Republican Vern Buchanan has represented Sarasota, Fla., in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2007. He won reelection in 2016 by 20 points. He’s a wealthy former car dealer who hasn’t lacked campaign funds. Nor did his son James, who ran in Tuesday’s special election to replace a retiring GOP state legislator from the same area. But James’s story turned out differently from his father’s. He lost to Democrat Margaret Good by seven points.
Democratic successes in local elections like Buchanan’s, and in last year’s contests in Virginia and New Jersey, are a reminder that the House majority is in serious jeopardy. Republicans are cheered by the recent uptick in President Trump’s job approval. They are thrilled to have cut the Democratic lead in the generic ballot by about half in little over a month. (As recently as December, Democrats led by 13 points; that advantage is down to 7.) But a seven-point deficit still worries House Republicans, who say the majority is in trouble if Democrats lead by six or more.
What happens to Republicans depends on two groups: white women and whites with college degrees. Both demographics broke for Trump in 2016. He won white women by 10 points and white college grads by 4 points. But these are precisely the voters that have turned against him and the GOP in the eighteen months since Inauguration Day 2017. Democratic victories in Virginia and in Alabama were fueled by their outrage at Trump’s personality, style, and Tweets, and compounded by apathy and disinterest on the part of the president’s white working class base, who had supported him by 39 points. If white women and college graduates continue to be repelled by the president in an off-year election where he is not on the ballot, then the GOP majority is finished. Simple as that.
But Democrats should not celebrate prematurely. Republicans have some arrows in their quivers, including the economy. One senior Republican notes that the 1998 midterm elections, in which the president’s party did better than expected, were preceded by six quarters of economic growth. And right now the economy is humming, with low unemployment, GDP gains, and wage increases. We’ve gone from an economy where workers are in search of employers to one where employers are in search of workers. Millions of positions are unfilled.
And the Democrats may be the House Republicans’ greatest advantage. Their leftward drift, torrid embrace of identity politics, and obsession with rebuking if not outright removing Trump may give swing voters pause. So might the Democratic leadership. Chuck Schumer wants to save the jobs of Democratic senators from red states, but the only job Nancy Pelosi is interested in saving is her own. She’s had a terrible few months, from saying that the tax cut will bring “armageddon,” to dismissing the bonuses and benefits as “crumbs,” to voting to shut down the government over illegal immigrants, to sitting on her hands during the State of the Union as the president lauded an eleven-year-old boy who decorates the graves of veterans, to urging her members to vote against the two-year budget agreement after her pointless DACA-thon. Even the Democratic caucus is tiring of Pelosi, who remains the party’s standard-bearer. The numbers of Democrats who voted against her increased from one government funding bill to the next. And Conor Lamb, the candidate for a Pennsylvania House seat who can’t remember calling Israel a terrorist state when he was a Penn undergraduate, says he’d oppose Pelosi as leader. Of course, he’ll probably forget saying that, too.
The latest Cook Political Report puts 18 GOP seats in the “toss-up” category. Opponents of Trump must be hoping that this number will grow. But there’s one last reason not to jump to conclusions about the 2018 midterm elections. I’m referring to the unprecedented and frankly loopy political environment in which we have found ourselves for the last few years. A GOP veteran notes that his party did better than expected in 1994 and worse than expected in 1998. Three years ago, Donald Trump was a television personality. Two years ago, he was a long shot for the Republican nomination. One year ago, he moved into the White House. In postmodern, fractured America, nothing is solid. Nothing is certain. And nothing is foreordained.
— Matthew Continetti is the editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2018 All rights reserved