Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Lessons From the Past

Our political system is an amazing thing.

It really is. Oh, I know we all complain about things that government does or doesn't do, and we get mad at our elected officials from time to time — but nearly without exception our system has permitted us to make peaceful periodic changes in our elected leadership. We take that for granted, but we wouldn't if we lived in many other places in the world.

But our system also has its idiosyncracies.

The pendulum is always swinging, and the out–of–power party always has plenty of reasons to be energized by midterm elections, starting with the clear historical trend that favors the folks who are outside looking in. This time it is the Democrats' turn as the out–of–power party, and everything seems to point to a big year for them. The president's approval numbers remain low, and Democrats continue to hold a lead in the generic congressional ballot.

Along with that, nearly three dozen Republicans in the House have announced their intention to retire, and more seem likely. The terrain certainly looks favorable for Democrats in 2018.

But history has some cautionary tales.

Let's start with the most recent history that Democrats ignore at their peril.

In 2016 polls showed Hillary Clinton with the lead over Donald Trump — and, indeed, Clinton did win the popular vote by a considerable margin.

But the United States has never elected its presidents by popular vote. It has always elected its presidents by electoral vote, and Clinton's popular votes were too heavily concentrated in the coastal states to influence the Electoral College. (In fact, if you took California's vote entirely out of the mix, Trump would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote; Clinton's margin in California was about 3.1 million whereas her margin nationally was 2.86 million.)

The same thing appears to be likely in this year's congressional races. Democrats are concentrated in urban districts, and the Democrats' nominees in those districts are likely to pile up impressive margins. Nancy Pelosi, for example, routinely rolls up incredible margins in her Bay Area district. It's even likely in some places here in Texas, where Clinton carried the metropolitan counties of Dallas, Travis, Bexar and Harris by wide margins.

But all you need to win an election is a single vote. You'd like to do better than that, of course, but some Democrats are likely to roll up huge margins in some districts — when many of those votes would be more beneficial elsewhere.

In Texas, outside of the metro counties and the ones that border Mexico, Republicans still dominated in 2016 — and likely will continue to do so. Some Democrats are salivating at the thought of the open seats that have been held by Republicans, like the South Texas district that has been represented by Republican Lamar Smith for more than 30 years. Smith is retiring, and there have been rumblings of how Democrats think they have an opportunity there, but one of the Democrats seeking the seat once served on Pelosi's staff. That might help win the Democratic primary, but it isn't likely to be a general–election winner in a district that voted for Trump by 10 percentage points.

That brings me to another point. The Democrats, like the Republicans in the first midterm of the Obama years, are engaged in a battle from within. The battle is between the establishment and the extremists. At stake is the direction of the party.

As the battle plays out, the establishment will prevail in some places, and the loose cannons, who are typically the most energized in the midterms, will prevail in others.

Democrats are certain to try to nationalize the campaign, but midterms are not national campaigns. They are held in every state and every House district, but the issues and candidates vary. It is tempting to vote for the loose cannons because they typically oppose everything the in–power party does, but Democrats need to remember how some of those loose cannons worked out for Republicans in the past.

In 2012, Missouri Republican Todd Akin made his widely reported remarks about "legitimate rape" that helped politically endangered Sen. Claire McCaskill win a second term by 16 percentage points. McCaskill is back, still politically vulnerable and running for a third term in a state that voted for Trump by nearly 19 percentage points.

Similarly, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock's remark that "even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Mourdock won the nomination by defeating six–term incumbent Richard Lugar in the primary.

Indiana has only voted for a Democratic presidential nominee once since 1964, but it voted for the Democrat in that Senate race, Joe Donnelly. He, too, is up for re–election — in a state that supported Trump by slightly more than 19 percentage points.

McCaskill and Donnelly were originally expected to lose in 2012, and their victories are big reasons why, when Democrats need to win only two seats from Republicans to have a majority in the Senate, they must defend more than two dozen Senate seats in November.

Democrats have a rare opportunity in 2018, but it is not a slam dunk.

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