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.
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.