Every four years, political professionals assess the landscape and gird for the final push toward the midterm congressional elections. With Donald Trump in the White House and with small Republican margins of control in both chambers of Congress, and with Democrats lusting for revenge, these contests are especially critical.
And every midterm midsummer, different political elements rise to the surface. This year is especially rich in unknowns. Here are the factors that may influence the November contests and shape the political landscape into the next decade:
— The president. If the midterm is a referendum on Trump, then it will be one of those rare elections where national issues predominate and the performance of the chief executive matters. If it isn’t, then it will be a series of local elections where compelling candidates (like Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb in southwestern Pennsylvania) can go against expectations and win contests in districts Trump carried decisively only 24 months earlier.
But the president is not the only spectral figure hanging over these contests. Another is Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic House speaker the Republicans have demonized into a modern-day Emma Goldman ready to wreck the capitalist system and wreak havoc on domestic tranquility.
— The economy. Nobody’s complaining about the financial markets, and though the current surge of economic growth began under Barack Obama, Trump isn’t trampling on precedent to claim credit; Bill Clinton did so with an economic recovery that probably began under George H.W. Bush. And you can bet that if we were in recession, the president’s critics would blame him even if the antecedents to the crisis were rooted in the Obama years.
Though the verdict is out over the Trump tax cuts, and though those reductions haven’t pierced the public consciousness, the economy presents an overall advantage to the Republicans. There is a dark cloud, besides the persistent notion that booms don’t last forever: Consumer prices have risen 2.9 percent over the last year, an emblem of growth but perhaps a forerunner of the curse recalled by older voters but unknown to younger ones — inflation.
— Is there a Blue Wave? Anyone who grew up on a coast knows that what might look like a big wave in the medium distance sometimes turns out to be a ripple, with little undertow. Democrats see a tsunami consuming all the Republican lawmakers in its path. Wearing rosy glasses and on the lookout for a Red Wave, Republicans say they see no blue swell, though some privately fear a rip tide — one that rips apart the Trump coalition.
Here’s an intriguing fact: The four biggest House losses since 1934 by the party holding the White House have come under Democratic presidents (Franklin Roosevelt, 71 seats in 1938, 55 in 1942), Obama (63 seats in 2010) and Clinton (52 seats in 1994). Tied for fifth place are two Republicans (Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 and Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford in 1974, both with 48 seats). Note this: Obama’s approval ratings when he lost 63 seats are within the margin of error of the approval ratings Trump has now.
— Who are this fall’s critical swing voters — and will they be the same for the presidential election in 2020? There’s a strong suggestion that the 2016 presidential election was shaped by rural and working white men, the latter group a onetime pillar of the FDR New Deal coalition but vulnerable to entreaties from tough-talking Republicans like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Trump.
And yet there is every indication that both parties believe the power swing in these midterms are suburban voters, particularly women. (Warning: A lot of experts said the same thing about the 2016 presidential election and were wrong.) Earlier this month, Democrats nearly won an Ohio special-election district chock-full of suburban voters. There are nearly six dozen House seats currently held by Republicans that are less reliably Democratic than the Ohio district GOP candidate Troy Balderson won by just over 1,500 votes out of more than 203,000 votes cast. But the GOP can’t pour hundreds of thousands of dollars — several million, in the Balderson case — into every race, and Trump, though he plans six or seven days of campaigning a week, can’t intervene in every tight contest.
The difficulty is that each district in a set of midterm congressional elections has a different set of critical voters.
In Wisconsin last week, Leah Vukmir won the GOP primary thanks to suburbanites outside Milwaukee. But in Georgia, where an African-American woman is the Democratic candidate for governor, black turnout will be a huge factor.
— How do the local candidates lean? This is an important question for both parties, perhaps more important in the long run than the actual tally on Election Day — unless, of course, there is a big Blue Wave and Trump finds himself in danger of impeachment. (Even if the GOP loses control of the Senate, however, there’s little danger of the president being forced from office by a two-thirds vote of that chamber.)
For the Republicans, the question is the win/loss record for old-fashioned Republicans and for conservatives — the old free-traders and deficit hawks — versus the performance of Republicans who have embraced the president. For the Democrats, the question is how those who lean left, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a stunning June New York congressional primary upset, fare versus those who, like Lamb, tread a moderate third way. Right now, we don’t know the profile of the post-Trump Republicans — or the post-Trump Democrats. And though nobody has 2020 vision, some hints should come this November.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.