There’s a saying that what matters isn’t winning or losing. It’s whether you beat the spread.
But what’s the spread for Democrats in 2018?
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Is the spread – which means the predicted margin of victory or defeat – gaining the 24 seats in the House that are necessary for a majority in the chamber? That’s certainly doable. I could argue that it’s probable.
But I could also make the case that Democrats fall five, 10 or 15 seats short. And I could imagine a demoralization that shadows and thereby dooms the party in 2020, when the stakes are even higher.
Is the spread control of the Senate? With just three turned seats, the Democrats have it. What promising math. But what a punishing map: There are more vulnerable Democrats up for re-election than there are vulnerable Republicans. Despite Donald Trump’s wackiness and the GOP’s woes, Democrats could easily loseground here.
The midterm elections are at once a golden opportunity and a dangerous trap for Democrats. Their hopes – stoked last week by a series of humiliations for the Trump administration, including Tom Price’s resignation and Alabama Republicans’ nomination of a Senate candidate who’s a fossil from the 1950s – could exceed their haul, for reasons I'll explain shortly.
So the task ahead is twofold and tricky. They must move heaven and earth to wrest Congress from Republicans, who’ve demonstrated little backbone for standing up to an erratic, egomaniacal president in desperate need of containment.
But they must also, somehow, keep their expectations in check, because the long game is the White House, and it won’t be served by the acrimony and sense of futility that disappointment in 2018 could bring.
Howard Wolfson, who was one of the chief strategists for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, summed up the situation well.
He said that the House majority must be Democrats’ nonnegotiable goal, because it matters so much and is indisputably attainable. But if they don’t succeed, he added, “There will be a circular firing squad.” And it will be an especially furious one.
Progressives will point to moderates who lost their contests as definitive proof that the party should move left. Moderates will point to progressives who didn’t prevail and insist the opposite. And the infighting could be another lucky break for Trump, whose life story is already a fable of outrageous fortune.
Last week provided robust fodder for Democratic dreams. The lavish flying and spending habits of various administration officials were exposed, raising serious ethical questions and casting Trump’s Cabinet as a bunch of ravenous pigs at a trough. The Alabama victory by Roy Moore, whom Trump had campaigned against, demonstrated the severe limits of the president’s sway. It also suggested a rogue impulse among still-restive Republican primary voters that could lead to extreme general-election candidates that Democrats can beat.
As Trump raged at congressional Republicans for drawing him into that race and for failing anew to shred Obamacare, the party tumbled further into disarray, bolstering the prospect that Republicans will go into the midterms with almost nothing to show for their turn at the helm of the federal government.
“You have House Republicans fighting with Donald Trump, you have Donald Trump fighting with House Republicans, and the dynamic only gets worse when you throw the Senate into the mix,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview late last week. He did not exactly sound upset about all this.
“Last cycle,” he told me, “I never once said that Democrats would win back the House. I have made that pronouncement this cycle.”
A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday (and taken before the GOP’s latest health care defeat) showed that 78 percent of Americans disapproved of the job Republicans were doing in Congress while only 15 percent approved. Democrats had a higher approval figure (29 percent) and a lower disapproval one (63 percent), and they beat Republicans when Americans were asked which party they would like to see win the Senate and the House next year.
For Trump, the survey had damning news: Only 36 percent of respondents viewed his performance positively, and only 42 percent characterized him as “fit to serve as president,” while 56 percent did not.
The last first-term president to go into midterm elections with this kind of unpopularity was Harry Truman, whose party proceeded to surrender 55 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate in 1946. And even first-term presidents in much better shape than Truman and Trump usually watch their party suffer House and Senate losses. That’s the way the pendulum likes to swing.
The House is the better bet in 2018 for Democrats, whose excitement is intensified by some extraordinary numbers. The Brookings Institution noted that by the end of June, 209 Democrats not currently in Congress had registered with the Federal Election Commission to run. That was nearly triple how many Republican challengers had registered at this point in 2009, when the GOP was galvanized by antipathy toward President Barack Obama and new candidates were coming out in what was then considered droves. Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House the following year.
Democratic leaders aren’t talking about a bonanza like that. But maybe half that number? They point out that 23 Republican incumbents represent congressional districts that Clinton won last November. With a forceful swing of the pendulum, those seats could be the baseline of a bigger tally of red-to-blue triumphs.
“You have to shoot for the stars,” Democratic operative Hilary Rosen told me. “You might just reach the moon.”
But even as Rosen said that, she hedged any prophecy of a rout, in a manner that spoke to the difficulty of properly calibrating optimism in 2018. She worried about Democrats’ policy agenda. She worried about the party’s tone. “I still think we lack a sunny, aspirational outlook,” she said. “We’re going down in the mud with Donald Trump.”
She added that the party wasn’t focused on change in the right, compelling fashion. “The change that Donald Trump was selling was blowing up the system,” she observed. “What’s our change? Is our change to patch upthe system? Not very sexy.”
Two new directions that many progressives in the party have indeed latched onto – tuition-free college and single-payer health care – make some GOP leaders’ hearts go pitter-patter, because they’re convinced that a majority of Americans, including many independents, aren’t ready for either, not when the cost is bluntly explained.
“I think Democrats are making a huge, huge, huge mistake,” said one prominent Republican strategist who is carefully studying House races and may help steer a few of them. He expressed guarded confidence that the GOP would hold onto its majority in the chamber, because, he said, the Democratic Party “is now being controlled by 20 people who are running for president, and that’s causing them to move too far left.”
He also marveled that Democrats had done nothing to take away one of Republicans’ most trusted targets: Nancy Pelosi. As long as she remains the Democratic leader in the House and Republicans can describe their opponents as servants of a San Francisco liberal in office for so many decades, they’re in good stead, he said.
There are additional reasons for Republicans not to tremble in the face of the pendulum’s potential swing. Thanks to gerrymandering and intense polarization in the electorate, fewer districts are truly competitive than in the past.
And previous presidents didn’t have as eccentric and ambiguous a relationship with their parties as Trump does with the GOP. I’m told that in some focus groups, when Republican voters are asked to name the leader of their party, most don’t mention Trump. He’s an unclassifiable entity in an orbit all his own. So while it’s possible that any disgust with the president will be taken out on the Republican lawmakers who curtsied to and coddled him, it’s not out of the question that those lawmakers would be regarded, and judged, separately.
Name another president in recent decades who publicly taunted and savaged peers in his putative party the way that Trump does. Name another president who was such an eager, audacious agent of disorder. There’s no tidy precedent for Trump, no historical model that snugly accommodates him. He proved that in 2016, and could prove it anew in 2018.
“Those who look to the past to predict the current political moment do so at their folly,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy III, one of the regional vice chairmen of the DCCC. So while he told me that he’s enormously heartened by the quality of Democratic candidates being groomed for House races, he’s not placing wagers.
That’s wise, considering: Democrats must recover from a breathtaking decline, during the Obama years, of the party’s representation at every level of government below the presidency. The party holds only 15 of 50 governor’s offices. While Republicans control both the governorship and the legislature in 26 states, Democrats have that monopoly in just six.
“We didn’t get here overnight,” Rosen said, reverting to management-of-expectations mode. “I think it’s unrealistic to think we’re going to turn it around in a single election.”
And it’s irresponsible not to think in terms of 2020 as well as 2018. Nothing about Trump’s first term makes a second seem survivable, let alone advisable, so the best way to go into the midterms is with an eye toward preventing one. That means resisting jubilant forecasts that allow modest gains a year from November to be spun as an immodest comeuppance.
Republicans are expert at affixing a “kick me” sign to frustrated Democrats. Democrats need practice at not wearing it.