Too early to panic, but not too early for GOP to be concerned
We are not even 100 days into the Trump presidency, and already journalists and political pundits are desperately looking for clues as to how the midterm elections will turn out 19 months from now. Let’s all take a deep breath.
The political dynamic will be very different by November 2018, and so far, what evidence we do have is a mixed picture.
Republicans held a seat in a red district in Kansas in a special election but underperformed Mr. Trump there by more than 15 points.
This week, despite spending over $8 million, a 30-year-old Democrat named Jon Ossoff failed to win a special election in a marginal, suburban district in Georgia against a deeply divided GOP field. In fact, he only narrowly overperformed Hillary Clinton’s vote share in the district from November. He will now face longer odds in a runoff in June.
What do these two special elections tell us? Almost nothing.
It is undeniable that Democrats are motivated. They wake up each day scheming about how to deal the president a defeat, how to embarrass him or how to show him changing a view on an issue. In fact, the ridiculous level of national attention paid to these two special elections is more about the Democrat-media complex’s feverish desire to deliver Mr. Trump a setback than about their inherent political import. In the end, one congressional seat switching parties makes almost no difference.
But the midterm elections will be consequential, as they will set the environment on Capitol Hill for the final two years of President Trump’s first term, as his re-election campaign gears up.
If Republicans lose control of the House — Democrats need a net pickup of 24 seats — it would dramatically narrow the pathway to advancing Mr. Trump’s legislative agenda and open the floodgates to unlimited Hill investigations run by the Democrats.
Even a narrower GOP majority in the House would make Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s job more difficult and further enable the House Freedom Caucus to exert their will.
The Senate is almost surely out of reach, with 10 Democratic incumbents up for reelection from states that Mr. Trump won, five of whom are running from states that the president won easily (West Virginia, North Dakota, Missouri, Montana and Indiana). Right now, Democrats have only one solid pickup opportunity — in Nevada. But again, cutting into the Republicans’ 52-48 edge in the Senate would make Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s already-difficult job even harder.
Despite the early date, there are already some warning signs for the GOP.
Mr. Trump has not seen a major legislative initiative pass Congress as we near the symbolic marker of his first 100 days — unprecedented in the modern era of the presidency. The pathway for repealing and replacing Obamacare and passing tax reform is still uncertain.
Even must-pass bills to fund the government and increase the debt ceiling will be heavy lifts and likely yield few conservative results.
The 2018 calendar year will be consumed by electoral politics, making bipartisan agreement on legislation unlikely.
Should the midterm elections arrive without major legislative accomplishments, there is a risk that Democrats will remain motivated while traditional Republican voters appear dispirited, and without Mr. Trump on the ballot, a perfect storm may develop. This is a worst-case scenario, but it is plausible at this point.
The path forward for the Trump administration is to work to bring the president’s approval ratings up from the current high 30-percent range up to at least the high 40-percent range.
Fearing the anger of their own base, Democrats are likely to refuse to work with Mr. Trump on any issue, even those that are popular and those with which they agree. Until that risk calculation fundamentally changes, the Trump agenda on Capitol Hill will be stalled.
Mr. Trump has an opportunity to begin moving his legislative agenda, but time is ticking away. He needs to unify the GOP on health care and tax reform and begin moving those bills, with steady and tangible progress before the August recess.
Republicans need positive momentum and something they can sell to voters back home. Instead of being forced to answer questions about the president and his record, they would rather be selling their legislative agenda. But right now, they do not yet have a consensus on the big issues.
Mr. Trump may not care much about the midterm elections, but there are 535 House members and a third of the Senate that don’t have the same luxury.