The Democrats’ Savior

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.

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.

Trump’s appeal

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.

Trump’s threat

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’s troubles

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.

House Seats You Think Can’t Flip But Might

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?

Dramatic reversals

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.

Why 2018 Isn’t Already in the Bag for Democrats

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

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

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

The reason involves campaign dynamics and partisanship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Political Tactic I’ve Never Seen Before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Democrats “Minnick” John Katko and Erik Paulsen?

New York Rep. John Katko and Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen have been very popular with voters. Unbeatable? Maybe not, but certainly well-entrenched and able to win in very challenging environments.

But even popular incumbents have been swept from office during partisan electoral waves, and Republicans Katko and Paulsen should be on your radar as potential canaries in the coal mine – early indicators of whether a big wave is building.

Katko, first elected in 2014 in New York’s 24th C.D., a Syracuse-area seat, and Paulsen, first elected in 2008 in Minnesota 3, a suburban Twin Cities seat, both sit in swing or Democratic leaning seats. Both of their districts went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Barack Obama twice.

Katko, who defeated an incumbent Democrat by 20 points in 2014, was reelected with 61% of the vote last year even though Clinton was carrying the district by more than three points. Paulsen, who has been reelected repeatedly by double digits, won a fifth term with 57% in 2016 at the same time Clinton was carrying his district by nine points.

But wave elections have buried incumbents who were popular with grass roots voters and supposedly had personalized their districts. The most obvious example of this is Walter Minnick, whom I’ve pointed to repeatedly over the years.

A moderate Democrat, Minnick narrowly defeated Idaho 1st District GOP incumbent Bill Sali in 2008, the same year that Obama was elected president. John McCain carried the district by 28 points at the same time that Sali, a controversial conservative, was losing narrowly to Minnick.

While in the House, Minnick, a businessman who had worked in the Nixon Administration, joined the Blue Dog Caucus and often sided with Republicans on high profile issues. For example, he opposed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, the House Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill and the Affordable Car Act (“Obamacare”).

Because of his voting record, Minnick was endorsed for a second term by the Tea Party Express, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Early polling showed the popular Minnick likely headed for reelection. A mid-July 2010 survey by GOP pollster Bob Moore found Minnick leading by double-digits, while a survey later that same month for the Idaho Hospital Association had the Democrat leading by more than 20 points.

The congressman’s Republican challenger, Raul Labrador, wasn’t regarded as a political heavyweight. Indeed, shortly before Minnick’s 2010 reelection bid ended in defeat, the New York Times ran a piece titled “A Democrat in Idaho Not Hindered by Incumbency.” 

If Minnick was so popular and had voted against the Democrats’ top three legislative agenda items, why did the Democratic congressman lose handily, by almost ten points, to Labrador?

The answer is obvious: the 2010 election was not about individual nominees or members of Congress. It was about partisan control of the United States House of Representatives.

Voters in Minnick’s district may well have liked him and appreciated his votes, but they wanted to put the brakes on the Obama presidency and fire Nancy Pelosi from the speakership. The only way to do that was to dump Minnick and elect Labrador. So, Republicans and Independents, both nationally and in Idaho’s 1st District, turned out to vote Republican.

There was nothing that Democrat Minnick could have done to survive in his conservative and Republican district.

The lesson of Walter Minnick surely is not lost on Democratic strategists preparing for 2018 or on the Republican consultants helping Katko and Paulsen try to survive in the current hostile environment.

To be sure, the Democrats need decent nominees in both districts to win. But if they get them, those challengers need only convince voters that the midterm election is about the need to check Trump and the GOP Congress’s agenda.

Of course, Katko and Paulsen will try to survive by insisting they’ve been independent and hard-working.

But while Paulsen voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, his overall record is that of a generic GOP loyalist. Katko has more ammunition to document his independence, since he voted against his party’s efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Car Act, against the repeal of a key environmental rule on energy company emissions and against the fiscal 2018 Budget Resolution.

But Walter Minnick found that casting a number of high-profile votes against his party was not – and is not — enough to save an incumbent from the “wrong” party in a wave election.

If the midterm election is a referendum on Trump, Paul Ryan and GOP control of the House, as now appears likely, both Katko and Paulsen will be in serious trouble. They are, after all, Republicans in Clinton districts. And if Virginia is any indication of turnout in 2018, both Republicans, no matter how successful they’ve been so far, could find themselves “Minnicked” next year.

Back to the Future in American Politics

For years, I have been writing and speaking about the country’s changing demographics and how that will affect the two parties. The GOP’s long-term prospects were not good, I argued, as a new wave of tolerant voters who valued diversity over tradition appeared poised to change the electorate’s make-up and our politics.

The 2016 elections seemed to prove me wrong, with Trump’s nationalist, culturally conservative message energizing whites, older voters and rural America. But last night’s results, particularly in Virginia, suggest that that demographic evolution is still underway. And those voters produced a Democratic wave that ought to scare GOP campaign strategists.

Younger voters showed that they can be drawn to the polls.

Four years ago, voters age 18-29 constituted 13 percent of the electorate. This year, they were 14 percent of all voters. More importantly, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried the group in 2013 by five points (45%-40%), this time those 18-29-year-olds went for Democrat Ralph Northam by 35 points (67%-32%). Greater turnout among voters age 25-29 and 30-39 – and bigger majorities for Northam among those categories – are part of the reason for the huge Democratic win.

White voters constituted a mere 67% of the electorate yesterday in Virginia, a dramatic drop from four years earlier, when whites were 72% of all voters. Yesterday’s white percentage matched the number from last year, when Hillary Clinton carried the state by five points over Donald Trump.

Republican Ed Gillespie drew 57% of whites, a point better than Ken Cuccinelli (R) did in 2013 and two points worse than Trump did last year. That small change, combined with the change in the racial make-up of the electorate and Northam’s 80% support among non-whites, was decisive.

A stunning 41% of yesterday’s voters identified as Democrats. Four years earlier the number was 37% and last year, when Clinton carried the state, only 40% identified as Democrats. Not surprisingly, a Democratic electorate voted more heavily Democratic.

Obviously, much of the Democratic wave showed up in the larger suburban counties, which include many swing voters.

In the D.C. suburbs, Northam won Loudoun County by 20 points and Fairfax County by over 36 points. Four years earlier, McAuliffe carried Loudoun by just over 4 points and Fairfax by 22 points. And the turnout in both counties was massive this time.

The same thing happened in the Richmond area. Northam won Henrico County by 23 points, while McAuliffe won it by 13. Four years ago, Cuccinelli carried Chesterfield County by 8 points, but this year the county was a virtual dead heat.

While all that was happening, Trump’s core supporters stayed loyal to Gillespie.

Trump won 80% of white born-again Christians last year, and Gillespie won 79% of them this time. Gillespie also did well with white men and white women without a college degree – a core Trump group.

Rural Virginia stuck with the Republican. Gillespie rolled up huge percentages in places like Tazewell County (83%), in southwest Virginia, and Smyth County (78%), in south-central Virginia, winning them by bigger margins than Cuccinelli did four years earlier. But those rural counties are not growing and have small populations.

Unexpected Democratic gains down the ballot had a wave-like quality. Democrats won two other statewide offices and more than a dozen seats in the House of Delegates. No wonder most observers are looking at the result as, at least in part, a referendum on the president.

Two days ago, there was uncertainty about Democratic turnout. Northam isn’t the most charismatic politician around, and he defeated a more progressive Democrat for his party’s nomination for governor — raising questions about whether supporters of Bernie Sanders would go to the polls for Northam. Clearly, they did.

Virginia is only one state, and while there is additional anecdotal evidence that Tuesday was an anti-Trump day, there is still a year until the midterms. Things could change – for better or for worse for the president and his party. But it is very possible that yesterday’s results gave us evidence that a midterm partisan wave is building. And that will have an impact on members of Congress, the president and the two parties starting today.