Can GOP Candidates Outrun Trump?

The president figures to be a drag in local elections this year and next, so individual Republicans will need a long list of accomplishments to sell back home.

President Trump talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Taormina, Italy, on May 26.
AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

The score is now 2-1: Bri­tain has pro­duced two stun­ning elect­or­al sur­prises in the last year, the United States just one. While there is a danger in read­ing too much in­to the res­ults of in­di­vidu­al elec­tions, par­tic­u­larly one from an ocean away, there are some com­mon threads. Both Brexit and Don­ald Trump’s pres­id­en­tial vic­tory were about pop­u­lism, na­tion­al­ism, frus­tra­tion, and an­ger. The de­cisions by Bri­tain’s Con­ser­vat­ive Party to hold the Brexit ref­er­en­dum a year ago and to call a snap elec­tion for this month were epic mis­cal­cu­la­tions, the former by then-Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on, the lat­ter by the cur­rent PM, Theresa May. Demo­crats last year made their own mis­cal­cu­la­tions: The words Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wis­con­sin should suf­fice to un­der­score that point.

Clearly there were a lot of factors that con­trib­uted to the shock­ingly poor per­form­ance by the Tor­ies in last week’s UK elec­tion. Many ana­lysts be­lieve that low and un­even wage growth triggered eco­nom­ic con­cerns and an im­pa­tience that the stand­ard of liv­ing was not im­prov­ing. It also was clear that young­er voters turned out in un­pre­ced­en­ted num­bers, con­trib­ut­ing to the big La­bour Party gains des­pite the un­der­whelm­ing lead­er­ship of Jeremy Corbyn.

Whatever the sim­il­ar­it­ies between the Brexit and Trump elec­tions last year, it would be fool­hardy to ex­tra­pol­ate them to our midterm elec­tions next year. That said, there are ca­nar­ies in the polit­ic­al coal mine that could provide clues to the mood of the elect­or­ate. The most im­me­di­ate is next Tues­day’s spe­cial elec­tion in Geor­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict. Mitt Rom­ney won this dis­trict by 24 points in 2012, but Pres­id­ent Trump car­ried it by just a point and a half. It is an up­scale, col­lege-edu­cated area, sim­il­ar to quite a few oth­ers that Demo­crats will need to carry to pick up 24 seats and a ma­jor­ity in the House next year. Polls show the race very close, with dis­en­chant­ment with Trump the primary reas­on. No Demo­crat has rep­res­en­ted what is now the dis­trict since 1992, so a vic­tory by Demo­crat Jon Os­soff would au­gur a tough road for Re­pub­lic­ans in the 2018 midterms. If Re­pub­lic­an Kar­en Han­del wins, it would be a big blow to Demo­crat­ic mor­ale and boost the con­fid­ence of the GOP.

The next sign to watch is the Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al elec­tion in Novem­ber. Once one of the most com­pet­it­ive states in the coun­try, Vir­gin­ia has be­come in­creas­ingly chal­len­ging for Re­pub­lic­ans. As Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Larry Sabato has noted, no Re­pub­lic­an has won statewide of­fice since 2009. Hil­lary Clin­ton car­ried the state by more than 5 points (49.8 to 44.4 per­cent) last year, a bit wider than Pres­id­ent Obama’s 4-point (51.2 to 47.3 per­cent) win in 2012. Demo­crats also have his­tory on their side. The party hold­ing the White House has lost the Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al race in nine of the past 10 elec­tions; Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe’s win in 2013 while Pres­id­ent Obama was in of­fice was the ex­cep­tion. If Re­pub­lic­ans can man­age to win in Novem­ber, it might ease the bad karma that has been dog­ging the party.

The third factor to look at is the num­ber and loc­a­tion of Re­pub­lic­an re­tire­ments and can­did­ate re­cruit­ing in com­pet­it­ive or po­ten­tially com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts and states. That’s why the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment dur­ing odd-numbered years and very early in the elec­tion year (for states with late fil­ing dead­lines) is key. If in­cum­bents or oth­er con­tenders are run­ning in­to a head­wind, pro­spect­ive chal­lengers are em­boldened to make the race. Open seats in com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts are usu­ally more dif­fi­cult for a party to hold onto than those in which an in­cum­bent is seek­ing reelec­tion, so re­tire­ments mat­ter.

Giv­en that midterm elec­tions are usu­ally a ref­er­en­dum on the pres­id­ent’s party, Trump’s job-ap­prov­al num­bers fig­ure to be an im­port­ant factor. On Monday, Gal­lup’s three-day track­ing av­er­age gave Trump an ap­prov­al rat­ing of 36 per­cent, with 59 per­cent ex­press­ing dis­ap­prov­al. The Real­Clear­Polit­ics av­er­age of all na­tion­al polls show that 39 per­cent ap­prove and 56 per­cent dis­ap­prove, and the Huff­Post Poll­ster av­er­age shows 39 per­cent ap­prove and 57 per­cent dis­ap­prove. Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings were 45 and 40 per­cent in the fi­nal Gal­lup polls be­fore his midterm-elec­tion dis­asters in 2010 and 2014, re­spect­ively. George W. Bush had a 38 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing go­ing in­to his party’s 2006 midterm calam­ity, and Bill Clin­ton stood at 46 per­cent in the days be­fore his party’s col­lapse in 1994.

The oth­er thing to watch on a daily basis is wheth­er con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are build­ing a port­fo­lio of ac­com­plish­ments that they can sell back home, par­tic­u­larly if they come up short on most of the big-tick­et prom­ises that they had touted so loudly: re­peal­ing and re­pla­cing Obama­care, tax re­form, ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, and the bor­der wall. If Trump’s ap­prov­al rat­ings are as low in 16 months as they are now, their lists of ac­com­plish­ments will need to be pretty im­press­ive.

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