Breaking the Midterm Mode: Both Parties Make it About Trump

For decades, the rule of thumb for campaigns during midterm elections has been the same: When the president is popular, the president’s party tries to nationalize the election, and the opposition attempts to localize it. On the other hand, when the president is unpopular, his party’s nominees try to localize while the opposition tries to make the election a national referendum on his performance. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2018 has broken that mold.

Both sides are trying to nationalize the November election.

President Donald Trump’s job approval rating sits somewhere between 38 percent and 42 percent, a level that in the past would have kept him locked up in the White House or doing private fundraising events throughout the election year. And yet, the president continues to fly around the country to attend rally after rally.

True, the rallies tend to be in pro-Trump areas, but the coverage of those events and the president’s public schedule make him the center of attention nationally.

Moreover, Trump goes out of his way to argue that the midterms are about him, that voting for Republican candidates is the same thing as voting for him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Trump wants to make the 2018 elections about him. He seems to think that everything is about him.

Anyway, this odd situation whereby both parties are trying to make the upcoming election about Trump obviously follows from the polarization in the country.

Both approval and disapproval of the president are stunningly intense.

Three out of four respondents in a Sept. 16-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll either strongly approved or strongly disapproved of Trump’s performance.

Because of that — and because of the Senate map, which includes a number of pro-Trump, pro-Republican states with Democratic incumbents — both national parties essentially are trying to nationalize the election.

For years now, party strategists have been obsessed with base turnout. While Trump lost the popular vote two years ago, his Electoral College victory and his reliance on higher turnout voters (e.g., white voters and older voters) have fueled GOP optimism about 2018.

Many Republican strategists have argued that if they can get their voters to turn out, as they did in 2016, the party can hold the House and expand its Senate majority.

Democrats, on the other hand, believe that weaker-than-anticipated base turnout last time cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, and the party needs only to boost its numbers among younger voters, minority voters and progressives to produce a blue wave — particularly if college-educated, suburban women are fleeing GOP candidates this year.

Given strategists’ assumptions, nationalizing the midterms seems to accomplish what both parties want — to encourage turnout among base voters.

But the nationalizing strategy has also made it much more difficult for party officeholders in the political center and who need to localize their races if they are going to have any chance of winning.

Republican incumbents in non-Trump districts, such as Virginia’s Barbara Comstock and Colorado’s Mike Coffman, have no chance of surviving a nationalized election next month.

They — and two-dozen other House Republicans seeking re-election or open seats — need to run on their own accomplishments and personal connections to district voters, but they can’t do that if the entire midterms are about Trump.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already run a TV spot mocking Coffman’s promise to “stand up to Trump,” as well as a spot that labels Comstock “Barbara Trumpstock” because of her support for the president’s agenda.

DCCC ads in two Twin Cities districts, held by Republicans Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, specifically link those two incumbents to the president. And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Trump has essentially thrown pragmatic incumbent House members under the bus by making himself the focus of the midterms.

At the same time, of course, Trump has made it more difficult for Democratic senators seeking re-election in GOP-friendly states such as North Dakota and Missouri.

Heidi Heitkamp won election narrowly six-years ago by portraying herself as a “North Dakota Democrat,” not a “national Democrat,” but that is a much heavier lift this year, when everything is about Trump and the two parties.

I recently wrote that this election will rob the GOP of many of its more moderate and pragmatic members, making the party more conservative and less willing to compromise. The Democrats may become a more diverse group because the party will add both suburban pragmatists and progressives who embrace “social democracy.”

But the election will do something else. It will pull the two bodies of Congress further apart. The Senate majority will be even more the chamber of Trump, while the House will lead the opposition to him. In a system of checks and balances, that is not a prescription for getting legislation enacted.

This column appeared originally in Roll Call on October 15, 2018.

How Will Kavanaugh Shape the Midterms?

Assuming the FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t uncover some startling new information, the Senate is likely to confirm him to the Supreme Court and the political effects on the midterms could go in two different directions.

Democratic lawmakers will complain, of course, that the inquiry wasn’t thorough enough, that Kavanaugh lacks a judicial temperament, that he is too partisan to sit on the land’s highest court, and that he wasn’t completely honest with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his drinking.

Still, if all 51 Republican senators are looking for a way to confirm Kavanaugh, Democrats are powerless to derail the nomination.

Open House?

The impact on the fight for the House is likely to be minimal.

There probably will be about a month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Nov. 6, which should give many voters an opportunity to refocus on other issues, be they health care, immigration or President Donald Trump’s performance.

Of course, in states with early/absentee/mail voting, the confirmation fight will still be on some people’s minds. But the Kavanaugh fight has not redrawn the electoral battle lines during the final six weeks of the election.

Democrats were already energized when Kavanaugh was nominated, and Trump’s strongest supporters have remained loyal to him no matter what he says or does.

Republican primary turnout was good, though it didn’t match — and isn’t likely to match — Democratic turnout or enthusiasm.

Recently, some pollsters have argued that heightened Republican enthusiasm could eat into the Democrats’ expected turnout advantage in November. But if and when Kavanaugh is confirmed, that event will give the GOP “control” of the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and that will remove some of the urgency about the midterms for Republican voters.

Democrats, on the other hand, will see the midterms as their only opportunity to check Trump and his party. During the month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Election Day, the president is likely to return to his combative mode.

He will interject himself back into every House race, as he has been for months, thereby reminding voters that the midterms are about him.

The 2018 election’s crucial swing group — college-educated whites/white women — will be at least as energized after the Kavanaugh fight as they were before his nomination.

Polls have shown for months that swing voters (particularly women) have been preparing to send a loud message to Trump and the Republican Party, and the accusations about Kavanaugh will only further motivate college-educated women who live in the suburbs.

Both national polls and district surveys conducted by the media and by campaigns, as well as campaign spending decisions by the parties and PACs, show at least a modest Democratic wave developing.

According to national media reports, influential Republican political action committees have pulled out of Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th District (Mike Coffman) and Michigan’s 8th District (Mike Bishop).

Those districts are telling, since Coffman and Comstock were able to win even while Democratic presidential nominees were carrying their districts, and Bishop represents a district carried by both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

All three are politically competitive suburban districts. District-level polling also shows significant Republican problems — again, primarily in the suburbs — in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and California, and Republican funds are now flowing into districts not initially regarded as even competitive in the past.

Democratic gains of at least 30-35 seats currently appear likely, and there is little reason to believe that the Kavanaugh confirmation fight will change that outcome.

Indeed, if it does have any impact, it will probably be to the Democrats’ advantage.

Meanwhile, in the Senate

The Supreme Court battle could have quite a different effect on the race for the Senate. Instead of college-educated, suburban whites being the key swing demographic group, self-identified Republicans, rural voters and Trump voters are crucial in these contests.

Democratic incumbents in North Dakota and West Virginia certainly need to win some of those voters to have any chance of surviving (as do Democratic incumbents in three or four other states).

So Democratic senators in difficult races have a complicated calculation to make.

On one hand, if Republicans are going to confirm Kavanaugh with 50 or 51 votes anyway, endangered Democratic senators could boost their chances by casting meaningless votes in favor of the nominee — thus proving their political independence to swing voters and Republican voters in pro-Trump states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.

On the other hand, the intensity of the Kavanaugh fight makes it more difficult for Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III and Joe Donnelly to support confirmation because Democratic base voters are so outraged at Trump and Senate Republicans.

Voting for Kavanaugh — even if it has no impact on his confirmation — could anger and alienate those voters, which could well be fatal to the Democratic incumbents.

Of course, Democratic senators such as Donnelly now have new arguments to explain a vote against confirmation — the alleged unfairness of the process, questionable statements from Kavanaugh and the unanswered questions raised during the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

While Democrats would love to kill the Kavanaugh nomination, dragging out the process to fill the court’s vacancy would only add to the concerns of Democratic senators running in heavily pro-Trump states by elevating the importance of partisanship, ideology and the Supreme Court.

That is less of a problem for Democrats in the House than it is for this cycle’s Senate class. Given the unexpected twists and turns of our politics these days — and of the Kavanaugh confirmation process — it’s probably wise not to rule out a few more twists and turns before November.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 2, 2018.