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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

December 15: 2017 Has Been One Long Argument for a 2018 Democratic Wave

After sorting through the Alabama results and comparing them to other 2017 special elections, I figured it was time to look ahead, so I did just that at New York.

[T]he [Alabama] results were entirely consistent with the pro-Democratic trend that has persisted throughout 2017’s special and off-year elections. That would have been the case even if Roy Moore had eked out a narrow win. Republicans can, as Donald Trump has done, rationalize this or that 2017 defeat as being an anomaly. But it is impossible to take an honest look at the overall pattern of 2017 contests without hearing the not-so-distant rumbling of a likely 2018 wave for Democrats.

Harry Enten conducted a comprehensive analysis of 2017 special elections — all 70 of them — taking into account the established partisan “lean” of the jurisdiction being contested.

“The Democratic margin has been 12 percentage points better, on average, than the partisan lean in each race. Sometimes this has resulted in a seat flipping from Republican to Democratic (e.g. in the Alabama Senate face-off on Tuesday or Oklahoma’s 37th state Senate District contest last month). Sometimes it has meant the Democrat barely lost a race you wouldn’t think a Democrat would be competitive in (e.g. in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District in June). Sometimes it’s merely been the case that the Democrat won a district by an even wider margin than you’d expect (e.g. in Pennsylvania’s 133 House District last week).

“The point is that Democrats are doing better in all types of districts with all types of candidates. You don’t see this type of consistent outperformance unless there’s an overriding pro-Democratic national factor.”

The best elections to examine in order to figure out whether Democrats can win back the U.S. House in 2018 are the seven congressional special elections of 2017. Republicans won five and Democrats two (a winning percentage that’s not surprising since all but one of these elections were triggered by members of Congress joining the Trump administration). But as Enten notes, the average vote-percentage swing to Democrats from prior established partisan levels was 16 points. In a polarized electorate, that’s a large swing indeed.

In thinking about this pattern, keep in mind that the demographic groups most likely to vote Democratic typically don’t proportionately turn out for non-presidential elections, and particularly for special elections. There is a powerful trend under way.

While any single special congressional election is not necessarily predictive of future election results, in larger batches they are highly correlated to the next election coming down the pike. Enten looks at special elections prior to the last six midterms and finds that on average the partisan swing in the former is within three percentage points of the partisan swing in the latter. That would suggest a double-digit Democratic swing (or something close to it) in 2018.

If that seems extravagant, look at the congressional generic ballot (a simple polling question about which party the respondents would like to control the U.S. House), itself highly correlated with the national House popular vote. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Democrats currently have an 11-point advantage, the highest they’ve enjoyed since last year’s elections.

The question of exactly how big a margin in the national House popular vote Democrats would need to gain the 24 net seats required for control of the House is a difficult one. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz has just published an analysis of House elections dating back to 1946, which also takes into account the impact of GOP-controlled redistricting after 2010, and concludes that a Democratic win as small as four points could do the trick. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report thinks a seven- or eight-point win would be necessary.

Despite the clear trends, there remain a lot of unknown variables as we head toward the midterms, most notably presidential approval ratings and retirements. But the current occupant of the White House has a highly polarizing approach to politics that almost certainly caps his approval ratings (which have never been above 46 percent in any event). And Republican retirements are definitely outpacing those of Democrats; 26 House Republicans are either calling it a day or running for other offices. There’s no telling where the much-rumored investigations of sexual misconduct by large numbers of congressmen will lead. But as Jonathan Chait points out, there are 219 Republican men in Congress as opposed to just 132 Democratic men, so the odds of net damage to the GOP (and to a GOP-controlled institution) are high.

There is more at stake next year, obviously, than control of the U.S. House. Thirty-six states will hold gubernatorial elections, and all but a few will hold state legislative elections. Partisan performance at the state level could have a crucial effect not just on the public policies of the jurisdictions involved, but on positioning for the next redistricting cycle, which will begin between 2020 and 2022. And even in Washington, Democrats now see an opportunity to win back the U.S. Senate, which would have seemed laughably impossible a year ago.

All in all, we will probably look back a year from now and see 2017 as a harbinger of a strong Democratic performance in the midterms. Its precise strength will determine whether Donald Trump enters the second half of his presidential term merely embattled or fully caged and cornered.


December 14: Alabama Senate Election Reinforces Smart Strategy For Southern Democrats

After watching the astonishing results from Alabama this week, I refreshed an old argument I’ve been making for decades about the need for a new strategy among southern Democrats, and wrote it up for New York:

If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times leading up to yesterday’s special Senate election in Alabama: If only Democrats had nominated a more conservative candidate than Doug Jones, they might have a chance to win an unlikely Senate seat. This argument was generally combined with an attack on the alleged ideological rigidity of Democrats, and specifically focused on abortion policy. Doug Jones, you see, held the standard pro-choice position of Democrats nationally, which meant support for abortion rights as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 40 years ago, including the right to a (rare) late-term abortion in certain limited circumstances.

That doomed him, said a lot of people on both sides of the partisan aisle….

It turns out that Jones’s position on abortion was no impediment to victory. According to exit polls, Jones won 34 percent of the votes of the one-fourth of Alabamians who thought abortion “should be illegal in most cases,” and even 18 percent of those who want to ban abortion “in all cases.” Given the partisan dynamics of the abortion issue, it’s unlikely he would have done better with those voters even if he had been a solid opponent of abortion rights.

Now, some would argue that Roy Moore’s status as an alleged sexual predator made everything else irrelevant, including everything to do with Doug Jones. But exit polls also showed that most votes for or against either candidate did not turn on the Moore allegations alone, or even principally. And lest we forget, polls were showing Jones to be a viable candidate long before the allegations broke — and indeed, a viable candidate against the more conventional conservative Luther Strange.

Jones seems to have defied the old formula for Democratic victory in the Deep South, which meant choosing a partisan differentiator or two and displaying resolute conservatism on everything else. That made sense when a lot of white conservative voters were up for grabs. But after a generation of ideological and partisan polarization, many of the white folks who might have voted for moderate-to-conservative Democrats like Sam Nunn or Zell Miller (two former bosses of mine) in Georgia or Howell Heflin or Fob James in Alabama are now straight-ticket Republican voters. And it’s no accident that Miller and James ended their political careers by becoming Republicans themselves.

As Jones showed, however, there is an increasingly viable route to the age-old southern Democratic formula of securing nearly all of the African-American vote and just enough white voters to get across the line. Instead of appealing to rural conservatives, Democrats can, in many cases, successfully appeal to just enough urban and suburban moderates to reach parity. The exit polls showed Jones winning 30 percent of the white vote and well-above 90 percent of the African-American vote — close to the age-old criteria for winning in a southern state with a sizable black electorate (a bit larger than Virginia’s, a bit smaller than Georgia’s, Mississippi’s, or Louisiana’s). As New York’s Eric Levitz noted today, Jones’s biggest area of improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance was in suburban areas. If this can work in Alabama, whose economy and culture remain very traditional, it can work in other parts of the South as well under the right circumstances, even without a sitting duck like Roy Moore on the ballot.

The best thing about being able to deploy a relatively progressive Democrat like Doug Jones rather than a conservative like Fob James isn’t just that Jones won’t be a functional Republican in Congress (though that’s a large bonus). It’s that Democrats can stop asking African-American voters to loyally support the Donkey ticket despite it featuring so many white pols who take them entirely for granted. The robust African-American turnout in Alabama on December 12 was attributable to many factors, including heroic local organizers, nationally prominent black politicians and celebrities, and the powerful antipathy both Trump and Moore aroused among nonwhite voters. But it didn’t hurt that Alabama’s black voters were turning out for a candidate who had performed a significant service to their community by successfully prosecuting the murderers who perpetrated the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, and who gave every indication that he would vote with left-of-center Democrats in the Senate.

In time, you can envision southern white Democrats returning the favor by running and supporting African-American politicians with views similar to those of Doug Jones and attracting the same kind of biracial coalition. (There’s some precedent for this, particularly in Georgia, where two moderate African-American Democrats held statewide office from 1998 until 2010). That will be both morally and politically essential as white voters represent a significantly smaller percentage of the Democratic electorate. But in any event, the days of southern Democrats being hard to distinguish from Republicans other than by an absence of overt bigotry should be over.


December 6: Mike Pence’s Brown-Nosing Rise To Power

I read McKay Coppins’ big profile of Vice President Mike Pence with interest. But while most observers focused on an incident when Pence supposedly signaled his willingness to replace Donald Trump when it looked like he might be forced from the ticket over the Access Hollywood revelations, I thought the big lesson was very different, as I wrote at New York.

[T]he far more enduring picture Coppins paints is of Mike Pence as a man who decided early on in his relationship with Trump that no one could look in the mirror at night and see a browner nose.

“In Pence, Trump has found an obedient deputy whose willingness to suffer indignity and humiliation at the pleasure of the president appears boundless. When Trump comes under fire for describing white nationalists as ‘very fine people,’ Pence is there to assure the world that he is actually a man of great decency. When Trump needs someone to fly across the country to an NFL game so he can walk out in protest of national-anthem kneelers, Pence heads for Air Force Two.”

This willingness to serve as First Toady was evident in Pence’s initial interview — on a Trump golf course — as a potential running mate:

“Pence had called Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, whom he’d known for years, and asked for her advice on how to handle the meeting. Conway had told him to talk about ‘stuff outside of politics,’ and suggested he show his eagerness to learn from the billionaire. ‘I knew they would enjoy each other’s company,’ Conway told me, adding, ‘Mike Pence is someone whose faith allows him to subvert his ego to the greater good.'”

“True to form, Pence spent much of their time on the course kissing Trump’s ring. You’re going to be the next president of the United States, he said. It would be the honor of a lifetime to serve you. Afterward, he made a point of gushing to the press about Trump’s golf game. ‘He beat me like a drum,’ Pence confessed, to Trump’s delight.”

This set the pattern for Pence, notwithstanding anything he might have contemplated during the brief but intense hours after the Access Hollywood revelations.

What makes Coppins’s take on Pence especially valuable is his understanding that sucking up to Trump was entirely in keeping with the Hoosier governor’s sense that God was working through the unlikely medium of the heathenish demagogue to lift up Pence and his godly agenda to the heights of power. Just as it has been forgotten that the Access Hollywood tapes nearly brought Trump down, it has rarely been understood outside Indiana that Pence was down and possibly out when Trump reached out to him to join his ticket.

“The very fact that he is standing behind a lectern bearing the vice-presidential seal is, one could argue, a loaves-and-fishes-level miracle. Just a year earlier, he was an embattled small-state governor with underwater approval ratings, dismal reelection prospects, and a national reputation in tatters.”

Pence’s apparent demise, moreover, came after his careful plans to position himself to run for president in 2016 went awry via his clumsy handling of a signature “religious liberty” bill and a fatal underestimation of the resulting backlash from the business community.

All of a sudden, he was lifted from this slough of despond and placed a heartbeat away from total power thanks to his ability to, as Kellyanne Conway put it, “subvert his ego” in the presence of his deliverer, whose own ego has no limits. He clearly has not forgotten this lesson of an ambition fed by self-abasement rather than self-promotion. And according to Coppins, he even has a theological justification for blind loyalty to Trump:

“Marc Short, a longtime adviser to Pence and a fellow Christian, told me that the vice president believes strongly in a scriptural concept evangelicals call ‘servant leadership.’ The idea is rooted in the Gospels, where Jesus models humility by washing his disciples’ feet and teaches, ‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.'”

Usually the idea is to be the “slave” of one’s followers and of the less fortunate, not the slave of the billionaire POTUS, but Pence has the “humility” part down pat.

Pence’s presumed reward in this redemption story could, of course, extend beyond the power he exercises as one of the more influential vice-presidents in history, and as Trump’s designated mediator with the Christian right and with those Republican elected officials who aren’t themselves in the great man’s retinue. He would be the obvious successor to Trump in 2024, when he will still be a relatively youthful 65 — whether or not Trump wins a second term in 2020. And in the meantime, as in the panic-stricken hours after the Access Hollywood tapes were released, Republicans will look to Pence as a reassuring and unifying figure whenever Trump’s presidency is endangered, whether it’s by the Mueller investigation or his own erratic conduct.

Pence has indeed come a long way since he was airlifted out of what was probably a losing gubernatorial race to the role of worshipful sidekick to Donald Trump. And he’s earned his actual and potential power via a habit of slavish loyalty that he may consider godly, but others find infernally corrupt if effective.


November 30: Democrats Turning Around a Big 2018 GOP Senate Advantage

After looking at the rapidly changing Senate landscape for 2018, I wrote this assessment for New York:

For Democrats, the 2018 Senate elections have been approaching like an Arctic cold front for years. In part the product of two exceptionally good years for Senate Democrats in 2006 (when they gained five net seats) and 2012 (when they gained two more), the 2018 landscape is one of the best in living memory for Republicans. They are defending only nine seats, as compared to 25 for Democrats (two of which — Bernie Sanders and Angus King — are technically independents, who caucus with Democrats). Only one Republican seat up this year is in a state (Nevada) carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Ten Democratic seats up this year are in states (Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin) carried by Donald Trump last year. On paper, this should be a year when the GOP makes sizable Senate gains, and indeed, early in the cycle there were elephant dreams of achieving a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the upper chamber.

But a combination of factors, including some unusually popular Democratic senators in red states, and an unusually unpopular Republican president generating stronger-than-normal anti–White House midterm headwinds, has changed the expected dynamics. Thanks to a potential GOP calamity in a special Senate election in Alabama on December 12, Democrats actually have a decent chance of making their own gains in 2018. And there is even a discernible (albeit tricky) path to a net-three-seat gain that would give Democrats control of the Senate. If it happens, that would be a disaster of the first order for the Trump administration and the conservative ideologues who are counting on a Republican Senate to rubber-stamp the president’s Executive and Judicial branch nominees, including (potentially) a fifth vote on the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade.

Midterm anti–White House dynamics have probably wiped out any fleeting GOP advantage in a number of states that went narrowly for Trump in 2016. According to September data from Morning Consult, Trump’s approval/disapproval ratings are now significantly underwater in Michigan (40/55), Pennsylvania (45/51), and Wisconsin (41/53), where Democratic senators are running for reelection, and also in the Republican-held states of Arizona (44/51) and Nevada (44/51). Some states where Trump remains very popular also happen to have especially popular Democratic senators as well. In West Virginia, for example, Trump’s approval ratio is an impressive 60/36, but Joe Manchin’s, at 53/36, isn’t bad, either. Similarly, Trump is at 51/44 in North Dakota, but Heidi Heitkamp looks even stronger at 55/32. And in Montana, Trump is at 50/45, but Jon Tester is at 53/33. There is no particular reason to think any of these incumbents is in deep peril at the moment so long as the president’s popularity continues to gradually erode. Joe Donnelly of Indiana (47/26) and Claire McCaskill of Missouri (42/39) are looking significantly more vulnerable; not coincidentally, both won six years ago when Republicans nominated unusually weak candidates who imploded after saying stupid things about rape.

At least two Democratic incumbents — Bill Nelson of Florida and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — will be running in highly polarized states with very competitive gubernatorial elections where the campaign could become a long, painful, expensive slog. While Nelson is reasonably popular with an approval ratio of 50/26, he is likely to face Governor Rick Scott, who can self-finance to an enormous extent in a state with many pricey media markets. Baldwin (in dicier territory with an approval ratio of 41/38) may not face as formidable opponent, but her race could be overshadowed by Scott Walker’s attempt to win a third full term as governor.

Meanwhile, Republican problems in their own territory are by no means limited to Alabama. A potentially toxic primary for the Arizona seat of retiring Senator Jeff Flake makes this a strong pick-up possibility for Democrats, who have been steadily gaining strength in the state recently. And the GOP pain could be doubled if poor health forces John McCain to step down before next November. Nevada senator Dean Heller (whose approval ratio is among the worst in the Senate at 39/39) is vulnerable to both a primary challenge and to likely Democratic opponent Representative Jacky Rosen. And a potentially fractious and complicated GOP primary to choose a successor to retiring Tennessee senator Bob Corker could conceivably open a path for Democrats in that unlikely territory, particular if former governor Phil Bredesen decides to run.

Along the same lines, a real wild card for 2018 involves Steve Bannon’s threats to run right-wing insurgent primary challenges to several Republican incumbents who would otherwise be expected to stroll to reelection. The potential targets include Roger Wicker of Mississippi (already opposed by Chris McDaniel, who very nearly defeated Thad Cochran in 2014), Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John Barrasso of Wyoming, and Orrin Hatch of Utah (who may well retire, leaving the seat in all probability to Mitt Romney). These races are all in very safe Republican territory, but at a minimum could drain resources better deployed by the GOP elsewhere.

Nasty Republicans primaries could also cause trouble for the GOP in otherwise-promising Indiana, where U.S. representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are holding a true grudge match; in Arizona, where Establishment Republican Martha McSally and fiery conservative Kelli Ward are likely to collide; and in West Virginia, where Representative Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey are challenging each other’s pro-Trump credentials.

As always, there is the possibility of competitive races emerging that no one currently expects. One possibility involves New Jersey Democratic senator Robert Menendez, who recently underwent a much-publicized corruption trial that ended in a hung jury and a mistrial. Menendez’s approval/disapproval ratio is a dismal 32/41, according to Morning Consult, and the embattled senator could face new charges from federal prosecutors, or at least an ethics investigation by the GOP-controlled Senate. But leading New Jersey Democrats are without exception sticking with Menendez, and so far New Jersey Republicans have not found a credible challenger. Given the strong Democratic lean of the state, it’s no wonder the incumbent is favored to survive.

The big intangible for all 2018 races at every level is turnout. In recent elections Republicans have gained a distinct advantage in midterms as their voting base became aligned with the demographic categories (older, whiter voters) most likely to participate in non-presidential contests, even as Democrats became more reliant on the younger and minority voters most likely to sit out midterms. But if the special and off-year elections of 2017 are any indication, Democratic — or to be more precise, anti-Trump —enthusiasm could erase or even reverse that GOP advantage, at least for this one midterm.

All in all, it’s a Senate landscape that could produce any number of outcomes. At present the Cook Political Report, which is very cautious about its projections, shows ten highly competitive races (including the 2017 special election in Alabama); six are rated as tossups (Democratic-held seats in Indiana, Missouri, and West Virginia, and Republican-held seats in Alabama, Arizona and Alabama), and four more (all currently Democratic) are rated as leaning Democratic (Florida, Maine, North Dakota, and Ohio)….

For the obvious reason that only a third of the states are holding Senate elections next year, there is no national polling lens for judging the Senate landscape like the generic congressional ballot, which is highly correlated with the national House popular vote. But if the generic ballot remains as strongly pro-Democratic as it has been during much of 2017 (the Democratic advantage in the RealClearPolitics polling average is currently at 9.3 percent), the likelihood of Democratic gains or at least minimal losses will continue to grow. As Democrats looked ahead at 2018 a year ago, that scenario would have seemed idyllic. And it’s worth making a mental note that the 2020 Senate landscape is skewed toward Democrats nearly as much as this year’s is skewed toward Republicans. So if happy days are not yet here again for Senate Democrats, they could be arriving soon.


November 25: 10 Reasons Democrats Can Be Thankful

In the spirit of Thanksgiving weekend, at New York I wrote up some reasons for Democratic gratitude this year:

As a new poll from SurveyMonkey shows, Donald J. Trump will loom over Thanksgiving tables this year to a remarkable extent; his name is far more likely to spark arguments than any other topic, public or private. And for liberals, such arguments will serve as a reminder that there is no moment, however sacred, that the 45th president cannot spoil with his vengeful, glowering presence, so much like a nightmare the morning light cannot dispel.

Last Thanksgiving Day the shock of Trump’s election was too fresh to be fully absorbed. But now, a year later, the reality of President Trump is with us like an endless nagging headache that periodically flares into a life-threatening stab of pain. So when his name inevitably comes up at the Thanksgiving table or at postprandial gatherings of families and friends, it will be a good time for left-of-center Americans to count their blessings. I offer some comforting thoughts about things for which we should be thankful, in no particular order:

1. The U.S. Constitution endures. Yes, conservatives sometimes act as though the First Amendment is strictly about letting tax-exempt churches and their affiliates do whatever they want; that the Second Amendment is the only other significant element of the Bill of Rights; and that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments aren’t really valid because the Founders weren’t around. But the Constitution does provide major hurdles against would-be tyrants, which is why the president spends so much time raging against the federal judges who enforce it.

2. Obamacare lives. A year ago I would have bet the farm, had I owned one, that the Republicans who controlled the White House and Congress would have repealed the Affordable Care Act by now. They had the congressional majorities, the means (the budget process, making enactment of legislation by a simple majority possible), and the motive (years and years of fiery promises to dismantle the 44th president’s great legacy) to get it done. But it turns out they didn’t have the unity in the U.S. Senate, or the ability to persuade the public that going back to the days when insurers walked tall and citizens had no protections beyond their own wealth was a good idea.

3. Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges are still the law of the land. Trump would not have become president had he not convinced conservative evangelical leaders that even though he might not share their faith, he shared their determination to make reproductive rights and marriage equality things of the past. With Neil Gorsuch, he got halfway to a Supreme Court that would likely reverse or significantly modify Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood and turn back the clock to 1973, and perhaps repeal or at least curtail LGBTQ rights. But he remains a Justice short, so liberals should combine thanks for that fragile reality with prayers and best wishes for the health of 84-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 79-year-old Stephen Breyer.

4. The 2017 elections represented a liberal comeback. While the fairly steady Democratic vote gains in the special elections of 2017 could be dismissed as no more than moral victories so long as they didn’t produce actual takeovers of congressional or statewide offices, November 7, 2017, was an unambiguous anti-Trump triumph. It came complete with the kind of suburban wins and Democratic “base” turnout patterns that augur very well for Donkey Party prospects in 2018.

5. The 2018 elections represent liberal hope. Taking back the U.S. House (much less the Senate) remains a tough challenge for Democrats in 2018, but one that looks more realistic every day. So long as Trump’s approval ratings remain underwater, Democrats have a big advantage in the congressional generic ballot, and the anti-Trump young and minority voters who normally sit out midterms remain energized, then at a minimum the 2018 elections should reduce the GOP’s margin of control in the House to a sliver that makes governing even more difficult than before, and with some luck will give Paul Ryan’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi.

6. There’s a competitive Senate race in Alabama. A whole series of incidents from a corrupt-looking appointment of a temporary Republican senator to a vicious primary culminating in the nomination of the highly controversial extremist Roy Moore to revelations that the self-same Moore used to troll for (and perhaps assault) teenage girls when he was a 30-something prosecutor, have all combined to make Democrat Doug Jones an even bet to be elected in Alabama next month. The very possibility is playing havoc with Senate Republicans’ tax bill and year-end spending bill. And a Jones win would open up a path to the once-remote possibility of a Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2018. If that were to happen, all of the right’s ambitions for flooding the judiciary with right-wing Trump appointees could come to a screeching halt.

7. Robert Mueller. Whether or not the special counsel investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 election finds evidence of collusion with the Trump campaign, and/or finds reason to chase significant figures in the president’s entourage toward the hoosegow, his proceedings represent if nothing else a reminder that this president is not yet above the law. Beyond that, the slow unfolding of the Mueller investigation and the steadily climbing number of indictments mean that liberals aren’t the only ones with reasons to dread the future.

8. The Reckoning. Yes, the current firestorm over sexual harassment and assault in government and media is creating some difficult questions and some painful repercussions for liberal as well as conservative leaders. But in the end, like the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy over a quarter-century ago, the sudden defenestration of powerful men caught acting very badly will likely represent a step forward toward workplaces where actual work is valued and abuses are no longer tolerated. And as a bonus, every time a sexual predator is disgraced he may well be replaced by a talented woman previously denied a fair chance at advancement. Nancy Pelosi isn’t the only woman who may get a promotion in 2018.

9. William J. Barber II. The North Carolina clergyman and leader of “Moral Mondays” protests against right-wing dominance of his state is a living reminder that Jerry Falwell Jr. is not the exclusive face of American Christianity.

10. Memories of 2016 will eventually fade. As we approach the 2020 elections and the possibility of an orderly end to the Trump Era (barring the very long odds against its being more abruptly ended by resignation or impeachment), memories of that traumatic night in 2016 when it began will slowly fade, and psychic wounds will slowly heal. It is even possible that by next Thanksgiving fights between liberals over the Clinton–Sanders nominating contest can begin to wind down. For that I would be profoundly thankful.


November 17: Trump and the Alabama GOP Can’t Bring Themselves To Oppose Roy Moore

The saga of the Ayatollah of Alabama, Roy Moore, took another turn this week when Donald Trump and the Alabama Republican Party decided against showing the embattled theocrat and accused sexual predator the door. I wrote about it at New York.

In dual developments that together represent a huge victory for embattled Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore, his state’s Republican Party reaffirmed its support for him (and more importantly, its unwillingness to strip him of its nomination) as the White House signaled the president would not intervene to try to get him to withdraw from the race.

These developments probably ensure that Moore will face Democrat Doug Jones on December 12 without official opposition from his own party. But that could mean this very red state has a chance of going blue. Even as Republicans got out of the Judge’s way, a Fox News poll of Alabama showed Jones leading among likely voters by a 48-40 margin, with a narrow plurality (38-37) expressing belief in the allegations against Moore — though only 13 percent of self-identified Republicans feel that way. The poll also shows Jones voters support their candidate as intensely as do Moore’s famously dedicated followers.

It should be noted that an October Fox News poll showed the race tied at a time when everyone else had Moore with a solid lead. Still, the Judge has been losing ground in every poll taken since the Washington Post allegations were published on November 9, with the only question being how strong he was before all hell broke lose.

The state GOP’s statement (issued subsequent to a meeting of its steering committee last night) wasn’t quite a ringing endorsement of Moore’s side of the story with respect to the multiplying allegations of sexual misconduct toward underage women. Instead, it argued he deserved a “presumption of innocence” in the case despite some pretty solid evidence against him, and expressed trust in “voters as they make the ultimate decision in this crucial race.” After noting the sharp policy differences between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones, the statement punted on any judgement of Moore and mixed a metaphor for good measure: “Alabamians will be the ultimate jury in this election — not the media or those from afar.” And not, apparently, the Republican Party of Alabama.

This statement was important to Moore because the state party had the power to strip him of the GOP nomination, which would have had the legal effect of nullifying any votes for him in the special general election on December 12. Barring some late reversal of position, that’s not happening now, which means any hypothetical write-in effort for another candidate (which had been widely discussed) would split the GOP vote and presumably all but ensure Jones’s election.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made it clear Trump, too, was ready to defer to Alabama voters:

“President Trump believes that the people of Alabama should decide whether to elect Roy Moore, despite mounting allegations of sexual assault and harassment of girls as young as 14 years old, the White House said.

“‘Look, the president believes these allegations are very troubling and should be taken seriously, and he believes the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their senator should be,’ White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday.”

In other words, Trump will not answer the public and private pleas of Senate Republicans that he push Moore out of the race.

So unless something really unexpected happens, Moore will be fighting Doug Jones with one hand and his accusers with another, as Republicans tut-tut or even condemn him, but do nothing practical to keep him out of the Senate.


November 16: Odds of a House Democratic Wave Next Year Moving On Up

The 2017 elections have cast some new light on the 2018 midterms, and I did a reassessment at New York.

Just under a year before the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic prospects for gaining the 24 net seats they need to take control of the U.S. House of Representative are getting stronger. Aside from a number of long-in-advance indicators like presidential approval ratings and the congressional generic ballot, the 2017 election returns, capped by high-profile Democratic wins in Virginia and elsewhere on November 7, have provided objective evidence that Democrats are regularly exceeding expectations based on past performance (if not always meeting last-minute expectations of big wins). But you win elections in particular places and one at a time, and at the level of individual races, Republicans retain a lot of advantages that could keep them in control of the House even if they lose the national popular vote.

Republicans also have a lot of exposure, having made a net gain of 68 House seats in the last three elections. This can matter even more than presidential approval ratings: In 2010, Obama’s pre-midterm approval rating was 45 percent, but his party — engorged by big House performances in 2006 and 2008 — lost 63 seats. Four years later, Obama’s approval ratings were sharply lower, at 40 percent, but his party only lost 13 net House seats.

The big-picture factors favoring Democrats are clear. The party controlling the White House almost always loses House seats in midterms; the two exceptions in recorded history occurred in years in which the presidents in question were enjoying very high approval ratings (Clinton at 66 percent in 1998 and George W. Bush at 63 percent in 2002). Since 1946, the average midterm House losses for presidents with approval ratings under 50 percent has been 36 seats. President Trump’s approval ratings (using the RealClearPolitics polling averages as a benchmark) have never topped 50 percent, and have mostly bounced around the low side of 40 percent since the spring.

The other big indicator for House races is the generic congressional ballot: a polling question that simply measures partisan voting intentions for upcoming congressional elections. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, the final generic ballot before midterm elections is on average as accurate as final presidential polls, hitting within 2 percent of the actual national House popular vote. The generic ballot can, of course, change significantly during the final year of a midterm cycle; at this point in 2009, for example, a CNN survey gave Democrats a six-point advantage in the generic ballot; the final RealClearPolitics average just before the 2010 midterms favored Republicans by 9.4 percent. But such big movements tend to occur in synch with presidential approval ratings, and beyond that, the usual trend is away from the president’s party, as in 2010.

The current RealClearPolitics generic ballot average gives Democrats a 10.2 percent advantage. The gap has been slowly increasing throughout 2017; six months ago it was at 5.8 percent.

Special (and regular off-year) elections in 2017 have shown a similar Democratic advantage. In an analysis of 38 such contests (mostly for state legislative seats), Daniel Donner found a clear trend:

“Out of all the special elections with typical Democrat vs. Republican dynamics, Democrats have overperformed the 2016 presidential margin by more than 10 points in 25 of them. Republicans have overperformed by more than 10 points in just four — but one of those was actually a Democratic flip! On average, Democrats are doing about 13 points better than Hillary Clinton.”

The Virginia results in November were equally impressive, with gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam winning by the largest margin of any Democrat since 1985. And the Donkey Party’s shocking Virginia state legislative gains, heavily concentrated in suburban communities, showed that the disdain for Donald Trump among college-educated white voters was rubbing off on down-ballot Republicans.

Still, all these positive indicators for Democrats don’t translate proportionately to gained House seats, even if they persist in 2018. The generic ballot, for example, simply predicts the national House popular vote, not seats gained, and it’s not at all clear how big a margin in the popular vote Democrats will need in 2018 to win back the House. Harry Enten explained the problem back in February:

“[I]f Democrats win the national House vote by a margin in the low- to mid-single digits, that may not be enough to take back the House. The median congressional district was 5.5 percentage points more Republican-leaning in the presidential race than the nation as a whole in 2016, meaning Democrats are essentially spotting the GOP 5.5 points in the battle for control of the House. And even that may be underestimating Republicans ability to win a majority of seats without a majority of the vote. Since 2012 (or when most states instituted the current House district lines), Republicans have won, on average, 51 percent of the two-party House vote and 55 percent of House seats. If that difference holds for 2018, Democrats would need to win the House popular vote by about 8 percentage points to win half the House seats.”

Incumbency and redistricting are the big institutional reasons the GOP upholds its House majority, despite likely Democratic margins in the overall popular vote. But as the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter notes, those advantages may be eroding as the party and its president grow less popular:

“In the most recent October survey, [NBC News] found that Republicans had a six-point advantage in GOP-held seats (R+6), while Democrats had a 29 point advantage in seats they hold (D+29). What’s significant—or what NBC/Wall Street Journal pollster Bill McInturff called a “flashing yellow light,” was that the GOP advantage in seats they already hold dropped eight points from September to October—from R+14 to R+5. It also stands in stark contrast to the average generic advantage Republicans had in seats they held in the most recent mid-term elections (R+15 in 2010 and R+18 in 2014).”

The pace of House Republican retirements has picked up recently as well, and with incumbency worth an estimated seven points as compared to similar races with non-incumbents, that could be a really big deal. But most of the 29 announced GOP retirements are for Members in non-competitive districts. According to Cook Political Report, there are at present just six competitive House seats being vacated by retiring Republicans, along with three such Democratic seats. A few more, particularly in the 23 certified Trump-resistant districts carried by Hillary Clinton last year, could make a big difference. Another factor that could erode the usual advantages of incumbency is the unusually large number of Democratic challengers who are raising serious early money….

In 2010, the last wave election, the Cook Political Report showed the competitive districts literally doubling between November 2009 and November 2010, with the number of vulnerable Democratic seats jumping from 37 to 91. One thing to watch right in the very near future is whether House Republicans pass a tax bill that kills the state and local tax deduction — hammering upper-middle-class itemizers in California, New Jersey, and New York — and how many of the nine vulnerable GOP incumbents from those states vote for it. As the actual midterm election year approaches over the holidays, it could be a perilous time for House Republicans.

In the end, control of the House would be of great value to Democrats, given the majority’s power in that chamber to control what comes to the floor and what gets attention. It would signal a formal end to the GOP’s window of opportunity in enjoying a federal government “trifecta.” But even if Democrats simply make significant gains short of a majority, shrinking the GOP margin could have a major practical effect. As we’ve seen in the Senate this year, the Republican Party is not unified enough to pass legislation with much of a margin for error.


November 10: Roy Moore’s Troubles Could Open the Door for Democrats

As we all absorbed the lurid story of predatory behavior by Roy Moore towards teenage girls that the Washington Post reported, I began thinking ahead a bit at New York about the broader partisan implications if the allegations stick:

Moore’s immediate reaction was to deny everything and claim the story was “a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and the Washington Post,” the media outlet that ran the story. But despite Moore’s carefully cultivated image of religiosity and moral probity (he is sometimes called the Ayatollah of Alabama), the allegations are numerous enough, detailed enough, disturbing enough, and, well, creepy enough to cause him some serious problems unless they are somehow discredited.

The alleged behavior, especially the story of the 32-year-old prosecutor whisking away 14-year-old Leigh Corfman for illicit sexual conduct after offering to “watch” her while her mother was in a court proceeding, is not the sort of thing that can be dismissed as a “youthful indiscretion” or as a product of contemporary standards of acceptable conduct. Given the multiple accusations of Moore pursuing minors during that period of his life, there’s always the chance more accusers will now come forward.

So this could well be a five-alarm political fire for the GOP in one of its strongholds. And it opens up the first realistic path for Democrats to secure control of the Senate by the end of 2018.

Thanks to his long record of hypercontroversial statements compounded by not one but two occasions on which he lost his gavel as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defiance of federal law, Moore was already more vulnerable than Republicans usually are in Alabama statewide races. The current RealClearPolitics polling average gives him only a six-point lead over Democrat Doug Jones. If the new allegations aren’t dispelled very quickly, Moore could be in enough trouble to convince Democrats to make a major investment in Jones, and then anything could happen.

The emerging situation brings back memories of the Missouri Senate race in 2012, when it was widely assumed Democrat Claire McCaskill was going to lose. Then hard-right Republican Todd Akin won a complicated primary and proceeded to destroy his candidacy with ignorant and misogynistic comments suggesting rape exceptions for an abortion ban were unnecessary because “legitimate” rapes don’t cause pregnancy. For a while national and Missouri Republicans talked about substituting another candidate for the doomed Akin, but in the end they just watched him go down to defeat. Along with another favored GOP candidate who couldn’t stop saying stupid things about rape, Richard Mourdock of Indiana, Akin helped dash Republican dreams of retaking the Senate that year. And these incidents involved unfortunate words from GOP candidates. What Moore stands accused of is far worse.

This time around, if Moore craters, reducing the GOP Senate margin to 51/49, Democrats could have a real chance of winning back the Senate next year, despite only eight Republican seats being up for reelection. Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona and Dean Heller’s in Arizona are already highly competitive. It’s finding that third realistic target that’s been tough for Democrats. But a Jones win this year would reduce the magic number to just two.

Yes, a Jones win is still a reach, and to regain the Senate Democrats would have to win a large number of races involving vulnerable members of their own party. But with what looks like a possible Democratic wave forming for 2018, the landscape may be shifting dramatically. What Democrats most need now to place the Senate in play is some luck, and the prospect of another oh-so-holy cultural conservative blowing up his campaign might be just what the donkey ordered.

And if it turns out Roy Moore is guilty of what the Post story reports, he may discover that the sin the Lord most swiftly and surely punishes is self-righteousness.

As the Post story spreads, the odds of political punishment for Moore are climbing rapidly. Mitch McConnell is saying that “[i]f these allegations are true, he must step aside.” So is Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee. John McCain is already convinced Moore should hang it up. And even Moore’s would-be Senate colleague from Alabama Richard Shelby will only say: “Let’s see how the story runs.” That’s not exactly a vote of confidence.


November 8: Anatomy of a Very Good Night For Democrats In Virginia

After watching returns for a while on the evening of November 7, I offered some thoughts at New York about Ralph Northam’s win and its implications.

Democrat Ralph Northam handily defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s election by turning out his “base” and also doing very well in suburban counties in both Northern Virginia and the Richmond area. The New York Times estimates the final margin will be 54/45, far above Northam’s 3.3 percent lead in the pre-election RealClearPolitics polling average. Democrats shared their gubernatorial candidate’s win, electing (by narrower margins than Northam’s) Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, and making major gains in the Republican-controlled Virginia House (stunningly, control of that chamber is still in play with a few seats still undecided; Republicans enjoyed a 66/34 margin going into this election).

Team Northam’s turnout operation seems to have done its job, with voting up across much of Northern Virginia despite terrible weather (though higher early voting also contributed to the results). African-Americans were a steady 20 percent of the electorate, nearly as high as in last year’s presidential election. And Latino and Asian voting was notably higher:

But Northam’s margins among white and suburban voters really stand out. If exit polls are accurate, he carried 42 percent of the white vote, which is well above the percentage won in Virginia by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (35 percent), Mark Warner in 2014 (37 percent), Terry McAuliffe in 2013 (36 percent), and Barack Obama in either 2008 (39 percent) or 2012 (37 percent).

Northam’s performance in key suburban jurisdictions was equally impressive. In his narrow 2014 Senate loss to Mark Warner, Ed Gillespie won Northern Virginia swing jurisdiction Loudon County; Northam won it 60/39 today. Gillespie only lost another key NoVa suburb, Prince William County, to Warner by 3 percent; he lost it to Northam by 23 points. In the state’s largest county, the NoVa suburb of Fairfax, Northam won 67/31; even Hillary Clinton, who did very well in Fairfax, only won 65 percent there.

And the Democrat’s suburban wins weren’t limited to Northern Virginia. One of the state’s classic Republican-leaning suburbs is Chesterfield County, south of Richmond. Gillespie won it by 9 percent against Warner, and Donald Trump carried it by two points in 2016. The candidates basically tied there today. In another suburban Richmond County, Henrico, Northam ran two points ahead of Hillary Clinton, eight points ahead of Terry McAuliffe in 2013, and five points ahead of Mark Warner.

More predictably, Northam did well in his native Tidewater region, and Gillespie’s equally predictable margins in Western, West-Central, and Southside Virginia weren’t enough to overcome his suburban shortfalls.

Who were these suburban Northam voters? According to the exit polls, he actually won white college graduates by a 51/48 margin. Hillary Clinton’s statewide win in 2016 was attributed heavily to her success in winning 45 percent of college-educated white voters. Northam lost non-college-educated whites by a stunning 72/26 margin, basically the same shellacking Clinton took from these voters.

One would be tempted to guess Northam won a good number of anti-Trump Republicans. But the exits suggest he won only 4 percent of self-identified members of the GOP. What seems to have mattered more is that self-identified Democrats were 41 percent of the electorate, as opposed to only 31 percent who were Republicans. That is a testament to the Democratic voter targeting and turnout operation, and possibly an indication that Republicans are losing a significant number of Virginia’s white suburban voters altogether.

In terms of the dynamics of the campaign, it is reasonably clear that Gillespie’s investment in racially tinged culture-war messages did not significantly improve his performance in his “base” areas, and clearly cost him in the suburbs, where an Establishment Republican like him (who actually lives in Fairfax County) would have been expected to do well.

The president’s Twitter reaction to the results suggested that Gillespie lost because he didn’t wear a MAGA hat or explicitly appeal to Trump voters:

Actually, Gillespie’s support pretty closely tracked the president’s 2016 proposal in heavily pro-Trump jurisdictions like Augusta County (Trump, 71 percent; Gillespie, 73 percent) or Campbell County (Trump, 71 percent; Gillespie, 74 percent).

In general, it appears Northam took Hillary Clinton’s advantages over Donald Trump and intensified them. That this happened in a non-presidential year where low turnout typically helps Republicans is a very good sign for the Donkey Party going forward.


November 3: Trump Tax Bill Repeals Ban On Politicking From the Pulpit

Something strange and interesting is popping up almost hourly that is half-hidden in the new Trump tax legislation. I wrote about one such item this week at New York.

Nestled in the new House tax bill is a provision that doesn’t have a big (if any) impact on federal revenues, raise or lower anyone’s tax rates, or really change much of anything, at least in the short run. Yet it represents a major political payoff by Donald Trump and the Republican Party to a very important electoral constituency: conservative Evangelical clergy. It would repeal the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 law (sponsored by then-senator Lyndon Johnson, who was angry at a right-wing nonprofit group that was attacking him in Texas) that prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations, including churches, from such partisan electioneering activities as endorsing candidates.

The Johnson Amendment is rarely enforced, and is thus something of a phantom threat. Indeed, once a year since 2008 conservative ministers have held a “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on which they address blatantly political topics in order to defy the Johnson Amendment, without consequence. But the law has gotten all tangled up in conservative Evangelical paranoia about “religious liberty” being under attack from secular-socialist political enemies. And so Donald Trump made repealing it one of his principal campaign promises to Christian-right activists. It was even included in the 2016 Republican Platform. In his first speech as president to a distinctly religious audience, he amped up the rhetoric, promising to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, something actually not within his power.

But it is within Congress’ power, which is how it wound up in this tax bill.

It’s an almost entirely symbolic gesture so long as the IRS continues to give churches (and other tax-exempt organizations) that violate the Johnson Amendment a wide berth. It could, however, have a significant impact on campaign-finance practices down the road, if political donors figure out they can get a tax deduction for contributing to churches that intend to spend the money on particular parties or candidates. Last year Emma Green predicted conservative Evangelical churches could wind up becoming “the new super-PACs” if the Johnson Amendment was repealed.

For now, though, the drive to repeal the Johnson Amendment is most notably an example of Donald Trump’s transactional relationship with the Christian right and with white conservative Evangelical voters. He doesn’t much bother to even pretend to share their religiosity, but he does make them very specific political promises — notably turning over his entire judicial vetting process to hard-core conservatives guaranteed to produce nominees like Neil Gorsuch who are reliably aligned with Christian-right views on hot-button constitutional issues — and keeps them. So repealing the Johnson Amendment is just another layer of concrete in the foundation of trust between this heathenish president and his loyal conservative Christian flock.