Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Looking Ahead to the 2018 Midterms

As they survey the carnage that was wrought by eight years of lurching ever more to the left, the Democrats' only immediate hope is to regain at least part of their control of Congress before Donald Trump seeks a second term in 2020.

If they can't accomplish that in the 2018 midterm elections, they will be unable to do anything except morph into the "Party of No" that they were fond of calling congressional Republicans during the Obama years. Unlike the Republicans of most of those years, though, they will not control at least one chamber of Congress.

And without a base of power, it is unlikely that the party can find a candidate capable of defeating an incumbent Republican in 2020 — which most likely means continuing Republican dominance in at least the early years of the 2020s.

There has been considerable rending of garments and gnashing of teeth among the Democrats' ranks, but it has not been exclusively due to Hillary Clinton's victory in the popular vote and defeat in the electoral vote. At least part, I am convinced, is because many Democrats recognize the enormity of the task before them.

If Democrats are to have any influence when House districts are redrawn following the 2020 Census, they need to win control of state legislatures, most of which are in Republican hands. If they can't do that entirely in 2018, they need to have a solid start toward an objective that can be realistically accomplished in the 2020 presidential election year.

That's going to be a tall order.

The good news for Democrats is that, historically, midterm elections tend to favor the party that does not hold the White House, but to seize the majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats need to win about two dozen Republican–held seats. History suggests that, even if Trump's popularity remains below 50%, the odds are against that. It has happened before — recently, in fact — that the out–of–power party has won that many seats from the opposition party in a single election, but it is the exception to the rule.

And it almost never happens that a new president's party goes from being the majority party in the House to losing that many seats and control of the chamber in his first midterm election.

Trump is the ninth president since World War II to enter office with his party holding the majority in the House. Four of the previous eight — Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — saw their parties lose control of the House in their first midterm elections.

Ronald Reagan's Republicans never held the majority in the House while he was president, but they did lose 26 seats in Reagan's first midterm election.

Only one postwar president who entered office with his party controlling the House — George W. Bush — saw his party pick up seats in his first midterm. Bush's Republicans did so with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still fresh on voters' minds. If a similar event occurs between now and November 2018, Republicans might well add to their sizable majority in the House. They would almost certainly see gains in state legislatures.

On the other hand, if voters have a strong negative reaction to something the White House does — as they did with the passage of Obamacare in 2010 — they could punish the incumbent's party severely.

Either extreme is possible, but right now neither extreme is likely. Thus far, at least, Democrats have had no galvanizing moment, but neither have Republicans. Congressional approval is about twice what it was a year ago — still not great but about as sturdy as it ever is — and House districts, being the compact constituencies that they are, are much less likely to give their own representatives the boot — or even to shift parties if the incumbents retire.

Retail politics is what matters most in congressional districts.

To add another twist to the narrative, Kyle Kondik of Crystal Ball observes that, while Donald Trump won more congressional districts than Hillary Clinton, more Republicans hold seats in districts that voted for Clinton than Democrats hold seats in districts won by Trump. If Democrats can win those "crossover seats" that are in Republican hands — there are 23 — that would leave them only one vote behind the Republicans in the House.

"If a party can win the district at the presidential level," Kondik observes, "it's reasonable for that party to believe it can win the seat at the congressional level, too."

Before Democrats start thinking that taking back the House will be a slam dunk, it is important to remember that there are 12 districts that voted for Trump and are represented by Democrats. If Republicans can win those seats, Democrats will be, at best, only halfway to their goal.

Besides, "many of these 35 crossover districts may be more competitive on paper than in practice given that several have strong incumbents," Kondik writes, "and it's also possible that their Hillary Clinton–Donald Trump vote is not really an accurate gauge of their true partisan lean."

To seize even a one–vote majority in the House, Democrats would need to flip nearly 10% of Republican–held seats. Barring a galvanizing event or issue on the order of the 9–11 attacks or the passage of Obamacare, Democrats, as the out–of–power party, are more likely to benefit from the more typical losses sustained by the party in power — about five to 10 seats, give or take. Democrats may chip away at the deficit in the House, but, at this point, it seems that seizing the majority outright is a mountain too high in 2018.

It would seem — again, on paper — that Democrats' best odds for takeover are in the U.S. Senate, where winning just three seats from the Republicans would give them a majority. It would be a razor–thin one, to be sure, but it would still be a majority, and it would ensure divided government for the second half of Trump's term.

Capturing three Republican–held Senate seats is about 6% of Republican seats in all, which seems like a more manageable task — until you remember that only one–third of Senate seats are on the ballot in a given election. Sometimes special elections are held to fill the unexpired terms of senators who have died or resigned, but it is right around one–third in each election.

Mr. Kondik observes that flipping three Senate seats is "in keeping with the average midterm performance."

The Senate seats that will be up for election in 2018 are, for the most part, the ones that were on the ballot in 2012, when Barack Obama was re–elected and Democrats added to their majority in the Senate. Only nine Senate seats that will be decided in 2018 are in Republican hands.

Thus, winning three of the Republican–held seats on the ballot in 2018 would amount to flipping one–third — and all but one of those states voted for Trump.

Jeff Flake of Arizona: Flake was elected to his first term in the Senate in 2012 after six terms in the House. He only received 49% of the vote against two other opponents but one was a Libertarian who captured 5% of the vote, most of which probably would have gone to Flake had he not been in the race, and that would have just about matched Flake's share of the vote when he was first elected to the House in 2000. His share of the vote in his district never fell below 62% after that.

Arizona has been reliably Republican in nearly all presidential races since 1952, and it hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. It is true that the margins have been closer in recent years, possibly the result of a growing Hispanic population, but the margins still favor Republicans by hundreds of thousands of votes. Democratic efforts probably would be wasted there.

Roger Wicker, Mississippi: Wicker was first elected in 2006 to replace retiring Sen. Trent Lott, then was re–elected in 2012, defeating Albert Gore, a retired minister and distant relative of the former vice president. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he faced a challenge in 2016 that was comparable to the one the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will face in 2018. His party had to defend 24 Senate seats while Democrats had to defend only 10. Democrats picked up a couple of seats, but that was a fraction of what they were expected to win on Election Night, which has to be considered a victory for Wicker.

Mississippi has voted for Republican presidential nominees in 10 consecutive elections, and the last Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Mississippi was conservative John Stennis, who won his final Senate term in 1982.

Democrats would be wise to take a few pages from Wicker's 2016 playbook — and not even think about trying to take him down.

Deb Fischer, Nebraska: Fischer took out former Sen. Bob Kerrey in 2012 to win her first statewide election when incumbent Democrat Ben Nelson retired, thus returning the seat to Republican hands. I haven't heard whether she will seek a second term, but I presume she will. She has been described by many as a "true conservative," and her record in the Senate bears that out.

She seems like a good fit for the state she represents. In the last 100 years, Nebraska has voted for only three Democrats for president — Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 and Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

Dean Heller, Nevada: Heller was appointed to succeed disgraced Sen. John Ensign, who resigned amid an ethics scandal in 2011. Heller won a full term on his own in 2012.

Heller could be open to electoral attack. He is conservative but less so on social issues, which seems like a good fit for Nevada. Democrats, however, may sense an opportunity. Nevada has been a bellwether state in presidential politics, voting for the winner in all but two elections since 1912 — and one of those elections was in 2016, when Nevada voted Democratic for the third straight time. That's something that hadn't happened since the FDR years.

What's more Heller has recently come under fire back home, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

Caution, Democrats. Heller won a full six–year term in 2012 while Obama was carrying Nevada.

Bob Corker, Tennessee: Trump won more than 60% of Tennessee's vote. No presidential candidate in more than 40 years received a larger share of the votes that were cast in the Volunteer State.

That should benefit Corker, whose only political experience prior to his election to the Senate was four years as the mayor of Chattanooga. He received 65% when he won his second term in 2012; Mitt Romney carried the state with 59% of the vote that year.

If you think Corker will be tough to unseat ...

Ted Cruz, Texas: ... it will be virtually impossible to unseat Cruz.

There is frequently talk of how unpopular Cruz is with his fellow Republicans in the Senate — but they won't decide whether he gets a second term. Texans will, and Texans like him. His presidential primary victory there last year kept him in the race with Trump — for awhile.

Orrin Hatch, Utah: At 82, the longest–serving Republican senator apparently is considering seeking an eighth term next year, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. If he does, that's bad news for the Democrats. Hatch hasn't been held under 60% of the vote since his first campaign for re–election — in 1982.

John Barrasso, Wyoming: Originally appointed to serve until a special election could be held to fill an unexpired term, Barrasso won that special election with 73% of the vote in 2008, then won a full six–year term in 2012 with 76% of the vote.

That's even better than Ronald Reagan did in Wyoming when he ran for re–election.

So there you have it. Eight Republican–held Senate seats that are up in 2018. Add to that one more — Jeff Sessions' old seat now occupied by Alabama's former attorney general, Republican Luther Strange. Strange was appointed to succeed Sessions until a special election could be held. That special election will be held in June 2018, then the winner (presumably Strange) will be on the ballot again in November.

Not only has Alabama voted Republican for 40 years, it has given Republicans better than 60% of the vote in the last four elections.

Alabama, like most Southern states, once routinely elected Democrats to Congress, but it hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 — and he switched to the Republicans after the GOP seized control of Congress in 1994.

It seems that winning the Senate is every bit as elusive as winning the House for Democrats in 2018. They would be well advised to focus on returning Democrats to the 25 Senate seats they have on the ballot next year (that includes the two independents who typically vote with the Democrats). Not all are in danger, of course, but Democrats do hold 10 seats from states that voted for Trump.

And at least one of those senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has been rumored to be considering switching parties. That might not be a bad idea. West Virginia has voted for Republican presidential nominees in five consecutive elections, and it gave Trump nearly 68% of the vote.