Democrats might pounce on topic of competency
For the first November, are feeling time since Democrats good.
The GOP’s quest to repeal and replace Obamacare has collapsed. Its unpopular president is under investigation by a special counsel. And the rest of the Republican Party’s legislative agenda is, at best, on shaky ground.
Now, Democrats are brimming with a new optimism about next year’s midterm elections. They think the GOP’s stymied policy plan gives them a chance to make the case that Republicans — in complete control of Washington — are incompetent, a potentially significant new line of attack for a party in desperate need of winning over conservative voters in red states and battleground House districts.
“Democrats are beginning to believe that we can be good at politics again,” said Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to onetime Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “There’s still a heavy, high degree of trauma that still has not worn off from election night, but we’re finding our footing step by step.”
Even if Congress tries to put health care behind it, top Democratic operatives say it will remain a major issue for voters, especially those who voted for House Republicans in special elections this year. And even if the issue fades, they hope the loss will be offset by an angry conservative base that wonders why it should even turn out for the next election.
Not even GOP strategists are sure the Democrats are wrong about that last point.
“Right now, it’s devastating,” said one conservative strategist working on the midterms. If lawmakers don’t find another way to repeal the law, “it will be absolutely devastating. It’s so myopic of Republicans in terms of how they’re handling this, because where they’re going to end up is back in the minority, like we were in ’09.”
The conservative base, this strategist said, doesn’t understand how Republicans could vote multiple times to repeal the law under President Barack Obama but fail to reach the same consensus when the GOP actually has power to act.
“Why were they able to get it done under Obama and they’re not getting anything done now?” the strategist said. “The challenge Republicans are going to have in turning out conservatives is like nothing we’ve seen since ’06.”
Democrats and Republicans alike think the GOP still has time to resuscitate its agenda, maybe as early as this summer, when the party has said it will take up tax reform as its next major initiative. Democrats also say they think Republicans will try again to repeal Obamacare, whether in the coming weeks or even into next year.
But if they don’t, Republicans run the risk of going before voters next year with nothing to show for their time in office.
And Democrats say that could change the nature of their attacks, switching from one focused on the details of the GOP’s agenda to the party’s broader failure to govern effectively.
“This is what happens when you have a Republican Congress that is not used to governing,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist. “Turns out health care is really hard, really difficult.”
Lapp knows how potent a competence argument can be: He was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, the last time House Democrats retook a majority.
That year, the party capitalized on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the then-unpopular Iraq War to depict Republicans as incompetent, an argument that — in part — helped them win a net of 31 seats in the House. (Democrats need to win 24 seats next year to win a majority, although the map of battleground seats is more difficult this time around.)
Lapp and other Democrats say they don’t think a failed legislative agenda rises to the level of either of those events. But they added that a competence argument can reach voters in red states and right-leaning House districts, the kind Democrats need to win over in a year when they’re defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won last year.
“It lines up well with the map and the types of the people who are running and the types of arguments they’re going to want to make,” Jentleson said. “Republicans are certainly handing us a ton of ammunition to make the competence case.”