Truman.

Roosevelt did appoint Wallace as secretary of Commerce, though he was eventually fired by Truman. Scott Wallace’s campaign website doesn’t mention that his grandfather was discredited for being soft on Russia, communism and Stalin. Nor does it mention that Henry Wallace left the Democratic Party and ran as a Progressive in 1948, winning less than 3 percent of the vote. Scott Wallace is a serious contender for his party’s nomination. Given the competitiveness of the new district, this is a district to watch.

Karin Housley

Minnesota GOP Senate hopeful Karin Housley has a famous name — her husband’s. Housley, a realtor and state senator from the Twin Cities area, is married to Phil Housley, the coach of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

A defenseman who played for eight different teams from 1982 to 2003, Coach Housley was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. He played in 1,495 National Hockey League games, a record for a U.S.-born player until it was eclipsed by Chris Chelios in 2006.

Phil Housley also held the record for most points by an American-born NHL player. That record fell to Mike Modano in 2007. The filing deadline isn’t until June, with the primary in August, but Karin Housley could well be the GOP nominee against Democrat Tina Smith, who was appointed to fill Al Franken’s open Senate seat and is running in a special election to fill out the term.

Karin Housley would need to do better than her husband did this season. Not only did the Sabres finish last in the Atlantic Division of the NHL, but they finished with the league’s worst record.

Anthony Gonzalez

Anthony Gonzalez played football at Ohio State before being drafted by the Indianapolis Colts with the last pick of the first round in the 2007 NFL draft. (The Colts had the last pick in the round because they had defeated the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl a couple of months earlier.)

But injuries took their toll starting in his third year with the Colts, and he eventually retired in 2012. Last week, Gonzalez — no relation to Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales or 14-time Pro Bowl NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez — won the GOP nomination in Ohio’s 16th District.

He had the backing of many in the party establishment. His main rival, state Rep. Christina Hagan, accused him of being “the swamp’s choice” and noted that she was a strong supporter of President Donald Trump.

Hagan, who was endorsed by former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, also cited endorsements from leading House Freedom Caucus conservatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

The district, left open because GOP Rep. Jim Renacci is running for Senate, leans Republican, though it bears watching because of the current climate.

Gonzalez’s primary victory improves Republican prospects.

Colin Allred

Former Baylor linebacker Colin Allred played four seasons for the Tennessee Titans. After his football career ended, Allred went to law school and then worked as a special assistant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He finished first in the March Democratic primary in Texas’ 32nd District but faces a May 22nd runoff for the nomination with Lillian Salerno.

The winner of the runoff will face Republican Rep. Pete Sessions in November.

Levi Sanders

Levi Sanders, the son of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is running for the Democratic nomination in New Hampshire’s 1st District. The eventual winner will replace retiring Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

Sanders’s bare-bones website doesn’t mention his father, but it does show a large photo of Levi passing his father as they shake hands.

Kimberlin Brown Pelzer

According to her IMDb profile, Republican hopeful Kimberlin Brown Pelzer has a long list of credits, including “The Young and the Restless,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Port Charles,” “General Hospital” and “One Life to Live.” In 1982, she “guest-starred” on an episode of “T.J. Hooker,” which starred the always memorable William Shatner.

Pelzner, who is running in California’s 36th District, spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Her website describes her as “one of a small, rare group of actors in Hollywood who are public about their conservative political beliefs.” She also started an interior design firm.

This district was once represented by Sonny Bono and later by his widow, Mary Bono. It includes Palm Springs and has been moving toward the Democrats.

Suneel Gupta

Suneel Gupta’s bio on his campaign website describes him as a “proven entrepreneur … who has built companies that have created thousands of good-paying jobs.” But for many people his biggest claim to fame is his brother — CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.

Suneel served as vice president for development at Groupon, but in 2012, he and Sanjay “co-created Rise, a healthcare company that uses technology to shrink the cost of quality health care.” The congressional hopeful has a law degree and an MBA from Northwestern.

Gupta is running in a multi-candidate Democratic primary race in Michigan’s 11th District. The seat was left open by the retirement of Republican incumbent Dave Trott. The Democratic field includes a state legislator, two former Obama administration staffers and two entrepreneurs. The GOP field includes former Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, the co-chairwoman of Trump’s Michigan campaign and a number of current and former state legislators.

Depending on your meaning of the word “celebrity,” other candidates could fill the bill, as well.

My Roll Call colleague Nathan listed a number of others in a column almost a year ago.

But even if I’m not sure what constitutes celebrity status, it’s pretty clear that the success of athletes, reality TV stars, entertainers and officeholders’ siblings and children will encourage other hopefuls to turn their name recognition or their bloodlines into future political gold.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 17, 2018.