When Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., announced she would not seek re-election to a congressional seat that has repeatedly flipped back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, the trash-talking from both parties' congressional campaign committees began immediately.
"Yet another Democrat in a district President Trump won is abandoning their seat," National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Gorman said in a statement afterward. "The NRCC will continue to put Democrats on defense across the country in 2018."
Meredith Kelly, Gorman's Democratic counterpart, shot back, "There is no doubt that Democrats will hold this seat, and we look forward to competing against whomever Steve Bannon nominates." That's a reference to the former White House chief strategist who has, since returning to Breitbart, pledged to help insurgents compete in Republican primaries across the country.
Democrats are still plagued by many of the same problems that bedeviled them in 2016. Bitterness lingers between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that has played out in multiple Democratic primaries and the Democratic National Committee chairmanship race. The Sanders wing is ascendant and skeptical of party institutions, after the way the socialist Vermont senator, actually elected as an independent, was treated during last year's presidential nomination fight.
The party also remains divided over how to recover from losing last November, and many Democrats are advocating the same strategies they championed before Trump won and the Republicans won. Should they win back working-class whites in Rust Belt states they lost to the president? Should they improve turnout among demographic groups, such as minorities and millennials, who helped former President Barack Obama win two terms? Should they tack to the center or move further left? Or should they simply focus on how Russian interference cost them the White House?
It may not matter. Where Democrats are largely unified is in their disdain for Trump, a man they view as unfit for the office he holds and as someone who has proven unable to deliver on his lofty campaign promises. Obama, Clinton and, to a lesser extent, former Vice President Joe Biden have all remained important party leaders, ginning up outrage against Trump even at the expense of the Democratic bench.
All of that failed against Trump and Republicans last year, yet Democrats are convinced that circumstances have changed enough to yield a much different result in 2018. "We have a lot of problems," conceded a Democratic consultant who was not authorized by clients to speak publicly about the campaign landscape. "But I'd rather have our problems than [the Republicans'] problems."
While even the most optimistic Democratic operatives the Washington Examiner spoke to conceded the midterm elections are "light years away," they all saw what they considered to be hopeful trends. Republicans are dispirited by how little their party has accomplished despite control of both the White House and Congress, while rank-and-file Democrats are eager to turn out against Trump and GOP congressional leaders.
"The midterm elections are a lot about two separate things, it's true under every president," said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. "Is the out-party's base energized or not? And is your base, the in-party's base, energized or not?"
Despite the Republicans' undefeated record in a series of 2017 special elections in GOP-leaning districts, most Democrats see the answers to these questions pointing in their favor. "A lot of what is happening with Trump is just like with Obama with the Tea Party in 2010 and [former President Bill] Clinton in 1994, with the enthusiasm of the other side," Trippi said. "Republicans have a drop-off in enthusiasm. Not unique to [Trump], that trend is holding for him, maybe a little more pronounced for him."
Democrats are favored in this November's gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, although the former is competitive. New Jersey would be a Democratic pickup, as term-limited, Trump-supporting Republican Gov. Chris Christie is leaving office with low approval ratings.
No more binary choice
Democrats may be divided over strategy and to a lesser extent over ideology, but they are positively salivating over the open sniping between Trump and Republican members of Congress. And then, there's Bannon's threat to recruit primary challengers against GOP incumbents loyal to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others he sees as internal obstacles to the Trump agenda.
"I think I should claim him as a relative and send him a thank you card," said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who's not related.
The presidential election was largely a binary choice between Clinton and Trump, whereas many Democrats believe the midterms will be almost entirely a referendum on Trump and the Republican Congress. Trump's job approval rating stands at 38.7 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. A September/October Investor's Business Daily poll, traditionally favorable to Trump during the campaign, pegged his disapproval at 61 percent. (Congress' approval ratings are even worse.)
"The intensity of Trump disapproval is stronger than the intensity of approval," wrote Robert Griffin for the Center for American Progress in September. "Trump supporters are almost evenly distributed among those saying they ‘strongly' and ‘somewhat' approve of him, while Trump detractors mostly say that they ‘strongly disapprove.'" The biggest Trump defectors are his 2016 voters who previously voted for Obama.
Democratic polling has shifted from showing the party and Trump evenly divided on the question of who "fights for people like me" in February to Democrats leading by nearly 20 points in September. They hope they can use the Republican tax plan, among other issues, to harden this perception.
"Many of the voters in swing districts don't even know who the Republican incumbent is, much less the Democratic challenger," said a party consultant. "They are going to vote their feelings about what Trump is doing."
Democrats have debated Clinton's legacy as a candidate since the campaign, though their criticism has perhaps been more muted since the publication of her book What Happened? But some Democrats also argue she dealt with constraints that made her uniquely vulnerable to Trump's populist pitch.
"Hillary Clinton did not focus like a laser beam on economic issues," Bannon said, borrowing one of her husband's favorite lines from his winning 1992 campaign. She had to tell voters who thought the economy was poor that it was in fact improving because she was campaigning while Obama was the incumbent. Clinton could not afford to reopen any old wounds from the 2008 primaries because she needed the more popular Obama's enthusiastic support. As a Democrat, she was also in effect running for Obama's third term.
Clinton also had to defend her husband's economic stewardship to Sanders voters who no longer supported President Bill Clinton's more centrist policies and were in many cases too young to really remember the 1990s tech boom, as well as blue-collar voters who never benefited from it. Trump, on the other hand, was free to say that the economy was terrible under Obama and that the previous Clinton administration had consummated "the single worst trade deal in the history of this country."
"He co-opted our image as the populist party," rogue Democratic strategist Mudcat Saunders told the Washington Examiner in an earlier interview.
Democrats are now "unshackled" from these restraints, some party insiders say. Trump now owns the economy, which he has taken to describing as prosperous as he boasts in non-populist fashion about a rising stock market and looming corporate tax cuts. He now owns healthcare, with his threats to let Obamacare "collapse" or "implode" and his party's failure to replace it with a "terrific" program for everyone.
"America is finally back on the right track," Trump proclaimed this month in Pennsylvania, one of the swing states he won last year. This could make him seem as out of touch to disenchanted voters as Clinton once appeared, since 63.5 percent of Americans still say the country is on the wrong track compared to 28.6 percent who say right track, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
For all these reasons, Democrats are adamant they can succeed running on anti-Trump sentiment where they failed in the presidential campaign. They also cite the recent historical record: The president's party has lost seats in 18 of the previous 20 midterm elections, averaging a loss of 29 House seats over that time period. In the 2006 wave elections, Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House, where Republicans enjoy a 24-seat majority.
House and Senate maps
But where will the hypothetical pickups come from? In the House, Democrats say they will start with the 23 congressional districts held by Republicans where Clinton beat Trump last year. Then, they will work up to the districts where the presidential race was closer. This includes 40 GOP-held seats where Trump won less than 50 percent of the vote, including 24 where the incumbents voted for a partial Obamacare bill that polled as low as 17 percent nationally.
Typically, these districts are made up of college-educated suburban whites or have a relatively high percentage of Latino voters. A few of them are in Utah, where independent conservative Evan McMullin held Trump to plurality support but GOP congressional candidates could be expected to fare better. Yet, seven Republicans in California represent Clinton-won districts, and they look especially vulnerable.
Mitt Romney carried 15 of the 23 Republican-held Clinton districts when he was the GOP presidential nominee in 2012. Only three of the Republicans now holding these seats won by less than 5 points last year while four more won by less than 10.
This year's special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District is an example pointed to by both sides. The educated, suburban Atlanta area once represented by ousted Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price usually goes Republican by a comfortable margin, but Trump carried it by just 1.5 points, making it the sort of district Democrats ought to target in their bid to make California Democrat Nancy Pelosi speaker again.
Target it they did. Democrats spent $30 million to boost their nominee Jon Ossoff, who outspent his Republican opponent Karen Handel. They came up short, suggesting it won't be easy for Democrats to expand their map. On the other hand, Ossoff won a strong plurality in the first round of balloting and Handel ran over 60,000 votes behind Price (though the latter was running in a presidential year, not a special election).
The Democrats' Senate map is much more daunting, but they are starting to believe a narrow path to a majority exists: Defend all their incumbents while picking off three Republican-held seats. They feel Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., are suddenly beatable if they even make it out of their primaries. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, is raising money well because he is running against liberal bogeyman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but he is not favored to win.
One shocker, and possible harbinger: Polling in this year's Alabama Senate race has shown the Democrat within single digits in the special election to fill the seat Jeff Sessions vacated to become attorney general for the rest of the term. Conservative firebrand Roy Moore beat the Trump- and McConnell-backed appointed Sen. Luther Strange, despite (or perhaps because of) being seen by Washington Republicans as the weaker candidate.
JMC Analytics showed Moore leading first-time Democratic candidate Doug Jones by just 8 percentage points, 48 percent to 40 percent. The generic ballot was even worse, with the Republican edging the Democrat by just 4 points, taking less than 50 percent. In 2014, Sessions attracted no Democratic opponent and won 97.3 percent of the vote.
Senate Democrats are nevertheless reluctant to spend money in Alabama given all the defense they are placing elsewhere, but that doesn't mean resources won't be available given Moore's controversial candidacy.
"Roy Moore is doing more to help us raise money across the board than any help we can get from the committees," said Trippi, who is consulting on the race. "We are literally getting calls from Republican donors in Alabama asking to cut checks." Liberal groups are also citing Moore in fundraising appeals.
Still, Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats to the Republicans' eight. Ten of those are in states Trump won in the presidential race and a few are in states like West Virginia, North Dakota, Missouri, and Montana where he remains popular even after the dip in his approval ratings elsewhere.
The DNC's disconnect
Democrats acknowledge that other things could go wrong. The level of disenchantment with both parties is so high that the electorate is volatile. So, even with a nearly 8-point advantage and low Trump approval ratings, things are unpredictable. After all, 60 percent told exit pollsters they viewed Trump unfavorably when he won on Election Day.
Candidate recruitment has been strong, with a focus on attracting women, military veterans, and people with business backgrounds to run for office, while Republicans are starting to retire. But the parties are spending less time finding candidates who are a cultural fit for their districts than they did in 2006 or 2008, when Democrats ditched social-issues litmus tests to compete in red states. This year, controversy has swirled over funding anti-abortion candidates. Crowded fields could also create too much of a good thing, as so many talented candidates compete in primaries that the favored one doesn't make it to the general election. (More than one Democratic operative pointed out that this was how Republicans ended up with Trump.)
Fundraising by party institutions, especially the Democratic National Committee, hasn't necessarily kept up with base enthusiasm. In the first six months of 2017, the Republican National Committee raised almost twice as much as its Democratic counterpart. Trump has helped the GOP with small donors. DNC money woes may be the most tangible example of bad blood from Sanders supporters who felt burned by the party's real and perceived favoritism toward Clinton, but many progressives expect independent expenditures to ably fill in the gap.
The disconnect between party elites and grassroots Democrats could grow more acute after an electoral victory. There is no appetite for compromise with Trump. "Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi don't want to hand him any wins, but they want to be players," said a centrist Republican leader who approved of the president's overtures to the Democratic leaders. The Democratic base, however, would prefer to impeach him.
Unless Robert Mueller, special counsel for the Russia investigation, forces their hands, Democratic leaders will be reluctant to go there. Partisan impeachment proceedings seldom succeed and they would need substantial Republican support even in a Democratic-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds majority would be required to actually remove Trump from office. It could be difficult to focus on much else and many Democrats would prefer to run against a weakened Trump in 2020. Pelosi tamped down support among antiwar Democrats for impeaching George W. Bush during her last speakership.
The Democratic grassroots might push their leaders to the left on immigration, gun control, foreign policy and even healthcare, where there is growing movement toward support for a so-called single-payer system where the government plays an even larger role than in Obamacare. The most popular version of this in Congress right now is Sanders' "Medicare for All" proposal. A competition to move to the left could heat up ahead of the Democratic presidential primaries, as several senators are believed to entertain serious presidential ambitions.
These are all chances Democrats will be happy to take as they contrast their fortunes with those of the Republicans. "All the signs, though 2018 is a lifetime away, point at least right now to everything the Democrats need to happen is happening," Trippi said.