The good news for House Republicans, according to a detailed analysis of the midterm landscape from Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, is that 226 of the 241 GOP winners last year won by a double-digit margin, typically the definition of a “landslide.”
The bad news is that in the last three midterm elections (2006, 2010, and 2014), the average House incumbent representing the party that controlled the White House suffered a negative swing of 12 points. So even “landslide” winners in the previous cycle got quickly into hot water when the midterms rolled around.
Indeed, fully 21 House Republican incumbents won by 12 points or less in 2016. Ten of them also represent districts won by Hillary Clinton.[E]ven if all 21 seats fell to the Democrats — and they lost none of their own — that still wouldn’t be enough to flip control of the House.
The hunt for additional pickups might begin with the 13 House incumbents who did win by more than 12 points in 2016 — but whose districts were carried by Hillary Clinton. And perhaps even more promising are open seats, as Kondik notes:
“[T]he results in open seats defended by the presidential party [in the last three midterms] saw huge swings in favor of the opposite party. In such seats, the presidential party share declined about 11 points from the presidential to the midterm elections — or 22 points in terms of margin — and the president’s party only held 25 of the 46 seats included in the study over the three midterms.”
At the moment, there is only one open GOP House seat where the Republican stepping down won by fewer than 22 points (the 27th district in South Florida, long represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which Hillary Clinton carried by nearly 20 points). But additional retirements in the next few months will produce more open GOP seats, and probably more targets.
There is no guarantee, of course, that 2018 will be an “average” midterm. But given President Trump’s persistently low approval ratings and the current high level of political engagement among Democrats, if anything, the next midterm is likely to produce an anti–White House wave that is above average. So while Republicans have done a good job via gerrymandering in making a very high percentage of their incumbents safe, the benchmark for “safety” may be higher than ever, too.
[T]he president extensively vented his fury at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, inquiring minds obviously wanted to know if Sessions might be stepping down. Trump had, after all, basically said he regretted his choice of Sessions and would not have made it had he known what he knows now.
But today Sessions briefly and mildly responded to questions about Trump’s comments by saying he planned to stay on in the Justice Department “as long as that appropriate,” as the Times reported.
Trump has complained about Sessions’s recusal before, though in the past his anger has been expressed behind the scenes and via intermediaries. But more generally, this is also not the first time the president has accused subordinates of fireable offenses without trying to fire them, as my colleague Olivia Nuzzi has pointed out:
“Although Trump once tried and failed to trademark the words, ‘You’re fired!’ — his catchphrase from The Apprentice — it seems that he doesn’t actually enjoy repealing and replacing the loyalists that surround him. Like so much with the president, it’s shtick designed to make him look tough. ‘At the end of the day, he’s a natural-born salesman and he likes people to like him,’ a…senior administration official said. ‘He’s a conflict-avoider. He hates firing people.'”
So long as Sessions is willing to put up with his boss’s public abuse, his job is probably secure for the time being. That is particularly true because Trump’s post-Sessions options at Justice are not good, and a Senate confirmation hearing for a subsequent nominee might not go very well.
But Sessions’s feelings aside, the optics of Trump’s tirades against the attorney general are terrible. He owes an awful lot to Jeff Sessions, his earliest real supporter on Capitol Hill. They have no significant policy disagreements that we know of. If there is such a thing as “Trumpism,” Sessions is its chief acolyte.
For Trump to ignore all that and repeatedly trash-talk his attorney general because of his prudent recusal over the Russia investigation is a pretty clear indication that the president is not just distracted by the probe, but intensely fears it. He can claim all he wants that the whole thing is “fake news” that the failed media or the loser Democrats invented, but his behavior shows otherwise.
I don’t usually pay much attention to Karl Rove’s predictable writing. But the one-time Boy Genius’ latest column just begged for a response, which I provided at New York.
[V]eteran spinner Karl Rove devoted a Wall Street Journal column to a baleful assessment of the reelection prospects of Senate Democrats running in states carried handily by Donald Trump last year.
There’s a certain dated quality to Rove’s analysis; he writes as though these senators are fresh from gazing in awe at Trump’s 2016 victory and are trying to decide whether to fight back or run for the hills. In reality, these pols have for the most part chosen to oppose every unpopular thing Trump and the congressional GOP have proposed this year, which fortunately for red-state Democrats is nearly their entire agenda. Still, the 2016 numbers are indeed daunting for some:
“The 25 Democratic senators who face re-election in 2018 are already gearing up for a fight. Their latest quarterly fundraising reports, released over the past two weeks, show impressive totals, ranging up to $3.1 million. But for the 10 Democrats from states carried by President Trump, a well-stuffed war chest may not be enough.
“This is especially true for six senators in states where Mr. Trump’s victory last November was huge. He won Joe Manchin’s West Virginia by an astonishing 42 points; Heidi Heitkamp’s North Dakota by 36 points; Jon Tester’s Montana by 20; Joe Donnelly’s Indiana and Claire McCaskill’s Missouri by 19, and Sherrod Brown’s Ohio by 8.”
Rove goes on to make a very dubious assertion that we are going to hear a lot from Republicans between now and November of 2018:
“They must all keep an eye on the president’s favorability ratings. On Election Day, Mr. Trump was viewed favorably by 37.5% of voters and unfavorably by 58.5%, according to the RealClearPolitics average. As of this Wednesday, his ratings stood at 40.4% favorable and 53.6% unfavorable.
“Mr. Trump is likely to be more popular in states he won than his national average: The larger his margin in those states last November, the better he stands now. If this trend holds through 2018, Democrats in states Mr. Trump won by double or nearly double digits could face stiff re-election contests.”
This argument ignores the rather pertinent fact that Trump was running against a rival who was almost as unpopular as he was. In 2018, Republicans won’t have the luxury of running against Hillary Clinton. Instead, they will be up against well-known Senate incumbents with their own public profiles, and in a midterm environment where there is usually a wind blowing against the party controlling the White House.
So while we should indeed “keep and eye on the president’s favorability ratings,” those of the senators in question are even more relevant. As it happens Morning Consult just released an update of its home-state favorability assessments for all 100 U.S. senators, and the very Democrats Rove thinks are in inherently deep trouble are actually doing quite well. Joe Manchin’s ratio is 57/31; Heidi Heitkamp’s is an even more impressive 60/28. Jon Tester (50/39), Joe Donnelly (53/25), and Sherrod Brown (50/29) are at or above the magic 50-percent level that often connotes future victory, with limited “unfavorables,” and Claire McCaskill (46/38) isn’t exactly plumbing the depths of unpopularity, either.
In fact, the one senator up in 2018 whose favorability numbers are underwater is a Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona (37/45).
Another problem for the GOP is that it is struggling to find credible challengers to theoretically vulnerable Democrats in some states (as in Missouri, where consensus GOP favorite Representative Ann Wagner decided not to take on McCaskill), and is facing potentially fractious Republican primaries (as in Indiana, where Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are already attacking each other) in others.
There is plenty of time for things to change in the months ahead, and nobody on the Democratic side has any reason to feel complacent about holding onto Senate seats in one of the more lopsided landscapes in living memory. But for now, a Democratic red-state bloodbath in 2018 looks unlikely. And if congressional Republicans continue to flail around in the clumsy pursuit of an unpopular agenda, the odds of survival for Democrats in Trump Country will only go up.
As congressional Republicans continue to stumble around in search of a workable and politically non-toxic health care plan, it occurred to me, and not for the first time, that there’s something very old-school about their rhetoric on health insurance. I wrote up my ruminations at New York:
As Senate Republicans go through the valley of the shadow of death for their health-care plan, questions are again being raised about what they really want. Is it lower premiums for individual health insurance, particularly for the people (presumably many of them Republicans) who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Obamacare’s purchasing subsidies? Is it “entitlement reform,” focused on rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and then capping that program’s growth forever as a government-shrinking exercise? Is all the talk about health policy really just a disguise, as many liberals suspect, for an agenda of high-end tax cuts and low-end spending cuts that have little or nothing to do with Obamacare?
The answers to these questions may be as various as the micro-factions of the GOP in Congress, and a lot of the answers most definitely lack coherence. But one policy impulse shared by some conservatives is important to understand because it encourages a very destructive attitude toward the existing health-care system. Some conservatives really just don’t like the idea of health insurance as we know it.
This has again become apparent in some of the senatorial reactions to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of how many Americans (22 million) would lose health insurance under the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Here’s the classic from the number-two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn:
Not lose, choose. Apparently you believe freedom is optional https://t.co/WIUJz2Mxv7
— JohnCornyn (@JohnCornyn) July 6, 2017
He wants to celebrate the “freedom” of Americans to go without health insurance, though he surely understands most of the 22 million would not “choose” this option if affordable health insurance was available.
That’s not as exotic a belief as you might imagine.
Conservatives have long believed that “third-party” health insurance — health insurance provided by employers or the government — encourages over-utilization of health services and thus is responsible for high rates of medical inflation. And many believe the only legitimate purpose of health insurance should be to cover catastrophic costs, not the routine medical services that people used to pay out-of-pocket in the days before a combination of tax subsidies, collective bargaining, and employer competition made employer-sponsored comprehensive insurance plans common.
So, unsurprisingly, most conservatives who can be coaxed into a discussion of their actual aims propose getting rid of or expanding to individuals the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health plans, to reduce the incentive to access care whenever you think you need it. And they envision a system in which everyone pays for routine care via a tax-preferred health savings account — basically paying the doc out-of-pocket the way Americans did back in the Good Old Days of individual responsibility — and has a relatively cheap catastrophic-care policy to cover life-threatening conditions.
Whether you find this vision frightening or invigorating, it is clearly very different not only from the Obamacare status quo, but from the status quo ante long before Obamacare. This longing for really old-school health-care policy causes all sorts of political problems for the Republicans that harbor it. For one thing, it cuts against the hatred of high out-of-pocket costs that unites most middle-class folks regardless of party or ideology. And for another, as Cornyn has learned, treating comprehensive health insurance as a socialistic vice corrosive of American values just does not accord with the actual values of actual Americans.
At the moment, Republicans clearly do not have the power or the popular support to impose an early-1950s vision of health care on the country. They nonetheless fight every feature of the health-care system that involves spreading the risk — and the cost — of poor health, which is the basic function of private as well as “government” health care.
When former Bill/Hillary Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn kicked up a storm with some controversial “lessons” from a campaign many of us graphically remember, I waited for the dust to settle a bit and then weighed in at New York.
Unlike many left-of-center commentators, I do not automatically begin to froth at the mouth when the name Mark Penn comes up….
I have actually written a semi-positive review of a Mark Penn book, and don’t necessarily think he has always exuded the smell of brimstone (though his Clinton White House colleague Dick Morris most definitely did), or that he personally doomed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. But Penn’s trajectory into Fox Democrat hackery has been confirmed by a new op-ed [co-authored with Andrew Stein], principally because he’s now mischaracterizing the very 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign he helped engineer as the peak of his political career.
Here’s the Penn/Stein summation of what happened in 1996:
“After years of leftward drift by the Democrats culminated in Republican control of the House under Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton moved the party back to the center in 1995 by supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform, a crime bill that called for providing 100,000 new police officers and a step-by-step approach to broadening health care. Mr. Clinton won a resounding re-election victory in 1996 and Democrats were back.”
That is at best a massive oversimplification of what happened in 1996. For one thing, if Clinton “moved the party back to the center,” it was in 1992, when he billed himself as a “different kind of Democrat” and won a plurality victory that indeed broke a long Democratic losing streak. His “centrist” agenda alienated a lot of more-traditional Democrats, and the Donkey Party lost a historic landslide defeat in the 1994 midterms. In 1996, the Clinton-Gore campaign, as Mark Penn knows quite well, did not just “move to the center,” but fought and benefited from the GOP extremism that the “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich represented.
The signature mantra of the Clinton-Gore ’96 campaign was nicely presented by the vice-presidential candidate in a debate with his rival, Jack Kemp:
“The plan from Senator Dole and Mr. Kemp is a risky, $550-billion tax scheme that actually raises taxes on 9 million of the hardest pressed working families. It would blow a hole in the deficit, cause much deeper cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.”
This mantra — Medicare, Medicaid, education, environment — was so formulaic that it was reduced, literally, to a formula: M2 E2. Perhaps the welfare-reform and community-policing initiatives helped make the election revolve around M2 E2. But the idea that this was how Democrats won is really sketchy. The more plausible theory of 1996 is that Gingrich’s Republicans overreached in attacking very popular New Deal–Great Society safety-net programs, and the Clinton-Gore campaign made them pay the price. This is exactly what the Democratic “resistance” to Donald Trump plans to do in 2018 and beyond, and it is more than a little ironic that Penn and Stein are touting the 1996 campaign in attacking them for it.
Beyond that, as many Penn/Stein critics have pointed out, a lot has changed since 1996, particularly in the Democratic Party’s own base.
But again, it’s not clear Mark Penn and Andrew Stein are really all that interested in influencing Democrats. If they offer dubious advice Democrats are sure to reject, then they are mainly recommending themselves as apostates ready to bash the donkey on conservative media. That’s a very profitable line of business, and if Mark Penn pursues it, his most adamant progressive critics will be entirely vindicated.
As Senate Republicans battled to get to 50 votes for their Obamacare repeal-and-replacement bill, a broader GOP problem suddenly appeared, as I discussed at New York:
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey offered a simple, remarkable explanation this week for why Republicans have struggled so mightily to find a way to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“‘Look, I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win, I think most of my colleagues didn’t, so we didn’t expect to be in this situation,’the Pennsylvania Republican said Wednesday night during a meeting with voters hosted by four ABC affiliates across his state.”
According to the Washington Post’s Paul Kane, this is almost certainly why congressional Republicans agreed upon a “repeal and delay” strategy for dealing with Obamacare soon after the election: They had no real clue how to do anything else. But the lack of advance planning has also been evident in the inability of Republicans in the Executive and Legislative branches to reach any kind of agreement on how to proceed with other very basic agenda items — also achievable without Democratic votes — like “tax reform” and the federal budget. And the disarray extends beyond the legislative process:
“Perhaps nowhere did the surprise factor of Trump’s victory show its impact more than in the effort to fill top jobs inside the administration. Clinton’s campaign, fully expecting victory, was stocked with hundreds of volunteer advisers who were already angling for sub-Cabinet-level posts in key agencies including the departments of State, Justice and Defense. Many of them were current or former senior staff to congressional Democrats.
“But with Republicans, those connections were rare because few believed them to be worth the effort.”
It is hard to overstate the difference for Republicans between the “Trump wins” and “Clinton wins” scenarios. After all, the GOP had been rehearsing the politics of obstruction and enjoying the innocent pleasures of passing consequences-free legislation for six long years after Republicans retook the House in 2010 (and then the Senate in 2014). The transition from gesturing to governing was especially tough for the anti-government party, and it did not help that the new GOP president was so unorthodox, unpredictable, and inexperienced a figure. Republicans did not, as Toomey said, “expect to be in this situation,” so they did not go through the difficult process of airing their differences and putting together pre-vetted consensus plans. On issue after issue, they are doing that now, on the fly, using — as Toomey puts it— “live ammo.”
It’s not going very well.
When Donald Trump sent out a certain tweet about Medicaid this week, it brought back some distinct memories. I wrote about it at New York.
How does Trump justify supporting GOP health plans that violate his pledge during the campaign to oppose cuts in Medicaid spending?
Democrats purposely misstated Medicaid under new Senate bill – actually goes up. pic.twitter.com/necCt4K6UH
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2017
It seems POTUS does not understand how Medicaid funding works, and thus what constitutes a “cut.” He appears to think if any program’s funding goes up year-to-year, it hasn’t been “cut.”
This is rarely true, actually. Even with programs that are subject to annual appropriations, providing the same services from one year to the next usually costs more, thanks to inflation and population growth. Demographic changes and economic circumstances can aggravate or ameliorate the need for more funding. But you cannot point to a rise in funding and say, “That’s not a cut,” without knowing a lot more about the program, its services, and the specific population it serves.
With an entitlement program like Medicaid, moreover, in which defined categories of people receive defined benefits automatically, annual spending increases are virtually guaranteed unless the population is shrinking or the economy is really booming. As it happens, Medicaid spending under current policies is going up significantly in the immediate future thanks to at least three factors: the expansion of eligibility 31 states have elected to pursue under the Affordable Care Act; medical inflation, which generally exceeds consumer inflation; and the rapid growth in the senior population, adding to the number of Medicaid’s most expensive beneficiaries.
You can argue, as many Republicans do, that policy makers should act to curb Medicaid’s rising costs. But you can’t claim such efforts are not “a cut.” For the Medicaid expansion population at greatest risk of losing eligibility entirely under the House and Senate health-care bills, that would definitely represent “a cut.” The same is true of any Medicaid participants who may have to deal with reduced benefits or increased “cost-sharing” requirements as states adjust to a per capita cap on federal Medicaid payments.
Since we will never entirely agree on what the “normal” or “natural” funding levels for a program like Medicaid should be, the only rational way to look at Medicaid proposals is to compare how much money it would take to finance Medicaid under current law, and how much the proposals would change those costs. That is precisely what the Congressional Budget Office — who are not “Democrats,” mind you, but hires of a Republican-controlled Congress — did in describing the Better Care Reconciliation Act as “cutting” Medicaid spending by $772 billion over ten years. That does not mean reducing Medicaid spending by that much on a year-to-year basis. But it does mean that according to CBO’s best estimates BCRA will undershoot by $772 billion what it costs to provide the same Medicaid services to the people now deemed eligible. And that’s a “cut.”
Now it is entirely possible Donald Trump understands all this and is simply hoping readers of his tweets don’t. That was the calculation his friend Newt Gingrich made back in the 1990s when he perpetually insisted in a highly publicized argument with Bill Clinton that the Medicare and Medicaid cuts he was proposing weren’t cuts at all but simply “reductions in the rate of growth.” (Indeed, Gingrich is saying the same thing now, which may be where Trump got the idea.) He did not win that argument with Clinton then, and Trump is not likely to win it now, particularly since congressional Republicans, whether or not they support their party’s health-care plans, are not buying this line. When real, live people lose things they would otherwise have, they have been “cut.” Pretending otherwise represents ignorance at best and cynical demagoguery at worst.
Watching the continuing struggle of congressional Republicans to enact a health care bill that is increasingly unpopular with the public led me to wonder aloud at New York about their motivations:
One of the much-predicted things in politics that has not actually happened this year (so far, at least) is the defection of congressional Democrats from districts or places carried by Donald Trump. There are 12 Democratic House members who fit that description, and all of them, obviously, will face voters in 2018. And there are famously ten Democratic senators up for reelection next year who represent states carried by Trump.
While some of those senators supported Trump on Cabinet confirmations more than their blue-state counterparts (particularly when the result was not in doubt), on big votes there was more unity. Only four Democrats failed to join the filibuster against Neil Gorsuch, even though everyone knew that would trigger the “nuclear option” which would eliminate judicial filibusters, maybe forever. A smattering of House Democrats voted for resolutions repealing late Obama regulations — mostly on guns and abortion — but such actions were rare in the Senate (except for one regulation involving coal, which attracted four coal-state Democrats).
But on the big measures that are preventing all the other GOP-sponsored big measures to proceed, Democrats are holding fast. The fiscal year 2017 budget resolution that made this year’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation possible passed both Houses without any Democratic votes. No House Democrats voted for the American Health Care Act. No Senate Democrats have breathed a word suggesting they might support the Better Care Reconciliation Act, however it is amended.
For those whose memories only date back to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, this opposition-party unanimity might seem normal. But it is actually very unusual by historic standards. Last time Republicans had control of the White House and Congress, during the George W. Bush administration, a significant number of Democrats regularly crossed the aisle to support GOP priorities, from No Child Left Behind to the Medicare prescription-drug benefit to comprehensive immigration reform — not to mention the authorizations and appropriations for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What’s the difference now? In part, it could be the simple result of polarization and the example set by congressional Republicans when Barack Obama was president. And in part, some credit for Democratic unity is owed to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, not to mention the millions of progressive activists who have urged Democrats to hold the line against Trump and the GOP.
But there’s something else going on as well. During the W. years, Republican initiatives were built around Karl Rove’s swing-voter strategy for building a permanent GOP majority. Most Bush domestic initiatives were aimed at converting a segment of Democratic-leaning voters, from the seniors who were the targets of the Medicare prescription-benefit legislation to the Latinos favoring immigration reform. And the swing-voter strategy was enfolded in a more systemic (and successful) effort to mobilize Republican voters — especially conservative Evangelicals.
What’s remarkable about the very similar House and Senate health-care bills that Republicans are struggling to get to Donald Trump’s desk is that they don’t seem to be based on any particular strategy, beyond checking off the box of “repealing Obamacare,” which many conservatives don’t even believe the legislation will do. Indeed, these bills have virtually no curb appeal for swing voters, and also heavily and overtly wreak havoc on the lives of the very swing voters — particularly white working-class voters — that elected Trump and have been trending Republican for years. Here’s how Ron Brownstein puts it:
“Drafted without any Democratic input, the House and Senate legislation presents an unusually explicit statement of priorities. Tax cuts emerge clearly atop that list: The Congressional Budget Office calculates that through 2026 the House bill reduces federal revenues by an annual average of $100 billion, and the Senate bill by an average of $70 billion. In each chamber, the biggest cut is the repeal of ACA taxes on income and investment profits that apply only to individuals earning at least $200,000 or families earning at least $250,000 …
“On the other side, the cuts’ corresponding benefit reductions would hit lower-income and older workers hardest, particularly in the last years before retirement. Those are cornerstone Republican voters: Nationwide, over two-thirds of all adults ages 45 to 64 are white and Trump dominated among them.
So these bills manage to offend a sizable majority of the electorate at a time when Republicans ought to be thinking about defending their congressional majorities in 2018 and helping Trump consolidate his support for 2020.”
There’s no pressure on Democrats to cross lines and help get these bills enacted because they make no sense politically — not even for Republicans, much less for Democrats.
After the agony of Election Night for GA-06 on January 20, I thought it might be a good idea to offer Democrats some immediate hope. So I wrote up the electoral prospects for the rest of 2017 at New York:
[M]any Democrats are undoubtedly wondering when the impressive anti-Trump passions of 2017 will produce a win in a nationally significant and competitive contest. The two remaining scheduled special elections this year are not very promising for the Donkey Party. The first, in November (assuming a battle over control of the special election between the governor and legislature is resolved) is in dark-red Utah, in the district of Representative Jason Chaffetz (who is resigning at the end of this month), the 16th-most Republican House district in the country according to the Cook Political Report. There are 15 Republicans, as compared to four Democrats, who are running for the Chaffetz seat at this point.
In December (after primaries in August and party runoffs in September), Alabama will hold a special election to formally choose a successor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Republican Luther Strange at least temporarily holds the seat he was appointed to by disgraced former governor Robert Bentley, who resigned shortly after filling the seat). There is a lot of intrigue around the crowded GOP primary for this seat, and potentially some divisive intra-Republican activity, but no one at this point is giving any Democrat a chance. Perhaps that could change if the infamous “Ten Commandments judge,” Roy Moore, wins the GOP nomination. But Moore has won statewide as recently as 2012, which is something no Alabama Democrat can say. Democrats haven’t held a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama in 20 years, since Howell Heflin was replaced by Jeff Sessions.
So more than likely Democrats looking for a boost going into the midterm-election year of 2018 will rely on their solid prospects in the two states holding regular gubernatorial elections in November, New Jersey and Virginia.
The Garden State contest looks like a very solid bet to break the Democratic losing streak. This remains a fundamentally Democratic state; Hillary Clinton handily defeated Donald Trump 55–41 there in 2016, and the state legislature has been under Democratic control since 2004. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy (a former ambassador to Germany and one of the remarkably large cast of former Goldman Sachs officials in politics these days) has money to burn and is fresh from an easy June 6 primary win over a large field. Republican Kim Guadagno won her primary pretty easily as well, but as lieutenant governor she is laboring in the large and dark shadow of Chris Christie.
According to a post-primary Quinnipiac poll, Christie’s job-approval rating has dropped to an astounding 15 percent, the worst Quinnipiac has found in any state for any governor in the last 20 years. (Not that he cares.) Unsurprisingly, the same poll showed Murphy leading Guadagno by better than a two-to-one margin (55 percent to 26). The best news for the Republican is that half of voters don’t know enough about her to have an opinion of her — though it is unclear where Guadagno will get the money or the credibility to convince them she’s what the state needs.
In Virginia, the Gillespie/Northam campaign has just begun, but a new Quinnipiac poll shows Northam leading 47 percent to 39. Aside from a united party and the support of reasonably popular incumbent governor, Terry McAuliffe, Northam has history on his side: Nine of the last ten Virginia gubernatorial races were lost by the candidate from the party controlling the White House (McAuliffe, in fact, was the one exception). Things could change, but Donald Trump does not seem like the kind of president who will help his party buck that trend in a state he lost last year.
So Democrats who are wondering why they cannot have good things may only have to wait for a little less than five months for some validation.
After overcoming an emotional hangover, I had this to say about the Handel/Ossoff race at New York:
As I noted as the returns were still coming in, the spin wars over the meaning of this contest will be nearly as intense as the contest itself. Here are some things we legitimately learned from GA-06:
Democrats aren’t the only voters with sufficient enthusiasm to turn out in today’s political climate. The template for a Democratic win in what is after all a congressional district Republicans have easily held since it was created was fairly simple: mobilize aroused Democrats, Democratic-leaning independents, and anti-Trump Republicans to the max and count on GOP divisions and doubts about Trump to produce a crucial turnout advantage. It looked like it might work in the special election’s first round, when several GOP rivals went after front-runner Karen Handel with hammers and tongs and Democratic turnout reached midterm levels. But Ossoff fell just short of a majority. Had Georgia followed its usual practice of a quick runoff election, he would have probably won. But with two months to work with and plenty of national GOP money on hand, Team Handel slowly but surely built an effective turnout machine for the runoff. In the end, Handel nearly erased Ossoff’s big first-round advantage in in-person early voting, and total turnout soared well above midterm levels, reaching 259,000 (as opposed to 210,000 in 2014).
With skill and luck Republicans can walk the tightrope between embracing and repudiating Donald Trump. GA-06 was the only competitive House district on this year’s menu where Trump did relatively poorly in 2016. Indeed, after last night the president retained his record as having the worst performance of any congressional or presidential candidate in GA-06 (in its current, North Atlanta incarnation) ever. So the trick for Karen Handel was to keep her distance from Trump without antagonizing his supporters. For the most part she succeeded. She may have received some inadvertent help in this respect from her opponent, who more or less abandoned his original “make Trump furious” messaging in favor of validating himself as acceptable to swing voters. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel points out, Team Ossoff did not run a single ad tying Handel to Trump. So she was able to have it both ways. For all of the president’s crude chest-thumping and self-congratulations after the race was called, he was less of a factor in this election than probably anyone expected.
Negative ads still work. The clear and consistent focus of the GOP message in GA-06 was to remind the district’s dominant Republicans that Jon Ossoff is a Democrat, and to convince them his mild, centrist persona disguised a monstrous radical leftist who is “not one of us.” This conveniently fit in with Karen Handel’s constant emphasis on Ossoff’s non-residency in the district. The barrage of anti-Ossoff ads financed by outside GOP groups was relentless and even to my jaundiced eye unusually shrill and, well, stupid: again and again Ossoff was depicted as a puppet of Nancy Pelosi and her godless San Francisco hippie allies. Once comedian Kathy Griffin became a national pariah via her own stupid (and universally denounced) video of a beheaded Donald Trump, she began to be featured heavily in these ads on the specious grounds that she endorsed Ossoff on Twitter (she had no actual contact with the campaign in any way, shape, or form). Every anti-Ossoff ad I saw also featured anarchists shattering windows and setting fires. The very worst ad, appearing on Fox News just before the election, included images of shooting victim Representative Steve Scalise alongside the suggestion that Ossoff’s “extremist” friends had to be stopped by the voters of GA-06. It was so evil that is was actually condemned by Handel. But while this particular ad was put up by a relatively obscure right-wing PAC, most of the hate-filled cascade of anti-Ossoff ads were sponsored by the official House GOP party committee and by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s PAC. Whether or not they really made a difference, Handel won, which means we are going to see a lot more like them in 2018.
Issues don’t matter much if you don’t address them. One of the most frequent criticisms we will hear of the Ossoff campaign is that it was not really “about” any of the issues that separate candidates, mobilize supporters, and attract swing voters. Had Handel lost, she would have received exactly the same criticism. Yes, the candidates had two debates that were actually pretty wonky. But despite some skirmishing on health care, taxes, and spending — and a rare Handel gaffe when she said she did not “support a livable wage” — the campaigns were more about sending signals than crusading for or against policy proposals. Thanks to the basically conservative nature of the district and the candidates’ own calculations, messaging in this race really boiled down to the Republicans calling Ossoff an out-of-touch lefty’s lefty and Ossoff saying “I’m not!” Ossoff presumably decided specific issues would not help him with swing voters, and that his own base would turn out robustly thanks to the desire to smite Donald Trump and his campaign’s massive get-out-the-vote operation. So now Democrats are left wondering if a campaign that obsessively tried to exploit the unpopular health-care bill Handel said she would have voted for, or embraced popular progressive causes from environmental protection to education to protection of Social Security and Medicare, might have done better. We may never know.
The campaigns in GA-06 may have proven it is possible to contact voters too much. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that the “ground game” in GA-06 was so intense and relentless that by the time June 20 rolled around many voters just wanted it all to end. And in part because the money-and-volunteer-rich Ossoff campaign was engaged in this level of effort from the beginning, the Democrat may have been unequally affected by voter fatigue, as this report from Business Insider suggests:
“I have received non-stop calls, texts emails for two months solid. It’s harassment honestly,” local artist Sydney Daniel told Business Insider. “I liked Ossoff before but now I don’t want to vote at all because of how obnoxious and ruthless they have been.”
Pretty much everyone agrees that the skyrocketing early voting numbers —just over a fourth of voters cast ballots early before the first round, while over half did so in the runoff — was in part driven by people who wanted to get themselves off campaign contact lists and stop the phone calls and knocks on the door. Add in the saturation-level and highly redundant ads, and you have a recipe for taking the fun out of voting. It is not surprising that some of the informal hindsight commentary you heard from Democrats yesterday was that the Ossoff campaign should have devoted less money to hounding the same group of “likely voters” and more to registering and mobilizing marginal voters.
The idea that it is possible to overkill in get-out-the-vote efforts is a highly heretical one that political professionals will resist. And most campaigns aren’t going to have the kind of money that makes it possible. But it’s a phenomenon worth watching.
The results in Georgia, and in other 2017 special elections, should be encouraging to Democrats — but they don’t guarantee a big midterm win. Yes, a lot of Democrats are depressed over what many had expected to be an Ossoff win, and more generally, on the failure of the Donkey Party to convert anti-Trump passion into a special election victory this year (the earlier contest in CA-34 which was dominated by Democratic candidates was never competitive, and two future special elections in heavily Republican Utah and Alabama probably won’t be, either). But as virtually every observer who was not simply spinning has pointed out, the special House elections in Kansas, Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina (the scene of an surprisingly strong if unsuccessful June 20 Democratic candidacy) were all on GOP turf — as one might expect since the vacancies to be filled were created by Trump’s appointment of incumbents to his Cabinet! And without question, all four Democratic candidates in these elections performed well above historic expectations (as House election wizard David Wasserman measured it, these Democrats won on average 8 percentage points more than the character of the districts they were running in would have suggested). Even more fundamentally, these results indicate that the recent pattern of Democrats struggling to turn out their voters in non-presidential elections may have come to an end, just in time for the 2018 midterms.
It is impossible to tell from these or any other special elections what will happen next year — particularly when the main variable in every midterm, the performance and popularity of the president of the United States, is so difficult to predict with any precision. But Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight probably expressed where we are right now as well as anyone could:
“The results simultaneously suggest that an impressively wide array of Republican-held seats might be competitive next year — perhaps as many as 60 to 80 — and that Democrats are outright favorites in only a fraction of these, perhaps no more than a dozen.
“In order to win a net of 24 seats next year — enough to flip the House — Democrats may therefore need to target dozens of Republican-held seats and see where the chips fall. They can variously attempt anti-Trump, anti-Republican or anti-incumbent messages depending on the district….
“[A] ‘pretty good’ year for Democrats might yield a gain of only 15 seats for the party, whereas a ‘very good’ year — if the political climate is just a few points more Democratic-leaning — could produce a 50-seat swing instead.”
So while Republicans have earned a moment of celebration for holding off a Democratic assault on their home territory, Democrats should stay focused on the big picture, and the still robust possibility of a 2018 “wave” in their favor.