It’s been a year since President Trump shocked the world by winning the White House in an election most political observers were certain was going the other way, a fact Trump continues to regularly tout in his public speeches and telephone conversations with world leaders.
And to many of Trump’s allies inside and outside the White House, much of what has happened since remains an unqualified success despite the first-year president’s historically low approval ratings. TrumpWorld sees a deregulation-fueled spurt of economic growth that is driving stock market gains and low unemployment, quality conservative judicial appointments highlighted by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, progress toward greater border security and immigration control, battlefield victories against the Islamic State, and promises kept to social conservatives.
If Congress would get its act together, these allies say, this list of accomplishments would be longer and even more impressive. “The biggest failure of the last year has nothing to do with the president,” said a Republican operative aligned with Trump and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. “It is the failure of the media and Washington, including [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and [Republican House Speaker] Paul Ryan, to understand why the president won and get on board with the Trump agenda that people voted for.”
A couple of issues loom on the horizon that temper the enthusiasm of even some true believers. The first is that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which Trump has always dismissed as an attempt to discredit his historic win, has produced its first indictments and is bearing down on the White House.
The second is that the elections that took place near the anniversary of Trump’s win may have foreshadowed Democratic gains in Congress next year. The White House has had difficulty getting legislation through Capitol Hill even with Republican majorities. It’s going to be more of a struggle with smaller majorities or Democrats controlling one or both houses.
Up until then, Trump could dismiss much of the Democratic grumbling as post-election sour grapes while he kept winning. Republicans won four straight special House elections despite the best efforts of the Democrats and “the Resistance” to make them competitive. Beltway Republicans who were less than enthusiastic about Trump also saw these wins as evidence GOP candidates could differentiate themselves from the president when they had to.
Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as a spate of local elections across the country, told a different story. Republicans got shellacked as the suburbs turned hard against them. And 85 percent of those who disapproved of Trump’s job performance voted for Democrats. Now a special election for the Alabama Senate seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t looking like such a sure bet, thanks in part to the controversies engulfing Roy Moore, the Bannon-backed GOP nominee.
“There is no question about it, Democrats flat-out took the Republicans to the woodshed … in Virginia,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on some campaigns in the state. “Republicans should be nervous ahead of 2018, but Democrats would also be unwise to misinterpret the results.”
Many Trump supporters nevertheless remain bullish. “The thrill of what the president achieved a year ago will never be tempered by state and local election results in a handful of deep-blue states,” said Erin Montgomery, communications director for the Trump-aligned America First Action super PAC. “With the economy growing, the stock market booming, and companies moving back to America, Trump supporters know that the president is fighting every day to make America great again.”
Democratic gains on the Hill would make that fight harder. “The notion of Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi again should put the fear of God in House Republicans,” O’Connell said. But he argues that’s no reason to stop enacting Trump policies.
“Trump’s approval ratings, the dismal GOP brand and the perception of a ‘do-nothing Congress’ were certainly a factor” in Democratic wins, he added. “That said, these numbers aren’t static, so this should put them on notice to pass tax reform and other key Trump agenda items before the 2018 elections.”