AGAINST THE GRAIN

Dems Could Take House in 2018

GOP majority looks shaky with Trump deeply unpopular, Democrats highly energized, and vulnerable Republicans facing tough votes.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, joined by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, talks about getting past the failure to pass a health care overhaul and rebuilding unity in the Republican Conference on Tuesday.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 28, 2017, 8 p.m.

The de­feat of the Re­pub­lic­ans’ health care over­haul was a pain­ful re­mind­er that the GOP re­mains badly di­vided, even on an is­sue that was the ral­ly­ing cry for the party for the past sev­en years. Re­pub­lic­ans, with con­trol of the White House and Con­gress, look em­bar­rass­ingly in­cap­able of gov­ern­ing. The polit­ic­al con­sequences are severe: GOP voters are likely to be de­mor­al­ized in the run-up to next year’s midterm elec­tions, es­pe­cially if Pres­id­ent Trump is un­able to achieve any oth­er le­gis­lat­ive vic­tor­ies. This, at a time when Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al en­gage­ment is sur­ging—fueled by their off-the-charts an­im­os­ity to­wards Trump.

Demo­crats now have a real­ist­ic shot at re­tak­ing the House in 2018. Each of the past three midterm elec­tions have swung wildly against the party in power—re­flect­ive of the long­stand­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion of voters to­wards polit­ic­al lead­er­ship, no mat­ter who’s in charge. Trump’s job ap­prov­al rat­ing is hov­er­ing around 40 per­cent, a tox­ic level for the dozens of Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for reelec­tion in swing dis­tricts. Re­pub­lic­ans would be fool­ish to as­sume that Pres­id­ent Obama’s co­ali­tion of mil­len­ni­als and non­white voters—many of whom stayed home in past midterm elec­tions—re­mains dis­en­gaged giv­en their aver­sion to Trump.

Polit­ic­ally speak­ing, the health care bill couldn’t have been more dam­aging for Re­pub­lic­ans. In a dis­cip­lined Con­gress, safe-seat Re­pub­lic­ans would be more will­ing to take risky votes so those in com­pet­it­ive seats could main­tain some in­de­pend­ence from the party. But this time, hard-line con­ser­vat­ives in the Free­dom Caucus de­clared their un­stint­ing op­pos­i­tion early on, for­cing some vul­ner­able Re­pub­lic­ans to go on re­cord in sup­port of the un­pop­u­lar le­gis­la­tion—which didn’t even come to a vote. Adding in­sult to in­jury, Trump bragged on Twit­ter that the health care ex­changes would col­lapse as a res­ult of his in­ac­tion—the worst pos­sible mes­sage to send to any­one who viewed Trump as a can-do ex­ec­ut­ive.

The end res­ult is the worst of all worlds: a party that can’t get things done, a pres­id­ent with de­clin­ing job-ap­prov­al num­bers, swing-dis­trict mem­bers flushed out, and the base dis­il­lu­sioned.

“The midterm elec­tions are all about who shows up. Demo­crats are already up­set and angry; you’re already see­ing this dy­nam­ic at the protests and town halls. Now the Re­pub­lic­an base be­comes dis­pir­ited after this,” said former Rep. Tom Dav­is, who twice chaired the GOP’s House cam­paign com­mit­tee. “You might be able to hold the House with just your base, but this is bad.”

There are already signs that Trump’s sag­ging ap­prov­al rat­ing is rais­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of a stun­ning up­set in an up­com­ing con­gres­sion­al elec­tion in sub­urb­an At­lanta. The race, to fill the va­cant seat held by Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Tom Price, couldn’t be more rel­ev­ant to the health care de­bate. One pub­lic poll shows the Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner, Jon Os­soff, nar­rowly lead­ing sev­er­al of his GOP op­pon­ents in a run­off—this in a con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict that has elec­ted Re­pub­lic­ans to Con­gress for over four dec­ades. Fear­ing an em­bar­rass­ing de­feat, the party’s lead­ing House su­per PAC is spend­ing over $2 mil­lion on at­tack ads con­nect­ing Os­soff with Nancy Pelosi.

Of the 36 at-risk House Re­pub­lic­ans, ac­cord­ing to The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port’s rat­ings, 28 rep­res­ent urb­an or sub­urb­an dis­tricts where Trump isn’t par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar. In last year’s elec­tion, most of these GOP rep­res­ent­at­ives sig­ni­fic­antly out­per­formed Trump as voters dis­tin­guished between the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee and the re­cord of their own mem­ber of Con­gress. But with Trump as pres­id­ent, that dis­tinc­tion is harder to make.

There aren’t any ob­vi­ous paths for­ward for Re­pub­lic­ans. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to fo­cus first on base-gin­ning moves such as Obama­care re­peal, pro­posed spend­ing cuts, and im­mig­ra­tion crack­downs have made it nearly im­possible for Re­pub­lic­ans to work with Demo­crats on any is­sue with bi­par­tis­an ap­peal, like in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. Tax re­form is far more polit­ic­ally com­plic­ated than health care, and in­tra­party splits are already emer­ging over a bor­der-ad­just­ment tax that Speak­er Paul Ry­an has cham­pioned. Trump’s dis­en­gage­ment from the de­tails of policy, as demon­strated in his health care sales­man­ship, won’t make it easi­er to pa­per over in­tern­al di­vi­sions.

Demo­crats need to net 24 seats to win back the House ma­jor­ity, which sounds a lot more im­pos­ing than it ac­tu­ally is. As polit­ic­al ana­lyst Nath­an Gonzales noted in a re­cent column, the pres­id­ent’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterms, with an av­er­age loss of 33 seats in those 18 los­ing cycles. Two of the most im­port­ant big-pic­ture factors—pres­id­en­tial ap­prov­al and par­tis­an en­thu­si­asm—are now point­ing against the GOP.

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, Re­pub­lic­ans would ex­per­i­ence some early gov­ern­ing suc­cesses and rally be­hind their pres­id­ent. With Trump, Re­pub­lic­ans have come up empty-handed so far. We’re more than a year away from the next big elec­tions, but there are already signs that a Cat­egory 5 hur­ricane is build­ing.

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