Election day is nearly six months away, and conventional wisdom decrees that Democrats will surf a blue wave and seize the House of Representatives. But I’m not so sure.
On paper, there are surely good reasons to believe the conventional wisdom. History shows us that the “out” party typically performs well in midterm elections, especially when the ruling party’s president is unpopular. Democrats need to flip only 24 House seats, and it just so happens that 23 seats held by the GOP are in districts where Hillary Clinton won the presidential voting in 2016.
It would appear that Republicans have virtually nothing to offer their voters. They’d planned to trumpet their tax cut law, but public sentiment is tepid at best - which is no surprise, because the tax cuts are a plutocratic gift to the upper brackets. Republicans had also hoped to boast about killing Obamacare, but thanks to their failed efforts, Obamacare has become more popular. Indeed, Democrats voters appear to be more enthusiastic about 2018 than their red counterparts; last Tuesday, in Pennsylvania’s House primaries, they outnumbered Republican voters statewide by roughly 100,000.
Given the shocking results of Nov. 8, 2016, one of the darkest days in American history, we should all be wary of conventional wisdom. Permit me to offer some counter-programming. Republicans might actually keep the House (along with the Senate, an easier task), and sustain our downward spiral as a nation, for these reasons:
The GOP’s midterm base is reliable. As we saw in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Republicans and ideological conservatives (which are older and whiter than the general electorate) tend to swamp the congressional elections. Trump remains broadly popular with the base, and the base hates the Democratic “enemy” as much as ever - especially now, with Robert Mueller on the march. Trump’s relentless attacks on the Russia probe are obviously fueled by his terror of being held accountable for the first time in his life, but we should not underestimate his feral political cunning. Assailing the probe gins up base enthusiasm for the midterms. And Sheldon Adelson, the right-wing billionaire who’s thrilled about Trump’s alliance with hawkish Israel, has agreed to donate $30 million to abet Trump’s vile 2018 message.
The Democrats’ midterm base is not reliable. The party’s coalition of liberals, minorities, and young people typically stay home on congressional election day. It happened in 2010, and Democratic fears about 2014 came true. We keep hearing that things will be different this time - that young people in particular are registering to vote in droves, spurred by the GOP’s enslavement to the NRA - but I’ll believe it when I see it.
The economy is in decent shape. Thanks to the long Obama recovery from the Bush recession, Trump can boast about job numbers. Granted, his fans in the old factory towns aren’t doing any better than they did before, but it’s fair game for the party in power to reap the political benefits of bullish economic stats. As the national Quinnipiac poll reported last month, “American voters approve 51 - 43 percent of the way Trump is handling the economy, his highest score on this issue since he was inaugurated.”
Democrats’ leftward tilt is sowing disunity in the ranks. I honestly don’t know how this trend will play out. Perhaps the triumph of progressive candidates in House Democratic primaries - like Kara Eastman, a Bernie Sanders fave who defeated a moderate last week in Nebraska; and Susan Wild, who defeated a moderate last week in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley - will stoke grassroots liberal turnout in November. But it’s also possible that some of these candidates could be a bad fit for winnable districts, particularly in Nebraska, Texas, and Colorado. The bottom line is that pragmatic Democrats are battling ideological Democrats for the direction of the party, and the timing is not ideal.
Maybe I’ll be proved wrong. I hope so. But it pays to be skeptical, because this year the most dire threat to our democratic values (aside from Trump) is complacency. Doubling down on vigilance and voter mobilization is the surest way to trump the factors I’ve listed, and the only way to win back power and restore checks and balances.
As the historian Garry Wills warned last September, “The truth is gradually dawning that there is no parallel to this thing we have lodged in our sacred Oval Office...He degrades us. The nation needs purification. May it come before it is too late.”
If it doesn’t come in November, it may well be too late.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com.