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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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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I would have bet the farm, had I owned one, that the Republicans who controlled the White House and Congress would have repealed the Affordable Care Act by now.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.


November 2: #NeverTrumper Republicans Release a Cry of Despair

If you are having a bad day in politics, it’s worth remembering there are some political people who almost ever have a good day. I wrote about them for New York.

As David Weigel of the Washington Post explains today, the core of the #NeverTrump movement has been regularly getting together under the auspices of a group calling itself the Meeting of the Concerned.

A lot of familiar names are apparently still in the movement: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol (who said of Trump “he’s dead to me” after the mogul’s infamous 2015 dismissal of John McCain’s POW saga); columnists Mona Charen (long associated with National Review, the magazine that early in 2016 devoted an entire issue to an effort to delegitimize Trump among conservatives) and Max Boot (a foreign-policy expert who has repeatedly challenged Trump’s mental fitness for office); Evan McMullin (who actually ran against Trump in the 2016 general election as an independent candidate); and a couple of ex-congressmen, Bob Inglis and David Jolly.

As Weigel reports, this gang of discontents have decided to issue a public statement “asking congressional Republicans to preempt any presidential action against Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election.” But ironically, what appears to have motivated them to do so is the recognition that they’ve lost the battle and the whole GOP’s in the tank for Trump.

“In interviews, members of the Meeting of the Concerned said that the Mueller issue forced their hand. Several said that the influence of conservative media, especially the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, Wall Street Journal and New York Post, made them worry that the president would fire Mueller and spark a constitutional crisis. Charen pointed to a weekend of Wall Street Journal op-eds that laid out a case for ending the Russia probe, building on months of attacks on Mueller’s integrity.”

But if The Wall Street Journal has been “Trumpified,” of what value is this motley crew of dissenters? And who is likely to be listening on Capitol Hill, particularly with the like-minded Jeff Flake and Bob Corker headed for the exits? Nobody, it seems, according to their own assessment, as articulated by McMullin’s former running mate Mindy Finn:

“‘There’s a leadership vacuum,’ Finn said. ‘Ideally we’d have more members of Congress standing up for the rule of law, being willing to challenge the president. Given that they’re not doing that, we felt that groups like this need to exist and need to speak out.'”

So this statement is less a rallying cry than a cry of despair aimed at the history books more than at today’s historymakers. Or perhaps some of them are genuinely motivated by the moral hazard of associating themselves with the president so many fellow conservatives now idolize:

“‘Donald Trump is reshaping the heart of the GOP into something that is very dark and very diseased,’ said [former congressman] Inglis. ‘My nightmare scenario is a Republican Party that loses its soul. It’s one thing to lose an election. It’s another to lose your soul.'”

And it’s another thing altogether to lose your party to Donald J. Trump.


October 28: The Fever Is Not Breaking Soon

Something Jeff Flake said this week sounded very familiar, so I wrote about it at New York:

I’m probably not the only one who had a sense of déjà vu when Jeff Flake deployed a certain medical term in an interview yesterday:

“After the senator from Arizona announced he was retiring because he couldn’t win a primary in President Trump’s Republican Party, Tapper asked: Why not make the case for why Trumpism is bad and let GOP voters decide?”

“’I think that this fever will break,’ Flake said. ‘I don’t know that it’ll break by next year.’”

During his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama frequently referred to the extremism and obstructionism that had gripped the Republican Party since he took office in the same terms, as on this occasion during a speech in Minneapolis:

“I believe that if we’re successful in this election, when we’re successful in this election, that the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that. My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again.”

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. After two more years of obstruction following the 2012 election, Republicans took back full control of Congress, and then wielded that power with a monomaniacal focus on seizing total power in 2016. To the extent that they did much of anything, it involved passing legislation they knew Obama would veto, to score ideological points and try to convince their “base” they’d tear up Obama’s legacy instantly if given the chance.

But the “fever” Republicans regularly fed to keep their activists, donors, and most committed voters revved up and howling at the moon got out of control. Out of the fever swamps emerged Donald Trump.

As Aaron Blake notes in a critique of Flake’s position, for all the peculiarities surrounding Trump, there’s less discontinuity with the recent past than some imagine:

“Trump has certainly taken the GOP in a wholly new direction on a few issues, especially trade. But the things that really define him and separate him from other Republicans — attacking basically any establishment politician, fighting culture wars that most Republicans steer clear of, shunning all forms of political correctness — have been in demand among the GOP base for the better part of the past decade or more.”

We’ll never know what might have happened to the Republican Party had Trump lost, as nearly everyone outside his immediate orbit (and some within it) expected. But for now, the raging debate within the GOP is not one between dissenters like Flake, McCain, and Corker (the “Last Hurrah Caucus” as Perry Bacon Jr. calls it) and Team Trump. It’s between the vast majority of Republican elected officials who have pledged fealty to Trump and those in the Republican base who believe that fealty is not passionate enough.

Symbolically, the fight echoes the one we just saw in Alabama between Luther Strange, the 1000-percent right-wing senator who could not utter a breath without singing a hymn of praise to Donald Trump, and Roy Moore, who embraced a more systematic radicalism aimed at Establishment Republicans who talked the talk but did not walk the walk of blowing up every conceivable limitation on full and immediate implementation of Trump’s agenda.

The GOP’s electoral base may determine the outcome of the fight between pro-Trump Establishmentarians and pro-Trump insurgents in a series of 2018 primaries. No matter who wins, though, it’s Trump’s party and “the fever” continues to rage.


October 26: Virginia May Signal Whether Minority Voters Are Likely To Turn Out in 2018

After reading a lot of back-and-forth about the trajectory of the November 7 Virginia gubernatorial election, I offered some thoughts at New York about the national implications:

For all the discussion about Donald Trump’s success among “Rust Belt” white working-class voters in 2016, another big factor in his upset win was unexpectedly low turnout among “Obama Coalition” voters (usually defined as young and minority voters), especially African-Americans. Despite Trump’s constant deployment of sub-rosa and not-so sub-rosa appeals to white racial resentments, according to census data, African-American turnout dropped from 66.6 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016, the largest presidential cycle-to-cycle turnout slump for black voters in recorded history. Latino turnout was stable, a major disappointment to Democrats who thought Trump’s constant immigrant-baiting might create a large backlash. Millennial turnout was up, but not massively.

Some reasons for the African-American turnout drop-off in 2016 are reasonably obvious: It was the first presidential election since 2004 (when black turnout was very similar to 2016 levels) when the first African-American president was not on the ballot. And as Ari Berman has demonstrated, GOP-engineered voter suppression may have played an important role in reducing African-American turnout in some key states, notably Wisconsin.

Postmortems aside, the collapse of the Obama Coalition should cast a long shadow over Democratic hopes of a 2018 wave election. That’s because these voters traditionally have not participated proportionately in non-presidential elections. Unless the pattern changes — and after 2016 we now know that Donald Trump’s presence as leader of the GOP won’t likely change it without some additional encouragement — then Democrats looking to win back the House in 2018 may need a level of success with white voters beyond anything they’ve accomplished lately. In the last Democratic midterm wave election, in 2006, Democrats won 47 percent of the white vote. Barring something really unimaginable, that is not going to happen in 2018 (Republicans have now won at or near 60 percent of the white vote in four consecutive presidential and midterm elections).

In 2014, Democrats were worried enough about the “midterm falloff” problem in their electoral base that the Democratic National Committee created and funded an initiative — known as the Bannock Street Project —to address it. Utilizing the digital voter-targeting and outreach methodologies pioneered in the 2012 Obama campaign, the $60 million project targeted pro-Democratic demographic groups in ten states. All ten of those states had Senate elections in 2014; Republicans won nine of them — a net gain of six Senate seats in this relatively small slice of the country.

There is some empirical evidence the Bannock Street Project actually did boost base turnout, making a 2014 debacle less severe than it otherwise might have been, but it’s tough to get around the bottom-line failure. And given the uninspiring numbers from 2016, Democrats face 2018 with this very large problem still unsolved.

That is one reason to look closely at what is happening in the competitive off-year gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state with a large African-American population and a growing Latino presence as well. Despite a pro-Democratic trend in presidential elections (Virginia has now gone Democratic in three consecutive presidential years, after going Republican ten straight times dating back to 1964), the party has suffered underwhelming election finishes in the last two non-presidential years: in 2013, Terry McAuliffe undershot the polls in dispatching ultraconservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli; and in 2014, Republican Ed Gillespie nearly upset Senator Mark Warner. So the possibility of midterm falloff among minority voters is and should be a big concern.

At least one observer, civil-rights activist Steve Phillips, is warning that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam and his campaign are ignoring African-American voters in the pursuit of white swing voters to an extent that may doom his candidacy:

“Northam has spent over $17 million as of October 1, 2017…. [T]he Northam campaign’s biggest line item—nearly $9 million—consists of funds given to an advertising firm led by an all-white board to run television ads. These campaign ads attack the Republican nominee for his ties to the oil company Enron. What is the strategic rationale of such an advertising campaign? Clearly, those ads are not supposed to motivate African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color to take time from their busy lives to come out and support the Democratic ticket.”

Phillips also deplores the scant attention and support pro-Democratic groups in Virginia have given to Northam’s African-American running mate, Justin Fairfax.

There are actually some signs in Virginia of Democratic concern for motivating base voters instead of simply competing for swing voters, including a high-profile appearance by President Obama. Swing-voter-focused ads have also been supplemented by more base-oriented efforts, including a flier that directly links Republican candidate Ed Gillespie to Donald Trump and to the infamous neo-Confederate protesters in Charlottesville. And it’s also possible Gillespie’s own racially tinged ads that demagogue about the MS-13 criminal gang or the restoration of felons’ rights will backfire (in one famous case, in Georgia in 1998, an over-the-top white racial appeal orchestrated by GOP operative Ralph Reed boosted African-American turnout in a midterm election significantly and produced a surprise Democratic statewide sweep).

It is not clear, moreover, that non-presidential election falloff among African-Americans in Virginia is as severe a problem as it is in some states. According to exit polls, the African-American percentage of the Virginia electorate was virtually the same (ranging from 20 percent to 21 percent) in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2016. The one exception, though, shows the potentially calamitous results of poor minority turnout: In 2009 African-Americans represented just 16 percent of the Virginia electorate, and Democrat Creigh Deeds lost decisively.

So minority turnout in Virginia (and for that matter, in the less competitive contest in New Jersey) is worth watching on November 7. Heading into 2018, Democrats would be well advised to conduct a full public discussion of the Bannock Street Project and other investments in “base” turnout, while making voter mobilization just as important a factor as swing voter persuasion in all the party’s investments.


October 20: When It Comes To Senate Races, Are Trump and Bannon Both Losers?

After reading an awful lot of articles about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump jousting over 2018 Senate primaries, I expressed some skepticism at New York about this alleged clash of the titans:

While it hasn’t been formally confirmed by the White House just yet, Politico is reporting that President Trump called up three Republican senators who are up for reelection and promised to help them fend off any primary challengers that might emerge. It’s probably not a coincidence that all three – John Barrasso of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi — have been the subject of dark imprecations and thinly veiled threats from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, that great defender of Trumpism even if that involves opposing Trump.

The three senators receiving an offer of help from Trump are a goodly portion of the incumbents under fire from Bannon. There are only eight GOP senators up next year. Bannon isn’t messing with Ted Cruz. Bob Corker is retiring. Another, Orrin Hatch may retire, too; he hasn’t announced his intentions. There are two senators that Bannon and like-minded “populists” might target but that Trump probably won’t back no matter what Mitch McConnell does: sworn presidential enemy Jeff Flake of Arizona and the less-abrasive but still unreliable Dean Heller of Nevada. That leaves the very three Trump apparently called this week.

Two potential right-wing challengers are looking at Barrasso with bad intent: gazillionaire Foster Friess, the man who bankrolled Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, and Blackwater founder (and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) Erik Prince. Bannon has talked to former Nebraska state treasurer Shane Osborn, who lost badly to Ben Sasse in a 2014 Senate primary, about taking on Fischer. And Chris McDaniel, who blew a primary runoff against Thad Cochran in 2014, is eager to run against Wicker, who had the temerity to suggest that Mississippi might want to consider ending its ancient and evil love affair with the Confederacy.

The big question is exactly what either Trump or Bannon will add to any of these three races. Trump obviously has clout and ultimate visibility as the president of the United States, and for all the #NeverTrump movement conservatives (Flake and Sasse now being their increasingly isolated representatives) who initially withheld affection for their party’s ravisher, he’s now loved by the right-wing rank-and-file as though he were the reincarnation of Barry Goldwater.

But Trump’s clumsy and narcissistic embrace of Luther Strange in Alabama should give pause to any future endorsee. A postelection study showed Trump did little or nothing to boost his candidate’s standing, even in a state where Republicans adore him. It’s possible his appeal, such as it is, simply isn’t transferrable, and it’s also possible his fans believe in doing what Trump does rather than doing what Trump says. Candidates adept at bone-charring rhetoric and provocation of the hated liberals may be irresistible to Trump’s base, no matter whom he backs.

On the other hand, Bannon’s insurgent wizardry is a bit suspect as well. The idea that he deserves much credit for Roy Moore’s primary win in Alabama is laughable: Moore was a massive celebrity in his home state (and among Christian-right folk nationally) back when Bannon’s main theater of operations was in sinful Hollywood. And Luther Strange, bless his little heart, was a great big hot-air balloon losing altitude from practically the moment he accepted appointment to the Senate from a disgraced governor he had been protecting from impeachment. It is at this point not at all certain he can go rolling into a state like Wyoming with Mercer money and screaming Breitbart headlines and take down an incumbent senator, particularly if his candidate is a sketchy character like Prince, who probably knows more about sandy plains of Iraq than about the windy plateaus of the Equality State.

It could well turn out that neither Trump nor his former sidekick and ideological shaman is going to have that dramatic an effect on GOP Senate primaries in 2018.

So much losing. Sad!