Pundits are already discussing the 2018 midterm election. Based solely on historical patterns, Democrats should make significant gains in the House of Representatives with taking control at least a possibility. Additionally, Democrats should be able to pick up the 2 seats in the Senate they need to take control of that body. However, 2018 may be more like 2016 wherein traditional political practices are less applicable. One pattern that may prove dispositive is the American people’s dislike of one-party maintaining complete control of government for more than one election cycle. What the Republicans choose to do with their control over the next several months will be the key to whether the electorate looks elsewhere. In an case, the Democrats have a lot of work to do before they can feel comfortable with their chances.
Midterm elections tend to be more of a referendum on the White House. 2018 will likely link President Trump and Congressional Republican leaders in this year’s evaluation. To that end, the Democrats’ leadership and platform disarray may be less of an issue with the focus on Republican performance. However, it behooves Democrats to focus on leadership and party doctrine for this year as well as preparing for 2020. Even though voters may base their vote on their views of Republican actions this year, the Democrats need to offer some vision of what a Democratic Congress would do. Currently, the Democrats have no party doctrine to offer and inspire voters.
The Democrats need to pick up approximately 24 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives. Despite historical trends on their side, there are several major challenges the Democrats need to overcome to have a realistic shot. First, there is the gerrymandering. The Republican Party has executed a brilliant strategy for 20 years to gain large majorities of governorships and statewide elected offices as well as huge majorities in state legislatures. As a direct result, they have created Congressional districts that provide significant protection to Republican members. There are few truly competitive Congressional districts, thus Democratic challengers need to mount overwhelming campaigns that not only attract their base, but appeal to large numbers of independents and even Republicans. Second is Nancy Pelosi. For sure many Democrats support Pelosi. However, she has a negative record as Speaker of the House from 2006 to 2010 and as Democratic minority leader. Deserved or not, she has been a divisive figure that Republicans effectively use in their campaigns. Nancy Pelosi is not the present or future of the Democratic Party and needs to allow a generation of dynamic, strong, popular candidates to assume leadership roles.
Democrats need to pick up two seats in the Senate to take control of that body. In most years, picking up two seats in a mid-term would be a strong position. However, there are significant challenges in this election cycle. First, of the 34 Senate seats up for election this year, Democrats have 26 to defend compared to Republicans having 8 to defend. Of the Democratic 26, 11 are considered vulnerable and will require strong effort and turnout. Of the Republican 8 only 2 are considered vulnerable. For the Democrats to take control of the Senate, they either need to flip both vulnerable Republican seats and hold all of their own, or they need to win at least five of the Republican seats if they lose a couple of their own vulnerable seats. Confused? Well, it just shows how difficult it will be for Democrats to take the Senate. Quite frankly, the Democrats should absolutely have taken control of the Senate in 2016. Their inexcusable failure to do so, a result largely of their own political failings, gave Trump and McConnell unfettered ability to control the agenda.
Democratic leaders and pundits seem motivated and confident by polls that show Americans prefer Democratic control of Congress by a margin of 9 to 12 percent. Numbers like this make for a good rallying cry, but have little impact on the election. The vote for Congress is not a national vote. Each district will choose its representative and each state will choose its senator. In 2012, Democratic candidates for the House received over 1 million more votes than Republican candidates for the House, yet there was no movement in control over that body. The afore-mentioned gerrymandering preserves many Republican seats. For Democrats to win the over 24 additional seats needed for the House, they would likely need to receive at least 3 or 4 million more votes nationally than the Republicans. Even still, these votes need to be in the right races.
After 2016, Democrats were virtually relegated to a regional party, strong in the Northeast and West Coast, competitive in pockets of the Midwest, and having abandoned or being uncompetitive in the rest of the country. If the Democrats want to control Congress and the White House, it is imperative they restore themselves as a national political party, running competitive candidates in all 50 states at all levels of government. Democrats need to focus on local and state races to boost their presence in the legislatures and ensure fair districting. Candidates at this level help “build the bench” to field stronger, more capable candidates at the Congressional level and White House. Force the Republicans to fight for every race, not concede over half the country to them and allow them to pool and focus their efforts on a smaller number of competitive races.
Democrats lost their way in recent years and as a result lose part of their base. Many working families abandoned the Democrats and in 2016 many of these voters were attracted to Trump’s populist themes. Pundits ask Democratic politicians who they think is he leader of the party? The better first question is what is the Democratic party? The party needs to compete nationally, attract strong candidates, and re-build/expand its base. Thus, they need to create a platform based on core democratic values but has sufficient appeal to a more diverse audience, including all regions of the country. The party cannot demand 100% ideological purity for candidates. For example, the party could become competitive in religious and values dominated districts by candidates who supported core democratic values, supported some limitations on abortion but otherwise lined up well with the party priorities on the economy, climate change, etc. While gun safety is an important issue, democrats could become competitive in certain areas of the country where gun rights are a critical issue by supporting candidates that lined o well with core party values but who could also appeal to responsible gun owners. Better for the party to have elected Democrats who differed on one issue rather than elected Republicans who disagreed on all issues and enabled Republican control of Congress or state governments. This will help attract strong candidates and be competitive nation-wide, expand the democratic base, and enable control of state government, Congress, and the White House. Ideological purity will narrow the base, shrink the pool of strong candidates, and maintain the party in a more regional posture.
Outside of the internal struggles of the Democratic Party, the economy may change the historical dynamic of the election. In every election cycle, voters’ views of the economy are often controlling. Economic indicators are trending positive right now. While it is likely too soon for this to be a result of the new administration, the fact is the they could still reap the benefits of voter confidence in the economic forecast. The administration will certainly claim their tax cut and elimination of regulations caused the gains. Democrats will argue this is a continuation of the recovery begun by the Obama administration. The truth is irrelevant because it will boil down to voter confidence. Both parties will need to appeal to voters as to how they will manage economic growth and address our out of control national debt.
The midterm election is 10 months away but have no doubt the campaign has started. Stay tuned…