By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. ROBERTS
The 2018 elections are almost 10 months away – a lifetime in politics. But this is shaping up as a very good year for the Democrats. If they don’t blow it.
Remember, on Election Day 2016, Team Clinton members thought they were cruising to victory until the actual returns slammed them in the face. But recent Democratic victories in Virginia and Alabama provide a roadmap for success next November: Assemble a coalition of minorities, young people and educated suburbanites, especially women. That same coalition was uninspired by Hillary Clinton and, in some cases, intrigued by Donald Trump, but the president’s appalling performance in office has produced the excitement and energy that was lacking in 2016.
‘Greatest organizing tool’
“He is absolutely turbocharging the opposition,” David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief strategist, said of Trump in the Washington Post. “He is the greatest organizing tool the Democrats could have.”
Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican, agreed on ABC’s “This Week”: “Clearly the Republican Party, my party, is going to experience losses ... I tell my colleagues, look, we’re going to be running into a headwind, you’ve got to be prepared for the worst ... It’s going to be a very tough year.”
Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to retake the House (and two in the Senate). On average, in the first off-year election after a president takes office, his party loses 32 congressional seats. That jumps to 36 if the president’s popularity falls below 50 percent, and Trump’s favorable rating is sitting at 39.8 percent (according to Real Clear Politics).
Moreover, in a generic ballot, when voters are asked which party’s candidate they’ll support for Congress, the Democrats lead by an average of 11.4 points. Some of that advantage is dissipated by two factors – many districts are drawn to help Republicans, and many Democratic votes are wasted in urban areas – but it’s still a sizeable advantage.
It’s easy to overemphasize the meaning of off-year contests, but the governor’s race in Virginia and the Senate contest in Alabama assume outsize importance because of their psychological impact. Democrats are not only “turbocharged” by Trump, they now believe they can actually beat him.
Intensity matters. Right now Democrats are deciding to run for office, giving more money, volunteering their time. As former Democratic Congressman Steve Israel told the Washington Post: “Democrats have all the energy. They are on offense.”
Demography matters as well. The electorate in 2016 was 71 percent white, down from 88 percent when Ronald Reagan won in 1980, and the shift toward a more diverse America that feels rejected by Republicans is inexorable. The electorate that sent Democrat Doug Jones to the Senate in Alabama was 30 percent black – and 95 percent of those voters backed him.
“When you look at some of the audiences cheering for Republicans sometimes, you look out there and say, ‘Those are the spasms of a dying party,’” GOP Sen. Jeff Flake said on ABC. “By and large we’re appealing to older white men, and there are just a limited number of them.”
Trump advisers say he, and fellow Republicans, can continue to prosper by galvanizing the president’s true believers. But with Trump’s core support stuck below 40 percent, that’s not enough to win in many places, especially the suburbs that played a key role in Virginia and Alabama.
“The overwhelming challenge we have is with the college-educated suburban women,” Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist told the New York Times. “And their resistance mostly has to do with their feelings about President Trump.” It’s not just Trump, but Trumpism. Issues like sexual harassment also fuel the fires of activism in these women.
Some of these voters might well benefit from the Republican tax bill and an economy that continues to hum along, but their personal distaste for Trump poisons the well. “I find him completely offensive and unethical and slimy,” a Democratic volunteer in Houston told the Times. And her Republican husband feels the same way.
This is far from a done deal. The demise of Steve Bannon, after his contributions to the incendiary book “Fire and Fury,” could mean Republicans nominate fewer hard-right – and eminently beatable – Senate candidates. Democrats could get over-confident, as they did in 2016. They could bow to the party’s left wing and nominate purist candidates who cannot win swing districts. They could run completely against Trump and forget to give voters a reason to vote FOR them.
So Democrats everywhere should be making the same New Year’s resolution: Don’t screw this up.
Husband and wife Steve and Cokie Roberts are veteran journalists who have reported on national politics for many years.