When History Overtakes a Campaign Promise

The press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was groundbreaking, if difficult to believe.

The chairman of the DCCC said his committee “will not fund any Democratic candidate who initiates attacks against their Republican opponents of an ‘intimate’ personal nature.”

In response, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman made the same pledge and wrote that the agreement negotiated by the two committee heads “has the potential to truly change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better. We each agreed that there is no room in either of our parties for those who would make personal attacks on another candidate’s private life when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office.”

If you think I just made up those quotes or the bipartisan agreement was the product of my imagination, you are very wrong. That agreement was forged almost 20 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1998, by Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who chaired the DCCC, and Georgia Republican John Linder, his counterpart at the NRCC.

But while Frost’s press release was limited to announcing the agreement, Linder used his letter to complain that President Bill Clinton’s allies were trying to discredit his critics: “As we have seen all too often, those whose views differ from the White House often become targets of vicious smears from ‘unnamed sources.’ In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz writes on the White House’s ‘history of attacking its accusers.’ Kurtz writes, ‘James Carville, the president’s friend, openly declared ‘war’ on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and White House officials publicly released negative information about Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer accused Clinton of ‘groping her.’”

Linder was particularly upset about rumors being circulated that decades earlier, Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extramarital affair.

He complained: “The personal smear campaign being waged against my friend Henry Hyde is a shameful attempt by a hateful few to besmirch one of the most distinguished men to ever honor our nation with his service. These attacks are nothing more than a slanderous bid to intimidate the man charged with overseeing possible impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.”

About a week earlier, on Sept. 18, The Washington Post had noted that a “leading Republican critic of Clinton, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova, said yesterday: ‘Their denials are worthless at this point. There is a presumption they are responsible at this point. They’ve made no bones that their tactic is to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The burden has now shifted to them to disprove the fact that they were responsible for this.’”

(That’s the same diGenova who has defended President Donald Trump and almost joined the president’s legal defense team.)

Changing times

While Trump’s affairs — and denials — are getting plenty of attention, most political campaigns have moved beyond issues of personal, “private” conduct.

Indeed, the focus on the current president’s behavior is less about his “private” behavior than it is about whether he lied, obstructed justice or benefited from the help of a foreign government.

Yes, Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy resigned his seat in the House after it was revealed that he had an affair and urged his mistress to get an abortion, and former judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy was sunk after revelations about his past personal behavior.

But Moore won a Republican primary even as rumors swirled about bad behavior years earlier, and GOP Reps. Blake Farenthold of Texas and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee have survived personal scandals.

Personal scandals aren’t what they once were in American politics, though the recent attention to inappropriate sexual behavior has to some extent redefined what behavior is disqualifying for an officeholder or political hopeful and what is not.

I wouldn’t expect to see today’s campaign committees again swearing off future attacks, and it should be clear to all that the 1998 Frost-Linder agreement did not, as the Georgia Republican hoped, “change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better.”

Challengers and underdogs must still use multiple lines of attack to have any chance of winning, and White House spokesmen and leakers still try to discredit their opponents and silence their critics.

Getting worse

If anything, the nastiness has increased, even as attacks on a candidate’s private life — “when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office” — seem to have become less important to voters.

The ideological division between the two parties has grown, and new platforms have made it easier for bizarre accusations based on baseless conspiracy theories to enter the political debate and to circulate very publicly  — rather than through whispering campaigns of many decades ago.

The result is that the current political environment — and certainly the current White House — has taken us further away from civility, thoughtfulness, and the tenor and tone that Frost and Linder said they hoped to achieve. And that is a great pity.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 3, 2018.

How Can the GOP Turn Out Trump Voters?

In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.

Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.

Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?

One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”

That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.

He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.

Firing up the base

Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.

Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.

Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.

Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?

“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.

Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”

These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.

There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.

Making lemonade

Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.

Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.

“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.

Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”

But things aren’t quite that clear.

Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.

Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.

Insiders See Democratic House Gains of 30-45 seats

Seven and a half months before the midterm elections, the combination of attitudinal and behavioral evidence leads to a single conclusion: The Democrats are very likely to win control of the House in November.

Just as important, Republican and Democratic campaign strategists also agree that an electoral wave has already formed. The attitudinal evidence begins with national polling.

President Donald Trump’s job approval rating has settled into a relatively narrow range, with between 39 percent and 42 percent of registered voters approving of his performance. Only 33 percent to 37 percent of respondents say that the country is headed in the right direction, another bit of evidence that reflects the extent of support for Trump and the Republican Party.

The current congressional generic ballot question suggests that Democrats have an 8- or 9-point advantage, a significant margin even if it is at least a couple of points below what Democrats would ideally want going into the midterms.

Taken together, these numbers paint a dangerous picture for the president and his party.

Numbers don’t lie

Trump drew about 46 percent of the vote in 2016, so the current numbers suggest a modest, but significant, erosion in support.

Exactly where the slippage has taken place isn’t clear, though it is certainly less severe in rural America and more significant in the suburbs.

That means some states, and some congressional districts, have been affected more than others.

The new March 10-14 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of adults is consistent with other surveys over the past six months. It shows Democrats with a large generic ballot advantage among younger voters, women, whites with at least a college degree and voters age 65 and older.

The GOP’s great strength in the generic ballot is among two pro-Trump groups, men and whites without a college degree. Unfortunately for the party, the survey also shows Democrats, whites with a college degree and older voters as having the greatest interest in the election (and therefore the greatest likelihood of voting). Each of those groups prefers a Democratic Congress.

Moreover, while independents don’t traditionally turn out in big numbers in midterms, one veteran Republican strategist sees them as a huge problem this year. “They are tired of the drama,” he said.

The worst case for the GOP, of course, would be mediocre Republican turnout combined with strong Democratic participation and independents behaving like Democrats (which is what they did in 2006).

If that happens, Republicans would take quite a beating in the fall.

Gaining momentum

The behavioral part of the equation is just as troubling for Republicans, since it confirms the survey data.

Election results in the Virginia governor’s race last year, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District last week, and other state legislative special elections around the country have shown Democratic energy and turnout, particularly in suburban areas.

Hillary Clinton won Virginia by 5 points in 2016, but Democrat Ralph Northam took the gubernatorial contest last fall by almost 9 points.

Trump carried Pennsylvania’s 18 District by 20 points, but GOP nominee Rick Saccone ran about even with his Democratic opponent last week.

And in a Wisconsin state Senate special election in January, a district Trump carried by 17 points went Democratic by about 10 points.

Of course, not every state legislative contest produced that strong a gain for Democrats, and Republicans held all their open House seats in special elections last year.

But the recent trend is clear — Republicans are swimming against a strong current.

“It’s baked in now,” one veteran Republican campaign veteran told me, noting the GOP’s problems with women and college-educated voters. “We knew single women hated [the Republican Party]. We couldn’t do anything about that. But married women were different. We figured out how to deal with them by talking about pocketbook issues. But now college-educated women hate us. Even with the current economy. It’s the bullying, the nastiness, the tweeting. It’s all about Trump’s behavior.”

Republican insiders also worry that a chunk of “Trump voters” won’t turn out in November even though they still like the president personally. “There are blue-collar Democrats who voted for Trump but don’t care about the Republican Party. They are unlikely to turn out for a Republican candidate in the fall, though they could still help Trump in 2020,” one GOP consultant said.

Troubles brewing

The problem for Republican congressional candidates this year is that there are plenty of clouds hanging over the president and the country despite the strong economic numbers and business optimism.

North Korea and the Russia investigation are only the most obvious ones, but the president’s inclination to attack (or counterattack) and disrupt makes it more likely that controversies and chaos will continue.

Indeed, the campaign season is likely to lead to more Trump political rallies, where his freewheeling style and off-the-cuff comments can create more controversies.

So, what is the current trajectory of the 2018 midterms? I interviewed a wide range of campaign professionals, including some sympathetic to the president. All insisted on anonymity, and almost all believe the House will flip.

The veterans generally expect GOP losses in the 30- to 45-seat range, far more than the two-dozen seats House Democrats need for majority control.

The retirement of longtime Republican incumbents from competitive districts is adding to the problem, as is candidate fundraising. While there is plenty of GOP super PAC money available, Democratic House candidates are outraising their Republican counterparts.

Given that, national conservative and Republican groups will need to make tough decisions about who to fund and who to cut off as the election cycle progresses.

Obviously, events between now and November could change things (something I intend to address in my next column). But that’s the point. The burden is on Republicans — and the president — to change the cycle’s current trajectory. If they don’t, the House will flip.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 20, 2018.

Pennsylvania 18: Red Flag for the GOP

The results in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District confirm problems for Republicans.

The size of the Democratic general election wave is still unclear, but something is happening. Districts won comfortably by President Donald Trump in 2016 are more competitive now, which suggests that districts won by Hillary Clinton are likely to go Democratic in the midterms.

Democrat Conor Lamb either narrowly lost a congressional district that went for Trump by 20 points, or he won it. Either way, that’s bad news for the GOP.

If GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone ends up winning, Republicans may heave a sigh of relief that they didn’t lose a seat. But that is not the story.

The real story is Saccone badly underperforming Trump.

Clearly, either some Trump voters didn’t turn out, or other Trump voters defected to Lamb. Or both things happened.

No matter what, the result is a problem for Republicans in western Pennsylvania but also in other suburban areas.

Of course, there are always reasons to be cautious about reading too much into the results of a special election, especially when we don’t have exit polling to help us understand who voted and how demographic groups behaved.

Lamb, 33, was widely regarded as the better candidate — more articulate, more attractive and more energetic. The Marine veteran served as an assistant U.S. attorney and ran as a moderate by applauding Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, opposing new laws restricting gun ownership and announcing that he would not vote for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker.

But Saccone, 60, benefited from the district’s fundamentals, since Trump carried it by a convincing 20 points in 2016.

The district is over 93 percent white, and 65 percent of residents have less than a four-year college degree.

Saccone is an Air Force veteran who is serving his fourth term in the Pennsylvania House. “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” the Republican said of his support for the president.

Saccone and his GOP allies argued that Lamb would support the Democratic agenda and oppose Trump’s initiatives if elected to Congress.

The president went to the district to endorse Saccone and energize Republicans — and Trump voters — to turn out Tuesday. Special elections, after all, are often about turnout.

The Pennsylvania results show that Trump did not turn out enough of his voters to elect Saccone. He may have brought some Saccone voters to the polls, but he didn’t do what Republicans will need for the midterms.

The results in Pennsylvania’s 18th — not who won but how the district performed in the special election — is likely to concern Republican officeholders and strategists.

Finally, the election demonstrated once again that it is unwise to over-value second-tier polls in state and local races.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 14, 2018.

Why the Gun Issue Has Shifted (It’s Not What You Think)

The gun debate has shifted dramatically. Suddenly, it looks as if the issue will benefit Democrats in November, not Republicans.

The reason for the shift doesn’t rest primarily on the intelligence and commitment of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, although many of them have been articulate and persuasive.

Nor does the shift naturally follow from the decisions of large American corporations to stop selling assault weapons, or to end partnerships with the National Rifle Association, although those steps are a significant development.

And the shift in gun control politics isn’t happening because, after mass shootings in places like Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, San Bernardino and Newtown, the attack in Parkland finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

No, the reason why the gun control issue was a big advantage for the GOP for decades but now favors the Democrats can be traced to the shift in the electoral coalitions of the two parties.

A red shift

For years, the gun control debate benefited Republicans because their party was able to attract gun rights voters who were — or had been — reliably Democratic. Those voters initially aligned with the Democrats because of the party’s commitment to organized labor and its working-class agenda, and they constituted an important part of the party’s base vote in places like northeastern and western Pennsylvania, Minnesota’s Iron Range, upstate New York and working-class areas of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But as “cultural issues” — including abortion, school prayer, civil rights, gun control and ultimately gay rights and same-sex marriage — became increasingly salient from the late 1960s into the 1990s, a new fracture in American politics emerged.

Many cultural conservatives found themselves uncomfortable in the Democratic Party, and they started flirting with, and then shifting to, the GOP. Opponents of gun control — or advocates of gun owner rights, if you prefer — were among the most vocal party switchers.

By attracting former Democrats and swing voters who cared primarily about gun owner rights, the GOP was both adding to its numbers and subtracting supporters from the Democrats.

The gun issued changed the political arithmetic so completely in the Republicans’ favor that Democrats, increasingly located in the suburbs and in America’s cities, gave up on culturally conservative voters and decided the party should avoid talking about gun control if it hoped to woo any working-class whites.

A costly shift

But the shift of culturally conservative voters to the GOP has not been without its downside.

These voters, too often, helped make the party appear intolerant, mean-spirited and extreme, including on issues such as gun control. This eventually produced a new fracture in the electorate — and the emergence of a new crucial voting group, suburban voters.

The suburbs were, of course, once reliably Republican, whether they were in southeast Pennsylvania, in upscale counties outside New York City or in areas outside Washington, D.C.

The increasing cultural conservatism of the Republican Party made many suburban voters uncomfortable, but as long as the focus was on the liberalism of the Democrats (or the failures of Democratic incumbents), suburban voters usually stuck with the GOP.

But as Republicans moved right on cultural issues, many suburbs started to slide a bit more left.

Upscale Republican bastions, such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Nassau and Westchester counties in New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia, suddenly found themselves voting Democratic.

Now, suburban voters increasingly find that on guns they have more in common with their urban friends than with their rural ones. Some restrictions on guns, in particular, seem increasingly reasonable to swing voters after numerous mass shootings. As the issue has become more salient politically, it has also become potentially more effective for Democrats.

A winning shift

Of course, conservatives will point out that there are many pro-NRA voters, and “pro-gun” voters have tended to vote on one issue, guns, while supporters of gun control vote on a much broader range of issues.

The problem with that argument is that the party coalitions have changed.

Opponents of new gun controls are now so thoroughly integrated into the GOP that they are part of that party’s political base. Because they are no longer swing voters, they no longer have the electoral clout they once did.

Some Democrats from conservative, largely rural states or congressional districts will need pro-gun voters to win elections, and they will try to walk a fine line on the issue, as Conor Lamb is trying to do now in a western Pennsylvania House special election.

But in many states and districts, swing suburbanites — and particularly suburban women — are a much more important constituency than are NRA members because those suburban voters can decide which party wins — just the way anti-gun control voters once could.

This increased attention from suburbanites has changed the electoral equation for 2018, and that is why Democrats now should benefit from any focus on gun control issues.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 6, 2018.