Ahead of the Midterms, Some Free Advice for Republicans and Democrats

The dynamics of the midterms are already in place. The variable is the degree to which they'll play out.

Signs for Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania's 18th District, during his election-night party in Canonsburg, Pa., on March 14
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Aug. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

For all of the hyperventilating Tuesday night and Wednesday, we really didn’t learn much from this week’s special elections that we didn’t already know. It had been obvious for some time that Republicans were struggling to hold onto seats that should have been slam-dunk wins. Going into the special election in Ohio’s 12th District, Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman pointed out that Democrats had over-performed in eight special congressional elections in GOP-held districts this year and last, by an average of 8 percentage points.

The smallest Democratic surges were 3 points in Texas’s 27th District (June 30) and 6 points in both Georgia’s 6th District (June 20, 2017) and Utah’s 3rd District (Nov. 7, 2017). More typical were Democrats beating projections by 7 points in South Carolina’s 5th (June 20, 2017) and 8 points in Montana's at-large district (May 25, 2017). Their biggest increases were 11 points in Pennsylvania’s 18th (March 13) and Arizona’s 8th (April 26), and 12 points in Kansas’s 4th (April 11, 2017). While there are still provisional and absentee ballots to be counted in Ohio’s 12th , it appears that Democrats over-performed there by about 7 points.

By Wasserman’s count, there are 68 GOP-held seats in districts less Republican than Ohio’s 12th and 119 less Republican than Pennsylvania’s 18th, where Democrat Conor Lamb won. The NBC News Political Unit estimates that going into the Ohio special, the Republican Party had spent $37 million on special elections this cycle, compared to the Democrats’ $11.5 million, clearly an unsustainable pace for the GOP.

It’s pretty hard to take seriously President Trump’s Wednesday morning Tweets, which noted that “Republicans have now won 8 out of 9 House Seats” in special elections, and argued that as long as he campaigns for congressional candidates, “they will win,” creating a giant “red wave” this fall.

If I were a Republican elected official or strategist, the red wave that I would be worried about would be made up of GOP blood in the streets on Nov. 7, the day after the election. The fact is that Republican strategists need to be thinking about triage at this point, sorting out which incumbents are likely to be able to survive without much outside help, which are lost causes, and which can still be saved with sufficient help. When a party is having a tough year, these kinds of hard-nosed, difficult decisions are essential to contain losses and effectively allocate scarce resources.

Republicans are going to lose between a dozen and 20 seats no matter what. The question is whether they can keep it under 23 losses and retain their majority, or if not, keep within striking distance of retaking the House in 2020 or 2022. Losses of 40 to 60 seats are not out of the question, which makes the decisions made over the next 90 days utterly critical.

At the same time, Democrats are hardly in a position to break out the champagne and begin the high-fives. The fact is that the Democratic Party’s poll numbers, and those of their leadership, are awful—just marginally better than Republicans’. Candidates in competitive districts are still in a position to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. Having dispensed free (and unsolicited) advice to Republicans above, here is some for Democrats:

The top two dozen targets for Democrats are in districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. The rest are in districts that Trump won by varying margins. In those, a traditional liberal message might be more problematic.

Here are three rhetorical “no-fly zones” for Democrats.

  1. Impeachment. In competitive districts, the last thing swing voters want to do is replace the Republican House’s investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails and Benghazi with a different set of investigations and recriminations. People see Washington as a cesspool of partisanship and don’t make many distinctions between red-party and blue-party excesses. Even those Democrats lucky enough to be in districts with few swing voters should keep in mind that what they say is amplified into districts where what they say can do damage to their party’s candidates, particularly via cable television and the internet. A message by Democrats about what they intend to do to improve people’s lives might be better received than simply one set of politicians promising or threatening to put the screws to those of the other party. The Trump loathers in the Democratic Party and on the Left need little incentive to vote; they are already motivated. It is the voters who are struggling or worried about their lives and their kids’ futures who would be more responsive to a positive economic message.
  2. Abolish ICE. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a law-enforcement agency, not an approach, a policy, a mindset, or a set of values. Regardless of what one might think of what President Trump and his administration have done with it, most Americans believe that it plays an essential role, as it did before Trump’s election. It’s the policies that Democrats can criticize, not the agency, the men and women who carry out the policies. This is the kind of thing that Democrats in liberal and urban districts can say that hurts their candidates in suburban, exurban, small town, and rural-oriented districts, where border security is a form of national security.
  3. Single-payer health care. Democrats lost their House and Senate majorities in 1995, their House majority in 2010, and the Senate in 2014—all in part due to health care. It may or may not be the new third rail of politics, but it is a subject that is incredibly sensitive. Simply saying that Trump and Republicans are sabotaging the health care system and that the system still needs more work is sufficient. Even the term “Medicare-for=all” could be problematic with voters who wonder what the cost would be and who would pay for it.

This election is hardly a done deal, but the trends that we started seeing early last year have continued. Remember that in midterm elections, the dynamics are generally set by mid-summer, but the degree, the intensity, and the effect is not.

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