With the pivotal 2018 midterm elections less than six months away, it is timely to assess likely Republican and Democratic campaign themes. They aren’t exactly obvious. And neither is the election outcome, which could be a blue wave or red dawn.
The one sure thing is that Republican candidates will be tethered to President Trump, whether they like it or not. His zig-zags on trade, immigration and diplomacy will vex GOP incumbents and hopefuls, especially in Farm and Rust Belt states. Trump’s doubling-down on culture war issues will buoy social conservatives and complicate campaigns for Republicans running in swing districts or blue states.
Democrats appear to be still arguing over their 2018 themes. Do they run against Trump and tout the prospect of his impeachment? Or do they focus on bread-and-butter issues such as health care, income security and retooling job training? And what about the ongoing Russia investigation?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR last week congressional Republicans should run on their record. “This is the best year and a half for right-of-center policies since I've been here,” he said. “Everything from tax relief, to repealing the individual mandate to 15 uses of the Congressional Review Act. We mentioned the courts, comprehensive tax reform.”
In the same interview, McConnell admitted the GOP faces a stiff wind to hold on to one or both houses of Congress. That’s largely because of the shadow cast by the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, potential Trump campaign collusion with Kremlin-connected Russians and presidential obstruction of justice. The failure to reach a deal on immigration – from an expanded border wall to protections for DREAMers who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, but have grown up in America. Then there is Trump going off message, even on the issue of the importance of the 2018 mid-term elections.
Democrats are torn by deep divisions, which have clouded their 2018 campaign messaging and eroded what once was a commanding leaded over Republicans. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party wants the campaign to center on new initiatives such as universal health care insurance, a federal jobs guarantee, tougher enforcement of anti-trust regulations and allowing the US Post Office to enter the consumer lending business. Center-left Democrats worry that isn’t the political chemistry to turn red states into blue ones. In early-state contested primaries, progressive candidates seem to be carrying the day, but the question remains whether they can win in November.
If Democrats have an ace up their sleeve, it is the number of women running for office.
If Democrats weren’t confused enough, conservative commentators have egged them on, with political cracks about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and identity politics.
The gang at FiveThirtyEight conducted an online chat about midterm election themes. Micah Cohen, the politics editor, put government corruption and Trump’s behavior at the top of his list and downplayed trade, the economy, education, Social Security and the Russian investigation. Nate Silver, the creator and editor of FiveThirtyEight, said Democrats should concentrate on health care, the Russian investigation and gun control because they are tangible issues. Senior political writer Claire Malone recommended centering on Trump administration corruption, ethical lapses and rollbacks of environmental and consumer protection.
Polling continues to show that Trump’s political base remains solid, even though there are some cracks beginning to appear among college-educated women and disaffected union workers. The same is true on the Democratic side, which has been energized by Trump policies and congressional attempts to repeal Obamacare. Republicans need to hold on to their moderates while Democrats need to hold on to their progressives. Both parties need to appeal to unaffiliated voters who think the country isn’t moving in the right direction and GOP control of all the levers of federal power hasn’t moved in the country in the right direction.
While the national stakes in the election are clear – control of the House and Senate, most congressional elections tend to boil down to local issues and candidates. But national politics does play a role. Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ role in a federal government shutdown earned him an unusually well-funded Democratic opponent. Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana is facing a stiff re-election test in the face of criticism by Trump on Tester’s role in blocking his nominee to head the Veterans Administration. If Trump can pull off a verifiable deal to denuclearize North Korea, that could sway voters in the fall.
Only 48 out of 435 House seats are regarded as competitive by political experts. To regain control of the House, Democrats need to flip 25 GOP seats and not lose any of their incumbents. Democrats will likely concentrate on the 25 House districts that gave majorities to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but are held by Republicans. A 25-seat switch in the midterm election following a presidential election is not uncommon historically.
Democratic chances to regain control of the Senate, which the GOP holds by a slim 51-49 margin, are complicated because they have far more incumbents to defends. Democratic hopes go out the window if they lose seats they hold now in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Montana. Their best hopes to gain seats are in Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota and Tennessee,
Meanwhile, congressional Republican candidates will be holding their breath about the next Trump tweetstorm and Democrats will continue debating how to approach the American electorate as a preferred alternative to GOP control. For Republicans, six months can be like infinity. For Democrats, six months can go by in a blink of the eye.