Washington Report: Trump and the GOP Need to Hit the Gas

By Craig Piercy, ACPA Washington Advocate

According to conventional political wisdom in Washington, major legislation has to be passed by Congress and signed by the President in an odd-numbered year, before the campaign-driven politics of even-numbered years shuts down the congressional sausage grinder. The most recent notable exception—the Affordable Care Act, which was signed by President Obama on March 23, 2010—essentially proves the rule. Democrats lost their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate the following November, and the public backlash over Obamacare played a significant role in the electoral debacle.

Now, with roughly four months remaining in the legislative year (Congress typically leaves town for August) and the 2018 election clock ticking louder each day, the Trump White House and GOP leaders in the House and Senate don’t have much time left to forge a charge on major agenda items like health care, infrastructure and tax reform. If they don’t, they will pay a heavy price in 2018.

How heavy? Let’s start with a bedrock principle of political science: midterm elections are bad for the President. Yes, there are exceptions like 1934 (the Hoover Hangover), 1998 (lingering impeachment anger) and 2002 (September 11). But since the end of the Civil War, the party of the Oval Office occupant has lost seats in 35 of the 38 midterm elections.

In June, four special elections were held to replace U.S. House members who took jobs in the Trump administration. The prevailing narrative is that Democrats stepped to the plate and struck out, as Republican candidates won all four races. The reality is a bit darker for the GOP. Each of the contested congressional districts was decidedly red, and overall, the Democratic candidates performed 7 to 12 percentage points better than historical voting patterns would suggest.

Nationally, recent polls measuring the so-called “generic ballot”—i.e., who would you vote for in the next congressional elections—show Americans favoring Democrats over Republicans by seven to 10 percentage points, the largest margin for either party since the GOP won back Congress in 2010. Donald Trump’s approval rating has been consistently under 40 percent since mid-May, which is reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s sub-40 percent level prior to the 2006 GOP loss of congressional control in 2006. Overall, it’s not a good political “jet stream” pattern for the Republicans.

Now in the Senate, the GOP has a distinct numerical advantage going into 2018. Of the 34 seats up for election, 25 are held by Democrats (including two independents that line up with the Ds) and 10 of those are in states that Donald Trump won in 2016. By comparison, of the 10 GOP seats up, only one (Dean Heller of Nevada) is in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Could the Dems still take control? Of course, but it will require a tsunami-sized political wave.

The House is a murkier picture. Democrats only need to pick up 24 seats to reach a majority, but roughly 85 percent of House seats are considered “safe” Republican or Democrat, and thus are unlikely to change hands in 2018. Of the approximately 70 seats remaining, around 50 are held by the GOP and 20 or so by the Democrats. The Democratic path to victory looks something this: 1) Protect their vulnerable incumbents, especially the 16 who represent districts Trump won in 2016; 2) Pick off most or all of the 23 GOP House members who serve in congressional districts won by Hillary Clinton; and, 3) Surprise a few Republicans in “likely” GOP districts. While narrow, it is becoming an increasingly realistic possibility.

So what does this all mean for the GOP congressional agenda today? I am reminded of the movie Days of Thunder. After Cole Trickle (the Tom Cruise character) gets into an accident, he loses his nerve to race. He is in last place one Saturday, when suddenly there is a major smoke-filled pileup in front of him. He lets off the gas instinctively, but when his pit boss Harry (Robert Duvall) yells over the radio, “You can drive through it,” Trickle summons his courage, floors it and emerges from the other side as his old, confident self.

In my view, the GOP faces a significant chance of defeat in 2018 if they don’t deliver on the major elements of their policy agenda. Their only option is to hit the gas and drive through the smoke of the current legislative pileup.