Most of the world of political punditry was focused on the special election for the Senate seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions in Alabama. Doug Jones’ Democratic victory in traditionally dark red Alabama, where Trump sports high approval ratings, is considered by some within the Democratic Party as an inkling of things to come in the 2018 midterm elections.
The Democrats seem self-assured that they can win both the Senate and House in 2018 based on 2017 performances. They point to the better-than-expected finishes in special election races in House districts that also fail to realize they lost the races. They point to the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and the fact they won them. But, after eight years of Christie in New Jersey, the Democrats could have run a dead horse and won that race. And Virginia continues to trend blue thanks to the burgeoning DC suburbs.
As for Alabama, that was a unique situation with a unique set of circumstances. One can rest assured that come 2018, the sexual history vetting of potential candidates on both sides will continue in this era of #MeToo hysteria. The victory, despite the lurid accusations against Moore, was razor thin regardless and before Democrats break into their victory dance, they should be reminded of that fact.
In some ways, the Democratic Party cannot help itself. In the Alabama race, the DNC silently supported their candidate. Why the silence? Because their image is tarnished after revelations exposing the DNC of being in the back pocket of the Clinton campaign in 2016 and putting their fingers on the scales to her advantage. Still, that did not stop Thomas Perez, head of the DNC, from declaring in the aftermath of the Alabama victory, “Last night was not a fluke; it was a message: the days of Donald Trump are numbered.”
Except the Alabama race had nothing to do with Donald Trump and everything to do with the allegations against Roy Moore. Still and all, despite the problems the Democratic Party faces in the shadow of their 2016 Presidential loss, the GOP has problems of their own. The Alabama loss was blamed on the McConnell wing of the GOP by operatives like Steve Bannon. A PAC aligned with McConnell accused Steve Bannon of costing the Party a seat in the Senate. And so it goes where an editor for Breitbart holds some sway over the Party.
The Alabama victory (which will likely swing back in 2020) may be a source of false hope for the Democrats who were looking for any string of victories to bolster their hopes. According to Sabato’s Crystal Ball, in the 2018 Senate races, there are five toss-ups- three Democratic and two Republican. They are the open seat in Arizona held by Jeff Flake and Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada for the GOP, and Ben Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Assuming these toss-ups flip in 2018 (a big assumption), that is a gain of one seat for the GOP which brings the Senate back to previous levels pre-Alabama. Although fields are not set, there are some serious GOP names being considered in these Democratic-held races.
Likewise, the resignation of Al Franken in Minnesota has set up a unique opportunity for the GOP to win a seat in that special election. And there is the possibility of further GOP pick-ups with the right candidate and circumstances in races in North Dakota, Montana, Ohio and West Virginia.
In the House races, sixteen seats currently held by the GOP are rated as toss-ups versus only four for the Democrats. Additionally, Sabato now places one GOP held seat- the open 27th in Florida- nominally in the Democratic column (this writer does not disagree with that outlook). Assuming these seats flip, that is a net gain of only 11 for the Democrats- clearly not enough to take the House.
Instead, the problem lies in the high number of “leans Republican” districts which comes to twenty-two against only four for the Democrats after eliminating the aforementioned Florida 27th. Many prognosticators look at which Presidential candidate won these districts in 2016 as an indication of who may prevail in the succeeding midterm. That method fails to take into account changes over the two-year period as voters sometimes exhibit buyer’s remorse. Regardless, the number of Democratic-held districts won by Trump in 2016 is twelve. The number of GOP-held districts won by Clinton in 2016 is twenty-three, a difference of 11. If we used the traditional method of predicting things, that results in a 22 seat loss for the GOP in 2018 overall. That still would not be enough to take the House, but make things real close and more interesting in 2020. Further, with a few upsets in districts rated “likely” rather than “leans” Republican, then and only then can the Democratic visions of control of the House be fulfilled.
Of course, the big elephant in the room is Donald Trump himself. Considering that in midterm elections the party in control of the White House loses seats in the House, there is virtually no doubt that historical trend in 2018 will continue. Other than his impending victory in tax reform, Trump cannot point to any legislative achievements. He remains highly unpopular in national polls with little hope he can break the 45% barrier before November 2018. How closely Democratic opponents associate the Republicans with Trump and if they win will confirm that this midterm is a true referendum on Donald Trump.
Republican incumbents, opponents, and candidates would be well-advised to keep the issues local in House races to thwart that association with Trump. Of course, the Democrats will press Republicans to take a stand, but with a message that stresses they will follow through on the concerns, worries and policy prescriptions of their constituents- not necessarily the man in the White House unless he too believes or acts such- they can mitigate potential losses and perhaps pull a few surprises themselves.
At this point, it would have to take an almost epic meltdown of political Armageddon proportions for the GOP to lose both the House and Senate in 2018. It is unfortunate that the Party has been placed in such a position given their control of the House, Senate and the White House and their failure to achieve anything. For that, the Republican Party holds 100% of the blame. And for that, both the titular head of the Party (Trump) and the Congressional leadership (Ryan and McConnell) bear responsibility.