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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

February 4: Ryan Discovers Job Training As a Way to Cut Safety Net Benefits

For anyone concerned about safety net programs, Ayn Rand disciple Paul Ryan bears close watching. I noted a fresh example of his bad and deceptive intentions at New York last week:

House Speaker Paul Ryan is a very frustrated man. His great passion in public life seems to be the destruction of the federal safety net created by the New Deal and the Great Society. But political reality keeps getting in the way. His long-standing support for partial privatization of Social Security is a nonstarter since George W. Bush got burned for broaching it back in 2005. His plans to voucherize Medicare benefits have been rubber-stamped by GOP members of Congress when they were in no position to actually implement them; they’ve gone nowhere after Republicans took over the entire federal government last year.

Ryan’s best shot yet at “entitlement reform” went down in flames with the failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare — and permanently cap Medicaid spending. And when he raised the trial balloon late last year of coming at entitlements under the rubric of “welfare reform,” that hardy race-inflected favorite of conservatives everywhere, Mitch McConnell shut him down almost instantly.

But ever ingenious, at the GOP congressional retreat this week, Ryan tried one more gambit, as Politico reported:

“[T]he Wisconsin Republican is back at it again, repackaging his proposals in hopes of gaining traction on welfare reform.

“During a GOP retreat here in Appalachia, Ryan urged congressional Republicans to tackle ‘workforce development.’ He messaged the somewhat amorphous phrase as a matter of ‘helping people’— not a budget-cutting excursive.”

What Ryan is deploying is a massive bait and switch: Get people talking about beefing up job-training resources for the able-bodied but unemployed or underemployed poor, and then drop the hammer on the entitlement benefits they currently receive. Phase one of that hammer dropping, of course, would be work requirements:

“[A]t least a half-dozen Republicans told POLITICO that Ryan’s proposal could include work requirements for welfare beneficiaries, which could repel senators. Indeed, at least two Senate Republicans said Thursday that they liked the idea in theory — but weren’t sure the upper chamber would ever take it up.”

Ryan is likely counting on support from the White House, given the administration’s cautious moves toward letting states impose work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. But more generally pushing people out of entitlement benefits and into jobs that may or may not exist requires more cover. And that’s where Ryan’s sudden enthusiasm for upgrading the workforce’s skills comes in.

“He emphasized the ‘jobs’ piece of the equation, pointing out that there are 6.6 million people on unemployment and more than 5.8 million open jobs. That skills gap, he said, could be filled by the unemployed population if the government provided the facilities to link the two.”

Here’s the trouble, though: Lawmakers from both parties and at every level of government have struggled for decades to come up with a successful system for job training. The Manpower Training and Development Act of 1962, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973, the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, have all, according to nearly every assessment, largely failed to address the enormous problems for workers caused by automation and globalization.

If Ryan has some brilliant ideas for overhauling this system, we’d all like to hear them. But if talk about job training is just a pretext for cutting benefits, then it’s just the same old same old from the inveterate enemy of the welfare state.

February 1: Is the GOP’s Era of Small Government Already Over?

After watching the State of the Union Address, and reading many assessments, I made this observation about what Trump did not discuss in a take for New York.

[T]he president’s 2018 State of the Union Address was a big hit on the right. It’s probably true that some of them were mostly relieved that he performed competently in a venue that does not play to his extemporaneous strengths.

But the praise was somewhat less fulsome from those who take the substance of conservative policy seriously — because it was almost entirely absent from the speech. Here’s National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru:

“[T]here was almost nothing of substance about 2018. The great exception is immigration, where he laid out a relatively detailed proposal in a way that will strike people without strong views on the subject as fair and sensible. Long stretches of the speech were, however, simply vacuous, as when Trump endorsed higher infrastructure investment and lower opioid addiction rates without saying a word about how these goods would be achieved. These were goals, not policies.

“One reason the speech was so heavy on shout-outs to heroes and victims in the audience was that the policy cupboard is pretty bare”

Ponnuru’s colleague Jonah Goldberg was even more pointed in what the speech omitted:

“[E]xcept for some laudable bits about streamlining the bureaucracy and improving FDA policy, there wasn’t a hint of fiscal conservatism to it. Trump wants a huge increase in infrastructure spending and an end to the sequester for military spending, but he never mentioned the debt or deficit. Well, there was one mention of the word ‘deficit’ — the ‘infrastructure deficit.’ And he endorsed a new entitlement — paid family leave — while failing to mention any effort to reform the existing entitlements.”

Indeed, if there was any lingering possibility that Paul Ryan’s dreams of an assault on entitlements this year would be realized, this speech eliminated them once and for all. Given Trump’s equally conspicuous refusal to mention additional efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare (a major emphasis in his proto-SOTU address to a joint session of Congress a year ago), it may well be that the White House is going along with Mitch McConnell’s inclination to rule out any use of the congressional budget process at all this year.

That is certainly the safest route for a majority party facing an adverse midterm-election-year climate. And perhaps the massive deficit-expanding GOP tax bill is too fresh a memory for Republicans to risk derisive guffaws by pretending to care about fiscal probity.

But it’s bound to bother conservatives who do care about Big Government that so little of their concerns animate this president who is so ferocious toward criminal immigrants and disrespectful foreigners and athletes who don’t stand for the national anthem. If Trump won’t treat fiscal hawks as a constituency worth pandering to in a speech this long, the odds are pretty good that he figures feeding them cultural red meat and sheer partisanship is enough to keep them on the reservation. And if so, he’s almost certainly right.

January 26: Vulnerable Democratic Senators Hanging In There For Now

After examining the latest batch of approval numbers for U.S. Senators from Morning Consult, I offered some thoughts about the landscape at New York.

The big trend is that politically vulnerable senators up for reelection in 2018, many of whom are being softened up with attack ads, are losing some ground, though many are still in relatively good shape.

For this particular election cycle, “vulnerable” mostly means Democrats, particularly the ten running for reelection in states carried by Donald Trump in 2016.

“The data show declines in net approval ratings [during 2017] for nine of the 10 Democratic incumbents who are running in states President Donald Trump won in 2016, and who have faced attacks on the airwaves and online from their Republican challengers, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and outside conservative groups.”

But of the Trump Ten, none are actually “underwater” in approval ratios, though two — Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (40/40) and Claire McCaskill of Missouri (41/41) — are dead even. Three (Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia) have approval ratings at or above 50 percent and relatively low disapproval ratings. And several others have net positive approval ratios in double digits (Sherrod Brown at 46/28; Joe Donnelly at 44/30; and Bob Casey at 43/32), and two others are close to that (Debbie Stabenow at 44/35 and Jon Tester at 57/40).

All in all, the Trump Ten are hanging in there, particularly if they benefit from a late Democratic “wave” or from nasty GOP primaries to choose challengers. And there’s one Republican incumbent, Dean Heller of Nevada, who’s not doing all that well at 41/39.

The star of the cycle is probably Amy Klobuchar, who, despite being from a competitive 2016 state, has an approval ratio of 59/24 and no prominent GOP opponent as of now. And the problem child is easy to identify, too: Robert Menendez of New Jersey, whose approval ratio is a dreadful 29/45, and that was from polling before the announcement that he will be retried for corruption in federal court (a mistrial was declared in his earlier trial in November). Menendez is obviously lucky to be running in a solidly blue state, but the fact that he’s the least popular senator in the country is likely to attract a credible opponent sooner rather than later. But he can draw some comfort from the fact that his partner in unpopularity in the Senate is none other than Mitch McConnell, whose approval ratio back home is 32/53. Persistent meh-to-terrible numbers in Kentucky haven’t kept McConnell from getting reelected and wielding great power. Sometimes money and luck can go a very long way.

January 24: Being Strongly Pro-Choice Might Be Good as Well as Principled Politics for Democrats

Given the post-2016 debate over a “big tent” approach to abortion policy, I thought the findings of a new survey were well worth considering, so I wrote it all up at New York.

A perennial topic among Democratic officeholders and activists is whether the party’s increasingly uniform pro-choice position on abortion ought to be relaxed to run anti-abortion candidates or appeal to anti-abortion voters. This is not just a subset of the usual centrists-versus-progressives argument either. Indeed, more than a few left-bent “economic populists” have argued that downplaying pro-choice views or social-issues liberalism generally can help bring back some white working-class voters — Democrats or former Democrats — alienated by the “cultural elitism” of self-consciously cosmopolitan upscale voters and opinion leaders. Bernie Sanders embraced this view in campaigning for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello last year.

In any event, the debate within the Democratic Party on having something like an abortion-rights “litmus test” is most often framed as a choice between principle and political expediency. This way of looking at the issue begins with an assumption that a “big tent” approach makes more sense politically. But what if it actually doesn’t?

That’s the question raised by some new research indicating that there really aren’t many Democrats or independents whose likelihood to pull the lever for Democratic candidates would increase if they oppose a right to abortion. Conversely, there are a lot more independents and Republicans who are more likely to vote for a candidate who is pro-choice. As Vox’s Anna North sums up the numbers:

“Just 8 percent of Democrats would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes abortion, according to a report released by the polling firm PerryUndem earlier this month, ahead of Roe v. Wade’s 45th anniversary on Monday. Meanwhile, 31 percent of Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights….

“46 percent of independents told the firm they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights, and just 15 percent said they’d be more inclined to vote for someone who opposed them.”

And despite the absolute grip RTLers have on Republican elected officials, and the reputation that anti-abortion activists have for a grim, determined efficiency, among Republican voters generally, ending abortion rights is less of a big deal:

“In general, abortion appeared to be a bigger issue for Democrats than for Republicans — 71 percent of Democrats said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported women having the right to an abortion, while just 36 percent of Republicans said a candidate’s opposition to that right would help win their support. Thirty percent of Republicans said a candidate’s position on abortion made no difference to their vote, while only 20 percent of Democrats said the same.”

All of this should add up to a general argument that Democrats win more and risk less by sticking to their principles on abortion rights.

No, that doesn’t necessarily address the argument that Democrats should speak less loudly or often on the abortion issue, or adopt a different kind of message on how it all fits together. And there may be a few places in the country where anti-abortion views are so popular that it’s tough to win without accommodating them (though Doug Jones’s win in Alabama undermines that claim).

But the belief that strongly favoring abortion rights is a political lodestone for the Donkey Party is assumed far more often than it is demonstrated.

January 18: For California Democrats, Surf’s Up!

After looking at some of the recent developments in the nation’s largest state, I wrote this assessment for New York:

As recently as 2010, California’s governor, lieutenant governor, and state treasurer were all Republicans. Now Democrats hold every statewide elected office. In 2010 there were 19 Republican U.S. House members in the state. Now there are 14. In 2010 there were 15 Republicans in the State Senate and 32 in the State Assembly. Those numbers are now down to 13 and 25. The losing Republican presidential nominees each won 37 percent of the popular vote in California, in 2008 and 2012. The winning Republican presidential nominee took 31 percent of the vote in California in 2016.

Bad as these trends look for the GOP, they are very likely to get worse this November — possibly a lot worse. In a thorough analysis of California’s political climate, Reid Wilson describes 2018 as a “perfect storm” for Democrats. The term we will soon begin to hear is tsunami, to distinguish California from the Democratic “wave” that’s developing nationally.

As Wilson notes, the few assets Republicans carry into the midterms nationally probably won’t help much in California. The GOP’s signature piece of legislation, the tax bill, is viewed very negatively in California, where it will limit or deny state and local income and property deductions to an estimated 2.5 million taxpayers. And the humming economy is more likely to be credited to California’s own Democratic leadership than to Trump, partly because the state is so large and partly because state leaders have defied Trump’s policies wherever possible.

Trump himself is extremely unpopular in the state:

“In California, his numbers threaten to become an anchor that weighs down his own party: Just 28 percent of adults approve of Trump’s job performance, according to a December survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. Just 30 percent told pollsters at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies they approve of Trump.

“Two-thirds of independents disapproved of Trump’s performance, and 57 percent of all voters said they strongly disapproved.”

Aside from the tax bill’s unique unpopularity in California, Trump has definitely damaged his and his party’s brand in the state with the Interior Department’s recent announcement that the state’s coasts will probably be reopened to offshore drilling in federally controlled waters. There haven’t been any new federal leases for offshore drilling in California since 1984, and the very idea tends to produce strong bipartisan opposition. Inadequate or tardy federal response to California’s horrific wildfires by the Trump administration or the Republican Congress is another big potential problem for the GOP.

Most ominously for Republicans, the state’s top-two primary system, which places the top two finishers in a nonpartisan primary on the ballot in the general election, is very likely to produce a November ballot with no Republicans running for the top two positions, governor and U.S. senator. No prominent Republican appears likely to run against Dianne Feinstein and her Democratic challenger state senate leader Kevin de Leon. And Republicans are divided between Trumpist and “moderate” candidates for governor, neither of whom has much of a chance of getting more votes than Democratic front-runners Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, and might finish behind Democrats John Chiang and Delaine Eastin as well. Having nothing but Democrats at the top of the ballot could be disastrous for Republican turnout, while contributing to what will probably be high levels of Democratic enthusiasm in the state.

The top-of-the-ballot vacuum will add to the many problems of Republican U.S. House members from marginal districts, seven of which were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Two of them (Darrell Issa and Ed Royce) have already announced retirements. Another, Duncan Hunter, who has been fighting ethics allegations, is under pressure to hang it up, and Dana Rohrabacher is perceived as being in deep trouble. Other somewhat stronger incumbents like Mimi Walters and Jeff Denham are being endangered by demographic changes, as Wilson notes:

“Walters’s district has grown by 33,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Of those new residents, 30,000 are nonwhite. The white population actually declined in Royce’s district while the overall population grew by 10,000 residents. In Denham’s district, 17,000 of the 21,000 new residents are nonwhite.”

In theory, the top-two system could benefit Republicans in some House races, particularly the open seats where many Democratic candidates could be shut out of the general election while two Republicans sneak into it. But on the other hand, having no incumbent eliminates the guarantee that even one Republican will survive the primary. So there’s no particular reason to believe the election system will give Republicans a break they desperately need. Indeed, California’s move toward a system in which most voters automatically receive mail ballots could erode one remaining GOP advantage: the tendency of Republican-leaning voters to participate at higher rates in non-presidential elections than their Democratic counterparts.

If a Democratic tsunami does develop, it could also reinforce the party’s supermajority control of both chambers of the State Legislature, which has been temporarily endangered by some resignations and one potential recall.

With all these problems, California Republicans are in real danger of becoming a marginal factor as voters become accustomed to Democrats as the natural governing party in the state — particularly if they succumb to the temptation of going Full Trump and spending their time lashing their fellow Californians for being godless hippie terrorist-coddling sanctuary city supporters. Republicans self-destructed in the state once before, in the 1990s, when Pete Wilson identified his party with anti-immigrant policies. If they now become the loud-and-proud “deplorables,” then their exile in the political wilderness could last for a long, long time.

January 5: Trump Declares War on the Coasts, With More Offshore Drilling, Less Safety

It’s been a week of red meat for Trump’s base, but this item is upsetting many Republicans, as I discussed at New York:

[Today] the administration announced plans to reverse decades of restrictions on offshore oil and gas drilling at both ends of the country.

Worse yet, this drill-baby-drill directive coincides with separate administration efforts to get rid of regulations tightly mandating safety measures for oil rigs, including those adopted after the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The policy change announcement by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was the first step in a review process mandated by Trump in an April 2017 executive order aimed at overturning an Obama administration five-year plan for coastal waters. “After taking public comments on the proposal, officials must revise it and put out a new proposal and then finalize it, a process that could take more than a year,” noted The Hill.

But the initial plan is sweeping in its scope, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the draft five-year leasing plan would commit 90 percent of the nation’s offshore reserves to leasing, with 47 lease sales proposed in 25 of 26 areas off the nation’s coastlines between 2019 and 2024.”

Opposition from Atlantic states that would be affected by the new policies has been sharp and bipartisan. The Washington Post quotes Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, and Rick Scott of Florida as joining Democratic governors John Carney of Delaware and Roy Cooper of North Carolina in opposing offshore drilling in the waters near their states. And the senator that Rick Scott may oppose this November, Bill Nelson, is planning to introduce a resolution to block the administration’s drilling-safety deregulation, using the same Congressional Review Act procedure that Republicans deployed to undo some of Obama’s final regulatory acts.

If the administration is serious about reopening wide-scale offshore drilling in California, this could represent a big political headache for Golden State Republicans who are struggling for survival. The leases Zinke is proposing would be the first for the California coast since 1984. And Trump’s original executive order, which didn’t mention California specifically, aroused all sorts of anger. According to the L.A. Times:

“Even the faintest possibility of new oil operations prompted an immediate backlash in the state as environmentalists feared ecological disaster, surfers warned of soiled beaches and politicians promised new measures to block any development.”

Don’t expect the president’s approval ratings to rise in coastal states any time soon, so long as this plan is in place.

January 3: Doug Jones Will Be a Regular Democrat, Not a DINO

Reading a lot of the speculation about newly elected senator Doug Jones and the faction of the Democratic Party he might join, I decided to weigh in at New York:

[Alabama’s] unlikely new Democratic senator, Doug Jones, will finally be sworn into office on Wednesday. He didn’t arrive in time to play a role in any year-end legislative drama. But there will be considerable speculation about the role he might play in a Senate where Republicans now have a spare two-vote margin.

Conservative media seem confident in projecting that Jones will be one of those “moderate Democratic” swing voters in the Senate. But in the Trump era it’s not clear what that will mean, since other Democrats from conservative states who make bipartisan noises just like Jones have regularly voted with their party on important floor actions (other than judicial confirmations). It’s worth noting that when Jones himself talks about working with Republicans, it’s on issues conservatives mostly disdain, and even then he sets conditions:

“‘Infrastructure is the perfect opportunity for both the parties to try to show to the American public that you can work together’ Mr. Jones said. But he declined to say whether he could support the sort of public-private partnerships that could be central to Mr. Trump’s plans.”

This distinguishes him from pretty much zero Senate Democrats. The same could be said of this stance from Jones:

“[S]iding with congressional Democrats, Jones made clear he wants to help devise safeguards for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, but without funding for a border wall.”

Jones’s initial staff hires have also drawn attention for providing clues to his likely positioning. His chief of staff, Dana Gresham, once had the same position with centrist Alabama congressman Artur Davis. But he followed up that stint with a position in the Obama administration, and will become the only African-American chief of staff in the Senate — which is appropriate given the central nature of African-American turnout and support levels to Jones’s win. Legislative director Mark Libell held the same job with standard-brand Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller. His deputy, Katie Campbell, was policy director for the House Blue Dogs. But what she and the other two hires have in common is that they are Alabama Democrats who know this could be their only chance to work for a Democratic senator from their state.

You’d have to figure one of his most important priorities is to fight for the right to vote for the minority voters who largely lifted him to the Senate.

All in all, it seems that Jones meant what he said about himself:

“‘I’m going to consider anything,’ said Jones, explaining that he doesn’t plan on labeling himself a progressive or a conservative Democrat but a ‘Doug Jones Democrat.'”

That should be good enough for most Democrats everywhere.

December 21: True Lessons From Doug Jones’ Win in Alabama

A few days after Doug Jones’ Senate win in Alabama, I read various assessments and offered some more refined thoughts about the significance of this remarkable event at New York:

The celebration among Democrats after Doug Jones’s unlikely victory in an Alabama special Senate election on December 12 was sufficiently extravagant that it’s wise to take a step back and examine what it did and didn’t mean for American politics going forward. Iconic political journalist Elizabeth Drew gave excited donkeys a bit of an ice bath in a piece for The New Republic warning against an over-interpretation of the results.

The two candidates we wound up with down in Alabama, notes Drew, were like a “planetary collision: We’re not likely to see another like it for a very long time.” She rightly observes that Roy Moore was very problematic to a lot of conservative business types in the state long before the sexual-misconduct allegations arose. And she’s also spot-on in observing that Jones threaded a difficult needle by being moderate enough for white voters while having a deep and authentic connection with African-Americans. And he won by an eyelash thanks to a fortuitous series of events. “[Jones] was the proverbial dog walking on his hind legs.”

But while we are not going to see “a series of Alabamas” in 2018, there are some significant and very real implications for the future, so long as one keeps in mind the very uniqueness of the situation that Drew points out.

A 2017 win in Alabama does not, for example, mean Democrats can suddenly stipulate that the 2018 Senate elections in similarly red territories like Wyoming or Nebraska will be competitive. There’s actually nothing that happened in Alabama that is especially relevant in highly conservative states with few minority voters and no huge controversies hanging over the GOP candidates. Yes, maybe Democrats will do several points better than they have done in the recent past, but not well enough to create a competitive contest.

On the other hand, Jones will be in the Senate until at least 2020, and no one can take that away from Democrats, who can now see a credible path to a Senate majority in 2018 without future Alabamas, since a net gain of just two seats will flip the chamber. Nevada and Arizona looked like promising states for Democrats long before the Jones/Moore contest. John McCain’s declining health could well mean there will be a second Arizona seat at stake next November. And yes, the Alabama results do mean Democrats can dream of an upset win in very red Tennessee, where former governor and Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen goes into the race in much stronger shape than Doug Jones did.

Even before Alabama, Democratic Senate incumbents facing voters in 2018 in relatively conservative states were doing well; none of them are in immediate danger of losing, and only a couple are highly vulnerable at the moment. Now it is more obvious than ever that partisan polarization has its limits, even in the most conservative states, if only because Republicans in places other than Alabama have their own internal differences that could prove fatal. It’s looking more and more like Democrats can play offense on a Senate landscape that looked so terrible for them going into 2017.

Beyond the lowered Senate target for 2018, there are elements of the Alabama results that are not necessarily a product of unique local circumstances. Yes, the identity of the two candidates had something to do with the impressive African-American turnout that won the race for Jones. But we saw similarly high African-American — and also Hispanic and Asian-American — turnout in Virginia last month. Similarly, Jones did very well among younger voters, as did Ralph Northam in Virginia. It looks like the so-called Obama Coalition of young and minority voters that usually fails to show up proportionately in non-presidential elections might well go to the polls next year, and that could be decisive in close races.

Should Democrats be excited about the renewed possibility of a 2018 wave? Absolutely. A Democratic House would throw a huge monkey wrench into any legislative plans for the GOP in the last half of Donald Trump’s term. And a Democratic Senate would be even more devastating to Trump, taking away his ability to stack SCOTUS and other federal courts with extremists enjoying life-time appointments. Taking away the GOP’s trifecta would also make it immeasurably more difficult for Trump and his allies to halt enforcement of, or further pare back, laws and regulations affecting the environment, the economy, or health and safety that corporations find annoying.

So the wrong lessons for Democrats to take from what happened in Alabama last week are that all states are now purple or that 2018 will be a cakewalk. A tough Senate landscape, gerrymandering of the House by Republicans, trench warfare involving 36 gubernatorial races and even more state legislative races, the seemingly endless cash available to the GOP, hard-t0-predict international and domestic events — all these factors could make the midterms an abattoir for Democrats and disappointment at the end of the road a real possibility. But just a year after widespread talk of Democrats being weaker than at any time since the Harding Administration, happier days seem to be here again.

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.