Off to the Races

Three Turnout Wild Cards: Guns, Impeachment, and SCOTUS

Republicans are looking for issues that might get their base voters as motivated as Democrats’ already are.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
April 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

It seems like almost every week things get worse for Republicans. The 2018 Senate map is the most lopsided map in modern history, but even with Democrats having far more at-risk seats than Republicans, it’s hard to find good news for the GOP.

Yes, GOP Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement Monday that he will challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida is good for Republicans, giving them a roughly 50-50 shot at picking up the seat. But nationally, if the election were held today, Republicans would very likely lose the House; the chances of a turnover are probably 60-65 percent at this stage. And notwithstanding Scott’s entry in Florida, I am beginning to wonder whether my estimate of a 25-35 percent chance of the Senate flipping may be a little low. Just less than seven months out, this wave looks pretty formidable.

So what could turn this around? What could build Republican intensity and turnout to something comparable to what seems to be forming for Democrats? There seems to be three possibilities: guns, impeachment, and a Supreme Court vacancy.

Right now, the energy on the gun issue is on the side that supports gun control, a real switch from where it has been for the past 25 years. With Republicans holding the White House, House, and Senate together for the first time in a decade, the gun-rights folks had started to breathe a bit easier than during the Obama years. But a spate of mass shootings has tipped the intensity scales toward the gun-control side. It would be unrealistic not to expect gun-control opponents, starting with the National Rifle Association, to do everything they can to counteract this shift and reengage their backers. The key question is whether the historic strength of the NRA and its allies can overcome this newfound passion on the anti-gun side.

As for impeachment, one of the best reporters on the political beat, Jonathan Martin of The New York Times, wrote Sunday that GOP leaders see the issue as a potentially potent one to energize the Trump base on behalf of the Republican Congress. It isn’t a revelation that Trumpeteers have not been that enthusiastic about the congressional GOP’s performance. Martin reported on a February presentation by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers to party strategists arguing that the threat of impeachment could fire up the party base.

Pollster Fred Yang, who works the Democratic half of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (with Bill McInturff doing the Republican side) points out that in their survey last month, President Trump’s job approval among Republicans and independents who lean Republican was 84 percent, with a disapproval of just 15 percent. And Yang tells me that 58 percent of Republicans and leaners strongly approved the job Trump was doing. Personal attitudes towards the president were only slightly less glowing; 78 percent of Republicans and leaners viewed the president positively, 55 percent strongly so. For the electorate as a whole, Trump today is a net liability, but to the extent that the Left pushes impeachment and Republicans can amplify that threat to conservatives, we could see the energy levels of the two sides come more into balance, something that can make a real difference, particularly when pollsters screen down to sample just likely voters.

The third issue that could animate conservative voters would be a Supreme Court vacancy. Democrats are already motivated, and an opening on the Court might well trigger a corresponding stimulus with the Right.

Since the Supreme Court is composed of four liberals, four conservatives, and one swing vote, it almost doesn’t matter too much politically which justice steps down—any vacancy would trigger warfare. It’s worth noting, though, that at 85, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, is the oldest member of the Court; the swing vote—81-year-old Anthony Kennedy—is the second oldest; and another liberal, Stephen Breyer, is third oldest at 79. You have to go 10 years younger than Breyer before you find a conservative, Clarence Thomas at 69. Any seat could become vacant for a variety of reasons, but with two of the three oldest on the liberal side of the bench, the other being the swing vote, one doesn’t have to be either a lawyer or a math whiz to see the importance a vacancy would mean to the Court.

Things could still change before Election Day, but change is the operative word. To save the GOP majority in the House, something would have to change, while in the Senate, the GOP majority looks legitimately in real danger for the first time this cycle—all the more reason for the party to hope something emerges to fire up the base.

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