Steve Bannon Is Right About the Midterms — Until He Isn’t

Former Trump campaign chief executive and White House strategist Steve Bannon recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the midterm elections will be “an up or down vote” on the president. He also asserted that it’s imperative that Donald Trump nationalize the midterm elections.

“Trump’s second presidential race will be on Nov. 6 of this year. He’s on the ballot, and we’re going to have an up or down vote. Do you back Trump’s program, OK, with all that’s good and all that’s bad? Do you back Trump’s program, or do you back removing him?” Bannon told Zakaria.

Bannon surely is correct that the November elections will largely be about Trump. The incumbent president and his administration’s performance have almost always been the single most important factor in midterm balloting.

But in a number of ways, Bannon is dead wrong about the midterms.

No choice at all

First, he suggests that the election essentially will be a “choice” between Trump and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, or between Trump and impeachment.

Those scenarios are unlikely.

While Republicans would prefer to make the upcoming midterms into a choice, most midterm elections are referendums on the occupant of the White House.

I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to make the midterms “about” something other than the sitting president, but the burden of proof is on the GOP to do that.

Presidential elections inevitably involve choices, but midterms usually don’t, since the out-party rarely has a de facto leader who is salient enough to be an alternative to the president.

Indeed, this year, some observers have criticized the Democrats for not having a leader or even a coherent, unified message.

Republicans tried to make the special election in Pennsylvania 18th District about Pelosi, and the results suggest they had little success. Trump carried that district by nearly 20 points in 2016, but Democrat Conor Lamb, a self-styled pragmatist, won the March contest even though Republicans repeatedly portrayed him as a tool of liberal Pelosi.

Bannon certainly is right that making the midterms into a referendum on impeachment would be desirable for Trump and the GOP. And some Democrats, particularly those in the most liberal and Democratic areas, are unwisely talking about impeachment.

But Pelosi has made it clear that she opposes such talk, and Democrats in competitive states and districts surely will go out of their way to defuse impeachment as a possibility.

Clearly, the most partisan and ideological Republicans believe that impeachment is a real issue, but those voters are already Trump’s strongest supporters and likely to turn out in the fall. Again, the burden is on the GOP to make 2018 “about” impeachment in those states and districts that matter most.

All politics is local

Second, Bannon is also wrong when he says it is imperative that Trump and the GOP nationalize the midterm elections.

It would be much better for Republicans in Democratic and swing districts to localize the elections.

Those Republicans could then run on their records rather than have voters see the midterms as about Trump, with all his personal baggage.

But it is difficult to take the sitting president out of the midterm equation, which is why so many past officeholders have been swept out in partisan waves.

A minority bump?

Third, Bannon is dealing in wishful thinking when he suggests that Trump and the GOP are making major inroads with minorities, in large part because of decreasing unemployment and immigration.

So far, there is little evidence that Trump’s standing among minorities is surging (though some improvement certainly is possible) or that minority voters are focused only on jobs.

The economy’s strength could boost Trump’s approval numbers and his party’s midterm performance among some, but opposition to the president rests more on his cultural agenda, his false statements, his efforts to undermine crucial American institutions, and his contempt for widely held American values.

Oddly, in a Washington Post column based on his CNN interview, Zakaria called Bannon’s recommendation to nationalize the midterms, apparently around immigration, “a brilliant electoral strategy,” since it has both economic and cultural appeal.

Take a moment to imagine what Election Day 2018 would look like after Trump spent three or four months hammering away in tweets and at campaign rallies about “the wall,” NFL players, sanctuary cities and immigrant gang members.

Imagine what he might say when he goes off-script. Add to that Bannon’s prediction that Trump will “shut down the government” in the fall if Congress doesn’t fully fund “the Southern wall.”

That kind of campaign would only add to the current impression that Trump is mean-spirited, intolerant, divisive and even racist.

Doubling down on that reputation might help him energize his base, but it would not help him with African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans or younger voters.

More importantly, it would almost certainly add to his growing problems with the key group of this year’s midterms: white, college-educated women, particularly those in the suburbs.

That doesn’t sound “brilliant” to me.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 5, 2018.

Running Against Pelosi May Not Save the GOP This Year

It is no secret that the Republican strategy to keep the House in 2018 includes running against Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC have run television ads during special elections this cycle linking Democratic nominees to Pelosi, and GOP strategists are gleeful when they talk about the Democratic leader’s baggage and their intention to use her in their TV ads.

The strategy is a reasonable one. After all, when a president is as unpopular as Donald Trump, the best strategy for the president’s party is to try to make the election a referendum on someone or something else. Moreover, it’s usually easier to motivate voters to turn out against a villain than it is to generate enthusiasm about your own incumbent’s accomplishments and promises.

Pelosi isn’t the first House speaker to become the target of the political opposition.

In 1980, congressional Republicans ran a now-famous television ad that argued “the Democrats are out of gas. Vote Republican for a change.” The spot featured an actor who looked like House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Less than two decades later, Democrats were running against Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Pelosi’s poll numbers are mediocre at best, with anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of voters saying that they have a favorable view of her. In contrast, about half of respondents have an unfavorable view.

For some, Pelosi is a “San Francisco liberal” who represents everything wrong with the left, from culture and values to taxes and government spending.

But Pelosi’s ideology and longevity are not the only reasons her poll numbers are bad. In an article last June, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted that the poll numbers of other legislative leaders, including John A. BoehnerPaul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, were also terrible. He explained that their ratings tanked when they moved into the congressional leadership.

Will it work?

Still, it is far from clear that running against Pelosi this year will be effective among voters who matter, no matter how bad her numbers are and no matter what a handful of special elections showed in 2017.

Pelosi is the House minority leader at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. She is a public figure, certainly, but her role is not particularly high profile now, and she has little power on Capitol Hill. Trump, in contrast, dominates the political stage and occupies the most powerful position in the government. Given that, it will be challenging for Republican nominees around the country to make the midterm elections “about” Pelosi.

Trump’s ratings generally are no better than Pelosi’s. In the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 36 percent of respondents said they had positive feelings for Trump, while 56 percent had negative feelings. (Obama’s ratings were 57 percent positive and 29 percent negative.)

Moreover, it’s surely the case that the voters with the strongest dislike for Pelosi are conservative Republicans, who have disagreed with her on politics and policy for decades and who are among the president’s strongest supporters. They are likely to turn out and vote Republican whether or not Republican campaigns feature Pelosi in TV spots.

Weaker partisans, swing voters and less ideological voters are less likely to be strongly anti-Pelosi, and it is difficult to believe that they will see the midterm election as a choice between Trump and Pelosi rather than as a referendum on the president and his party.

Who’s being judged?

History, after all, strongly suggests that midterms tend to be referenda on the man in the White House, not on House minority leaders.

In the last 80 years, the president’s party has gained seats twice in midterms — once after the Sept. 11 attacks and once in 1998, when Republican legislators invited a backlash by ignoring public opinion and doggedly pursuing Bill Clinton’s impeachment even though most voters had a very favorable view of the president’s job performance and opposed impeachment.

Instead of gaining a handful of House seats, as was expected, the GOP lost a handful of seats during Clinton’s second midterm, when the president was on the defensive because of the Lewinsky scandal. Republicans unwisely made the midterms about impeachment.

Republicans’ best chance for maintaining control of the House this November rests on a combination of events and circumstances, including nasty Democratic primaries that produce weaker nominees, Republican candidates’ efforts to localize their races, and developments that energize the GOP or depress Democratic turnout.

Running against Pelosi could fit into that equation, but it is difficult to imagine that it would move the needle significantly.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 21, 2018.