Against the Grain

Democrats Locking Down the House, But Losing Ground in the Senate

President Trump’s increased, more-disciplined engagement in red-state Senate races is buoying GOP fortunes. But in House races, the president is dragging Republicans towards the minority.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., right, asks a question of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the FY19 budget, Wednesday, May 9, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
May 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

The political crosscurrents that defined the 2016 presidential election — working-class white voters swinging towards President Trump while upscale suburbanites defect from the GOP coalition — are in overdrive once again for the upcoming midterm elections. This November election will feature radically different types of campaigns for control of the two Congressional chambers: a very winnable Democratic battle for the GOP-leaning suburbs in the House versus the treacherous task Democratic senators face wooing Trump voters in conservative states to have a shot at taking the Senate.

Indeed, the odds of Democrats taking back the House have never been higher, with Republicans badly exposed in numerous suburban districts that are gravitating away from Trump’s brand of unpredictable populism. It’s a good habit to ignore the ever-changing generic ballot; in these swing suburban districts, the GOP brand has been fundamentally damaged for the long-term.

The type of pro-business, socially-moderate members that have been a critical part of the GOP caucus are becoming extinct, with their constituents aghast over Trump’s divisive approach and protectionist policies. Of the 30 GOP-held House seats rated as toss-ups or Democratic-leaning by the Cook Political Report, 24 are in suburban districts. If Democrats merely run the table in the suburbs, they’ll win back the House with a healthy margin.

The competitive races being fought in these districts are operating in a different universe than their Senate counterparts. The cash-flush Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC declined to invest a penny in Rep. Barbara Comstock’s Northern Virginia district, convinced she’s doomed because of these underlying demographic trends. Rep. Ryan Costello retired from Congress rather than run for re-election in a redrawn suburban Philadelphia district that until recently was highly competitive — at least until Trump came along. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, representing the wealthy north Jersey suburbs, made the same decision at the peak of his power.

In these competitive House districts, Democratic pollsters aren’t seeing much of a Republican bounce. If anything, lesser-known Democratic challengers are gaining momentum as they get better-known across their districts. In the races where Republican representatives are running again, good luck getting them to acknowledge Trump’s existence. They’re running localized races focused on their service to the community — a surefire sign the national environment is downright poisonous.

But if Trump is a major liability in most House races, he’s looking like the ticket for Republicans to save their majority in the Senate, if not expand it. The map has always been favorable for Republicans — with five Democratic senators up in 2018 representing states Trump won by double-digits — but Trump’s continued popularity in the heartland has been most obvious in the campaign strategies candidates have adopted.

In all the contested red-state Republican primaries, devotion to the president has been downright slavish. But for red-state Democrats, offering support for the president is also a prerequisite for success. Nearly every red-state senator (with the notable exception of Montana Sen. Jon Tester) voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as Trump’s Secretary of State despite widespread Democratic opposition. With the exception of Tester, all of the red-state Democrats supported reopening the federal government without a concession to the DACA children.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin offers a case study of what happens when Trump takes on red-state Democrats. Portraying himself as a bipartisan Trump ally, Manchin’s job approval ratings were in healthy shape (at 52-36 in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to the Morning Consult quarterly survey). But after Trump slammed Manchin for opposing his tax and health care legislation, the senator’s popularity collapsed. Representing the most pro-Trump state in the country, Manchin now holds one of the worst approval ratings back home (43-44 in the latest Morning Consult poll). A newly-released Republican poll shows Manchin trailing newly-minted GOP nominee Patrick Morrisey by two points, 46 to 44 percent.

The lesson from the Manchin episode is that political tribalism runs deep, overwhelming voters’ policy preferences. Manchin cast politically-sensible votes protecting his constituents’ health care benefits and opposing a tax bill whose benefits tilted to the wealthy — in an overwhelmingly working-class state. But by garnering Trump’s ire, that political independence doesn’t matter much anymore.

Tester now faces similar challenges back home after Trump slammed the senator for publicly revealing damaging allegations about Ronny Jackson, his now-withdrawn choice to head the Department of Veteran Affairs. Trump called on Tester to resign on Twitter and his allied super PAC aired an ad calling the senator “disgraceful.” Tester, who looked in strong shape against an underwhelming GOP field of challengers, now is managing the fallout from the unfavorable burst of publicity. He proudly mentioned in first ad that Trump signed many of the bills he sponsored; now he’s touting his independence on veterans’ issues to pick off enough Trump supporters to win a third term.

Here’s the Senate math for Republicans: Pick off two of the red-state races, and the Democrats’ path to winning back a majority is all but closed off. That will require utilizing the president effectively, and demands Trump stays on message in support of the GOP’s favored candidates. Putting Trump front-and-center for the midterms will all but guarantee Republicans lose the House, but it’s becoming the obvious play for Mitch McConnell to expand his tenuous majority.

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