Try­ing to find ev­i­dence of a midterm ‘wave’

Democrats yearn to feel a land­slide com­ing but there’s no sign of it

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By J.T. Young J.T. Young served in the Trea­sury Depart­ment and the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get and as a con­gres­sional staff mem­ber.

Democrats’ re­cent ex­pe­ri­ences scream “2018 land­slide” to them, but re­al­ity whis­pers of much less. Nei­ther Repub­li­cans’ past midterms nor cur­rent cir­cum­stances match those which in­flicted huge midterm losses on Democrats. Ad­di­tion­ally, it is un­clear whether Democrats can re­verse their re­cent midterm dis­ad­van­tage in core sup­port.

In the past quar­ter-cen­tury, Democrats have twice suf­fered huge losses in their pres­i­dents’ first midterm elec­tions. With Bill Clin­ton in 1994, Democrats lost 54 House and nine Se­nate seats. With Barack Obama in 2010, they lost 63 House and six Se­nate seats.

From Democrats’ per­spec­tive, their pres­i­dents — each of whom was later re-elected — im­me­di­ately en­dured un­re­lent­ing Repub­li­can op­po­si­tion. Re­sult­ing Repub­li­can con­gres­sional ma­jori­ties was then in­stru­men­tal in deny­ing Democrats their third con­sec­u­tive pres­i­den­tial terms — de­spite their can­di­dates win­ning the pop­u­lar vote — in 2000 and 2016.

The lessons Democrats have taken from this are these: Pres­i­dents’ first midterms are dan­ger­ous and all-out op­po­si­tion works. Added to these his­tory lessons, Democrats see even greater op­por­tu­nity in an un­pop­u­lar Don­ald Trump and Repub­li­cans’ fre­quent in­abil­ity to work to­gether. As they await 2018, Democrats al­ready are count­ing the days and size­able fu­ture gains.

The prob­lem in Democrats’ seem­ingly per­fect sce­nario is that their his­tory does not match Repub­li­cans’ past ex­pe­ri­ence or cur­rent cir­cum­stances.

In 2002, Ge­orge W. Bush’s first midterm, Repub­li­cans gained seven House and two Se­nate seats. Cur­rent Repub­li­can num­bers in Congress are much smaller than Democrats’ in 1994 and 2010. Democrats’ 1994 and 2010 av­er­age was 257 House and 57 Se­nate seats; Repub­li­cans hold just 241 House and 52 Se­nate seats. Repub­li­cans’ lower num­bers also re­duce their like­li­hood of los­ing the num­ber of seats Democrats did.

Fur­ther, Pres­i­dent Trump won 230 House dis­tricts and 30 states last Novem­ber. This should fur­ther help Repub­li­cans run­ning in 2018. And 2018’s 34 Se­nate races de­cid­edly fa­vor Repub­li­cans: Democrats must de­fend 25 seats, with 10 in states Mr. Trump won. In con­trast, Repub­li­cans must de­fend just one Se­nate seat in a state won by Hil­lary Clin­ton.

More im­por­tant, Democrats’ core sup­porter per­cent­ages have fallen — while Repub­li­cans’ have risen — in the most re­cent midterm elec­tions. In 2010 and 2014, Demo­crat vot­ers fell as per­cent­age of the elec­torate from their pre­ced­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion lev­els. Repub­li­cans as a per­cent­age of the elec­torate in­creased in both those midterms. The same pat­tern holds for lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives in those midterms, too.

The last two midterms, there­fore, raise the ques­tion of whether Democrats’ core sup­port­ers will come to the polls with­out a Demo­crat run­ning for pres­i­dent. Other ques­tions con­front Democrats’ dreams of a big 2018 as well.

One group of ques­tions cen­ters on Democrats’ anti-Trump an­i­mos­ity. It will take more than just today’s anti-Trump in­ten­sity to beat con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans in 18 months. The ob­vi­ous con­cern for Democrats: Can it be sus­tained? A lot can hap­pen in a year-and-a-half. Each of the last three pres­i­dents had their lows, but all also ex­pe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant upticks in pop­u­lar­ity dur­ing their pres­i­den­cies. If there is a sil­ver lin­ing in Mr. Trump’s com­par­a­tively low rat­ings now, it is that any up­turn will ap­pear com­par­a­tively larger.

And even if sus­tained, high anti-Trump in­ten­sity alone is not enough — that in­ten­sity must be broadly dis­persed. Sim­ply rack­ing up large protest votes against Mr. Trump in blue ar­eas will not change Congress’ bal­ance. Mrs. Clin­ton’s pop­u­lar vote win last Novem­ber proves the pit­fall of run­ning up big mar­gins in too few ar­eas.

The anti-Trump in­ten­sity must pen­e­trate into Repub­li­can ar­eas, and do so enough to elect Democrats — moral vic­to­ries do not flip seats. That will not be easy when Mr. Trump won a de­cided ma­jor­ity of states and con­gres­sional dis­tricts.

An­other group of ques­tions cen­ters on Repub­li­cans’ in­tra-party di­vi­sions. “Never Trump” Repub­li­cans un­doubt­edly hurt Mr. Trump last Novem­ber. How­ever, there is no rea­son to be­lieve these Repub­li­cans will not sup­port con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans in 2018.

For Democrats, vot­ing Demo­crat dou­bles as an anti-Trump vote; for Repub­li­cans, with­hold­ing sup­port for con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans amounts to cut­ting off your nose to spite your face. An anti-Trump feel­ing among Repub­li­cans should in­stead en­cour­age them to vote for con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans in 2018. For them, con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans serve as an im­por­tant coun­ter­weight to Mr. Trump within their party. As a re­sult, con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans could well run ahead of Mr. Trump in many ar­eas, fur­ther rais­ing the thresh­old Demo­cratic can­di­dates must clear.

In the­ory, Democrats ap­pear to have a golden op­por­tu­nity to in­flict a ma­jor 2018 midterm loss on Repub­li­cans. The prob­lem is that in prac­tice, things have not worked nearly so well for Democrats in midterms past. And there are sev­eral cur­rent rea­sons why Repub­li­cans’ past midterm ad­van­tage may carry into Novem­ber 2018. Democrats’ past pains may not pre­dict their en­vi­sioned fu­ture gains af­ter all.


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