The Thin Blue Wave
Chose any measurement, and the result is the same: Democrats are headed for a major victory in the November midterms. The generic ballot tells us voters prefer Democrats to Republicans by a 10-point average. The president’s approval ratings, a historically useful guide to his party’s midterm hopes? The lowest at this point of any in recorded history. Recent special elections? Democrats took a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama for the first time in 30 years and a Wisconsin state Senate seat that had stayed Republican for 17 years. The average swing to Democrats in the four special elections so far: more than 20 percent. Republicans in the House seem to be heading for the hills: Thirty-one have already announced they are leaving, compared with just 15 Democrats.
So this is exactly the right time to strike a contrarian note. Are there reasons to question the inevitability of a midterm wave? Actually, there are several.
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First, those generic numbers may not tell us what it looks like it’s telling us (apart from the fact that the Democrats’ margin has dropped into single-digit territory in the last couple of polls). Democrats learned to their sorrow that national polls in 2016 showing a Clinton victory were misleading. She did indeed win the national popular vote, and that, along with a dollar, will get her a choice of offerings at McDonald’s. That same reality has to be factored in to today’s generic congressional number, because it includes huge margins for Democrats in places like California and New York; they tell us a lot less about what’s going on in marginal districts and in red states. A combination of gerrymandering and the “sorting” that leads to useless landslides in some House districts means Democrats have to do a lot better than simply rack up good statewide numbers to improve their numbers in the House.
For example, in 2014, Democrats won about 45 percent of the total House vote in North Carolina. But Republicans won 10 House seats to the Democrats’ three. In Pennsylvania, Democrats won 44 percent of the vote statewide, but won just five seats to 18 for Republicans. Even if the courts decide to finally rule out excessive partisan gerrymandering—as a federal court did recently in a North Carolina case—the Supreme Court has already said it will allow current districts to be used for the November midterms. And that means that only a genuine “wave” will produce numbers big enough to flip the House.
Second, the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party may well exact a heavy cost. In the Senate, a cluster of potential presidential candidates—Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand —has gone all-in on the immigration front. Whatever the outcome of the current fight, they have helped lead most of their colleagues into a government shutdown over their demand for increased protection undocumented (or illegal) immigrants. Yes, polls show most Americans want Dreamers, the immigrants brought here as children, to be protected from deportation. But looked at more locally, the picture is different. One recent survey, taken before Friday’s fireworks, showed that in five deeply red states—each of which has an incumbent Democratic senator up for re-election—voters would blame Democrats if the government shut down because of a fight over the rights of the undocumented. (Indeed, a CNN poll shows that, even nationally, voters greatly prefer avoiding a government shutdown to preserving DACA, as the program shielding them from deportation is known.)
If the fallout from the government shutdown issue winds up this way—with voters perceiving Democrats as a party more concerned about the undocumented than keeping the government running—that generic ballot might start to look different, and the prospects for endangered Democratic senators in those ruby-red states will grow dimmer. It’s noteworthy that several vulnerable Democrats in states Trump won voted with the bulk of Republicans to keep the government open.
Third, Democrats must avoid the tea party-style fights that plagued the Republicans in recent years. It’s easy to forget, but had Republicans not engaged in circular-firing-squad primaries in 2010 and 2012, they would be entering the midterms not with 51 seats, but with 56 or 57. In West Virginia, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada and Colorado, Republicans passed over eminently electable candidates in favor of fringe nominees beloved by the zealots, but incapable of campaigning without inserting at least one foot in their mouths. (Remember “I‘m not a witch,” or the assertion that a woman’s body “shut down” to prevent pregnancy by rape?)
It’s not a perfect analogy, but there are congressional districts where Democrats will be choosing between candidates who reflect the party’s national positions and those who appear to be more in the mold of their districts. In Texas’ 21st congressional district outside of Austin, Bronze Star Iraq war veteran and entrepreneur Joseph Kosper is running for a seat held for 30 years by retiring Republican Lamar Smith. One of his principal opponents, Derrick Crowe, worked on the staff of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; a credential not likely to be an asset in the district. In Kentucky’s 6th congressional district, retired Marine Lt. Col Amy McGrath—whose announcement video went viral—is running against Lexington Mayor Jim Grey, a self-funding candidate who has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The last time Democrats took the House away from Republicans, in 2006, a number of so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats, who did not share the base’s view on issues like gun control or abortion, were part of that victory. With a party now substantially to the left of where it was a decade ago, especially on social issues, there’s a real question about whether it will find itself with candidates simply unable to compete effectively in November in marginal districts.
Fourth, the Democrats’ California dreams could turn into a nightmare in some districts. No fewer than nine GOP House seats in California are within target range of Democrats. Two of these vulnerable Republicans—Darrell Issa and Ed Royce—have already announced their retirements. But the very enthusiasm of Democrats could wind up costing them dearly. Why? Because of the state’s “jungle primary” system in which every candidate, regardless of party, runs in one primary, and the top two finishers face off in November. Given the state’s huge Democratic majority, this has resulted in Democrat-only general elections (for instance, in the 2016 Senate race). This year’s Senate and gubernatorial races could well see the same one-party face off. But in some congressional districts the result could be the opposite. In the 39th district near Los Angeles, where Ed Royce is stepping down, no fewer than seven Democrats are vying for the seat, compared with only three Republicans. If the Democrats split their votes seven ways, it’s entirely possible that November will only two Republicans on the ballot.
That same situation is true in the state’s 45th congressional district, in Orange County southeast of Anaheim. The recently redrawn district went for Clinton 50-44 last year, and Democrats see a chance for a pickup. But five Democrats are contending—and intriguingly, Mission Viejos’ Republican Mayor Greg Raths has formed an exploratory committee, raising the possibility that he will launch another primary run against the incumbent Republican, Rep, Mimi Walters. Here too, the presence of a platoon of Democrats could mean that a distant second-place finish for Raths would put him on the November ballot, shutting out every Democrat.
Fifth, Trump might not be quite as unpopular in November as he is now. It’s always dangerous to rely on any given poll number, but the president has managed to move all the way up to a 40 percent average approval rating. That’s still terrible by historical standards, but it is the first time he’s hit that number since mid-May. And as the tax cuts begin to show up as higher take-home pay for most Americans, the president could find himself the beneficiary. The most recent Marist poll shows that voters now are evenly split about the merits of the tax bill—a significant jump from the sharply negative numbers of just a month ago. And Leader Pelosi might come to regret her dismissal of the tax cuts as “crumbs”; any measurable increase in take-home pay is no small matter to the family with a $40,000-a-year income.
There’s no question that, judging by history, the current portents all point to a major Democratic victory in November. And it’s certainly possible that the findings of Robert Mueller, or an especially dramatic example of presidential derangement, could turn a wave into a tsunami.
But, as as millions of Georgia and Saints fan have learned to their sorrow, even the most probable of probabilities are not certainties. Yes, if the election were held today, Democrats would likely take the House. But as Saturday Night Live’s Kevin Nealon once memorably observed, “If the election were held today, 80 percent of Americans say they’d really be surprised.” Ten months is an eternity in the Trump era. Democrats might want to hold off on the victory parade planning for now.
via POLITICO Magazine
January 21, 2018 at 11:33AM