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.

Winner of the GOP’s Civil War? The Democrats

The Republican Party has been divided before. There was Robert A. Taft versus Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater versus the moderate establishment, evangelicals versus pro-business Republicans, and more recently the Tea Party/Club for Growth/Freedom Caucus versus the GOP establishment.

But the current divide in the Party of Lincoln looks deeper and filled with more animus than ever.

Ultra-outsider Roy Moore looks to have an edge over establishment-backed Sen. Luther Strange in the September 26 Alabama GOP Senate runoff, and other insurgents are lining up to go after incumbents or establishment-backed Republicans in next year’s primaries.

The party establishment, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, and supported by some deep-pocketed backers, has no choice but to devote considerable time and resources to these internal struggles.

Spending millions of dollars to fight off challengers from within the party isn’t an ideal way to spend your time, but it’s better than handing over the GOP to the most ideological and uncompromising in the party.

Preventing the nomination of another round of Todd Akins, Richard Mourdocks, Christine O’Donnells, Joe Millers and Ken Bucks is important to help retain Republican Senate seats and new opportunities, but it’s also a way of preventing the party from marginalizing itself completely.

Nominating Moore in Alabama would not cost the GOP a Senate seat in the general election, but nominating Kelli Ward in Arizona probably would.

More importantly, electing more confrontational conservatives, like Moore, Ward and Chris McDaniel of Mississippi, would help shape the national image of the GOP. Donald Trump has already done some of that, but nominating and electing more Tea Party/Freedom Caucus types would damage the party’s reputation even further in all but the most Republican and conservative states.

McDaniel, you may remember, ran against Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, finishing just a hair under the 50% mark, which forced a runoff. Cochran won that runoff and went on to hold the seat in November, in part because plenty of Democrats supported the establishment Cochran in the runoff.

Now, McDaniel is mentioned again as a Senate candidate, this time as a possible primary challenger to GOP Sen. Roger Wicker.

I remember seeing McDaniel and two other conservatives – Ben Sasse and Idaho congressional hopeful Bryan Smith – introduce themselves to a meeting of conservative, free market campaign contributors and activists early in 2014. It was enlightening.

Sasse, who that cycle was elected to the Senate from Nebraska, talked about his background and experience, discussed his view of government and made a few funny comments to connect with the crowd and show that he was personable.

McDaniel (and Smith, who eventually lost his primary challenge to incumbent Republican Rep, Mike Simpson) talked mostly about the Founding Fathers and how the GOP establishment and Republicans-in-name-only were destroying the party and the country. He made little attempt to introduce himself except for his ideology. He wanted to show how committed and uncompromising he was.

A civil war now looks unavoidable for the Republican Party. And the likely fallout is obvious.

Where the establishment wins, insurgents will complain that the system was rigged or wealthy contributors bought the election. Embittered and only loosely tied to the GOP, many of those voters will walk away after the primary loss.

Where insurgents win, party insiders and pragmatists will be frightened. The winners will clean house, installing true believers in state party posts. In turn, the defeated will sit on their checkbooks in the fall, maybe even forget to vote.

Either way, the GOP loses.

“Not this time,” some will say, arguing that the partisan divide is so deep that the McConnell wing and the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus wings will eventually come together to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats.

Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Independents are likely to be turned off by Republican infighting, and a civil war, with each side lobbing accusations at the other, rarely ends happily. There will be enough open political wounds to give Democrats opportunities they otherwise would not have.

I’ve been around long enough to see more than a few political circular firing squads. I’m seeing another one form, this time within the GOP.