Washington Examiner reporters are exploring what 2018 has in store in a number of areas, from the White House and Congress to energy and defense. See all of our year ahead stories here.
Democrats enter 2018 hoping it will be the last year they are shut out of power in Washington. The midterm election campaign gives them a real shot at a place at the table — and, depending on the trajectory of the Russia probe, maybe even an opportunity to impeach President Trump.
First things first, say congressional Democratic leaders who have so far tamped down calls by backbenchers and influential outsiders like billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer to run on impeachment. Only 58 House Democrats voted against setting aside the motion of Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, to bring forth articles of impeachment while another four voted “present.” Winning in November is the bigger priority.
Democrats only need to pick up two seats to retake the Senate, thanks to an upset victory in the Alabama special election last month, and 24 to control the House for the first time in eight years. Despite a larger GOP majority, the House is actually the easier bet. The party in power has lost seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections and when the president’s job approval rating is under 50 percent — Trump has been hovering around 40 percent — the average loss is 36 seats. Go all the way back to the Civil War and 35 out of 38 midterms have gone against the president’s party.
Republicans currently hold 23 seats in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. They hold 40 where Trump received less than 50 percent of the vote. The generic ballot shows voters favor Democrats for Congress by nearly 13 points on average. A recent CNN poll gave Democrats an 18-point advantage, with just 36 percent of those surveyed choosing Republicans. The pickup opportunities are there and the national climate is clearly moving in the Democrats’ direction.
The Senate is more complicated, a contest between math and map. The Democrats don’t need to pick up as many seats to win the majority, but they are also playing more defense. There are 26 Democratic incumbents up for re-election to just eight Republicans. Ten of these Democrats represent states Trump carried, half of them by double digits. Only two GOP seats are considered especially ripe for pickup.
But Republicans aren’t resting on this built-in advantage, since they understand history and the broader political climate are against them. “The map doesn’t win elections,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Washington Examiner in December. “The atmosphere is not irrelevant.”
Democrats did go 0-4 in the special House races where both parties committed significant resources in 2017 (Trump likes to count Georgia's 6th Congressional District runoff to bump that total up to 0-5). But they capitalized on Republicans nominating a flawed candidate for Senate in Alabama to win a seat there for the first time since 1992 and did even better than expected in the Virginia gubernatorial election.
“Virginia is a blue state, period,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “Since 2005, Republicans have posted a dismal 1-10 record in major statewide elections (governor, senator and president). Going forward, Republicans may pick off an election here or there in the commonwealth but for the most part statewide offices are out of their reach for the foreseeable future, unless of course Northern Virginia somehow gets annexed to D.C.”
Nevertheless, the suburban uprising against Republicans bears watching. “[Republican Ed] Gillespie didn’t underperform; [Democrat Ralph] Northam outperformed,” O’Connell added. “You shouldn’t run from the president who is of the same party. But Virginia is not exactly Trump country, and Trump did not defeat Clinton last year in the commonwealth. So the overall notion that if Gillespie were somehow ‘Trumpier,’ he would have won, doesn’t hold water. What gets lost in all of the post-election hoopla is that Gillespie garnered more votes than the gubernatorial winners in 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013 as well as the 2014 U.S. Senate victor, but in 2017 it was just not enough because Northam captured the most votes in Virginia gubernatorial history and really did well in suburbs and with voters 18-29.”
That could be bad news for Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., one of the more vulnerable GOP incumbents this year. It is a problem that extends beyond Virginia, however. Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill, Mike Coffman, R-Colo., Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., are among those who have to worry. Democrats are also hoping to pick up the seat held by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., whether she vacates it to run for Senate or seeks another term.
The Democrats’ Senate hopes hinge on Republican missteps and more or less running the table in their own difficult re-election races. They are targeting the seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and the one held by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. Only Heller is representing a state Clinton won. From there, Democrats have to hope that Steve Bannon and competitive GOP primaries create new openings. Some polls suggest Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, could be vulnerable to a Democrat while Mitt Romney wouldn’t be. Tennessee is another state Democrats are keeping an eye on, even though they haven’t won a Senate seat there since Al Gore.
Overall, Democrats are hoping that college-educated suburban voters (especially women) turn out for them in large numbers while Republicans can’t replicate 2016’s working-class white turnout without Trump on the ballot. Many voters who wanted divided government in the presidential election expected Clinton to win the presidency and pulled the lever for the GOP in down-ballot races. Now these voters will mostly be anti-Trump and backing Democrats.
Republicans have to hope to have enough success governing to at least keep their base voters motivated and perhaps to win some converts. They believe that when more Americans see their taxes going down, public opinion will swing in favor of the recently passed tax bill. They are also hopeful it will have a big enough impact on economic growth. Democrats are skeptical.
“I think tax reform will be confusing to a lot of voters and there is already a mindset that all of its advantages are going to corporations,” said Rodell Molineau, a Democratic strategist. “I think this is a net negative for Republicans.”
The GOP can also protect its Senate majority by bumping off some vulnerable Democratic incumbents. With the tax vote now in the past, expect to see more criticism of red state Democrats. Trump has already started in on Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., an incumbent running for re-election in a state the president won by 42 points.
“He talks. But he doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t do,” Trump complained to the New York Times about Manchin. “‘Hey, let’s get together, let’s do bipartisan.’ I say, ‘Good, let’s go.’ Then you don’t hear from him again.”
Democrats like Manchin won’t be able to fully harness the anti-Trump sentiment that will power some suburban challengers. Republicans also have reason to hope that some of these districts will have too many candidates in the primaries, where some of the ideological and tactical divisions within the opposition party will play out. Steyer is demanding of all Democratic candidates: “make public your position on the impeachment of Donald Trump and call for his removal from office.” That won’t play in West Virginia or Missouri.
In some districts, running against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., becoming speaker again or Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., becoming majority leader could get rank-and-file GOP voters to the polls.
The election year will have Trump and congressional Republicans racing the clock. They will never be guaranteed unified control of the federal government again and need to pass as much as possible in 2018. Yet as November gets closer, it will be harder to get members seeking re-election to take politically challenging votes.
“If it isn’t done by the end of the summer,” said one Republican operative, “it may never get done.”