Democrats Take Heart: The GOP Is Sinking

Despite their special-selection losses, they’re viewed more favorably than Republicans and much better than President Trump.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during a weekly news conference on June 9.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

After last month’s losses in the Geor­gia 6th Dis­trict and South Car­o­lina 5th Dis­trict races, a nar­rat­ive took hold on why the Demo­crat­ic Party had whiffed in all four com­pet­it­ive spe­cial elec­tions this year—it had no mes­sage, it had no lead­er­ship, and its most vis­ible rep­res­ent­at­ive, House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, had be­come a li­ab­il­ity. Bot­tom line: Demo­crats were doomed to a poor show­ing in the 2018 midterms. “Our brand is worse than Trump,” Demo­crat­ic Rep. Tim Ry­an of Ohio pro­nounced to The New York Times.

It seemed to mat­ter little that Demo­crats nev­er had much of a chance in the Kan­sas, Montana, and South Car­o­lina con­tests. Only pres­sure (or sham­ing) from the party’s lib­er­al net­roots pushed the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee to com­pete in these long-shot dis­tricts in the first place.

While the Demo­crat­ic brand is cer­tainly not ster­ling these days, polls con­sist­ently show that the party is viewed more fa­vor­ably than Re­pub­lic­ans and stra­to­spher­ic­ally bet­ter than Pres­id­ent Trump.

The ma­jor polls don’t test at­ti­tudes to­ward the parties of­ten dur­ing the off-elec­tion years, but an April poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journ­al found that 31 per­cent had a pos­it­ive view of the Re­pub­lic­an Party, 47 per­cent had a neg­at­ive view, and 21 per­cent were neut­ral, for a net of minus-16 points.

The poll showed 34 per­cent hold­ing pos­it­ive views of Demo­crats, with 39 per­cent neg­at­ive and 26 per­cent neut­ral, for a net of minus-5 points.

When NBC News and the Journ­al in­ter­viewed 765 re­gistered voters June 17 to 20 and asked which party they pre­ferred to con­trol Con­gress after the next elec­tion, 50 per­cent favored Demo­crats, the highest share either party has re­ceived in nine years, while 42 per­cent pre­ferred Re­pub­lic­ans.

So it’s pretty clear that while the im­age of Demo­crats is not ex­actly spec­tac­u­lar, the party is far bet­ter off than Re­pub­lic­ans. The Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age is even more pro­nounced when the party’s stand­ing is com­pared to that of Trump, who had a minus-15 job ap­prov­al rat­ing in May and June NBC/WSJ polls.

What many people mean when they talk about the Demo­crats’ lead­er­ship is the party’s most prom­in­ent mem­bers on Cap­it­ol Hill, where the top three Demo­crats in the House are sep­tua­gen­ari­ans and where the new Sen­ate lead­er, Chuck Schu­mer, is 66 and something less than a house­hold name. Most of the trash talk­ing is dir­ec­ted at Pelosi, 77, who has been the top Demo­crat in the House since 2003, when she took over for Dick Geph­ardt.

Ad track­ing from Kantar Me­dia’s Cam­paign Me­dia Ana­lys­is Group shows that Pelosi was the tar­get for 4,653 GOP tele­vi­sion spots dur­ing the Geor­gia spe­cial elec­tion, prompt­ing many ana­lysts to blame her for Jon Os­soff’s loss and one Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant to say that she was “the gift that keeps on giv­ing.” I think Os­soff’s age (30), thin re­sume, and res­id­ence out­side the dis­trict were big­ger prob­lems. But be­cause he was es­sen­tially a cipher, it was easi­er to at­tack Pelosi, whose low stand­ing among Re­pub­lic­ans drew many to the polls.

Would House Demo­crats be­ne­fit from a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers? Of course, but it’s not at all clear who they might be and an in­tra­mur­al fight would likely be a dis­trac­tion for the party. And who could raise even half the money that Pelosi does each cycle? I am an in­de­pend­ent and a dyed-in-the-wool mod­er­ate, so I am closer philo­soph­ic­ally to Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er. But he couldn’t be­gin to raise as much money, and cer­tainly none of the young­er mem­bers could. My hunch is that Pelosi feels an ob­lig­a­tion to stick around and raise money to help her party win back its ma­jor­ity, and once that hap­pens, she would be more than de­lighted to head back to San Fran­cisco.

It would surely be bet­ter for Demo­crats if they were united be­hind a single lead­er and had a uni­fied mes­sage. The real­ity, however, is that no party has a clear lead­er or mes­sage in its first year out of the White House. The Demo­crats’ rais­on d’être is to op­pose Pres­id­ent Trump and the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­it­ies in the House and Sen­ate. When minor­ity parties have suc­ceeded in midterm elec­tions, it has been be­cause voters were not happy with the people and party in power and de­cided to go with the al­tern­at­ive. This is the way Amer­ic­an polit­ics works. It might well be all that House Demo­crats need next year.

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