It is pretty clear by now that Democrats are over-performing Hillary Clinton’s numbers in down-ballot legislative special elections. Per the Daily Kos (who cheerleads some wild theories but has a strong electoral database record), Democrats have over-performed Clinton in 21 of 28 special elections since last year. The most recent, and perhaps most notable, was a special election for a swing Senate seat in New Hampshire last week, though for some time, the seat has been getting bluer (the Daily Kos disagrees on this point but the last few results make this undeniable).
Republicans have obvious reasons to be worried. The President’s popularity has tanked. to say the least, and the GOP’s spectacular failure on healthcare is likely to not make it much better. Worse, a series of court rulings in North Carolina and Texas on redistricting could make red seats turn blue or at least purple, helping further thin the GOP majority before anymore seats actually become competitive due to the national political environment.
It has been said midterms are all about motivating the base and the last two have certainly seen such an effect. In 2010, Democratic turnout was down while conservative Republicans and Independents showed up in significant numbers. In 2014, turnout in some states, like Nevada, was down 50 percent or more among Democratic leaning constituencies (Hispanics).
This go-round, the Democratic base sure looks fired up. Donations have poured into special elections from the DSCC and DCCC (not the DNC), and grassroots organizations like the Daily Kos. Turnout in many special elections has exceeded 2014 levels.
But, for all the GOP angst, at the RNC on down and in Congress the party seems to have found a winning strategy. Democrats will make every contest about President Trump. Republican incumbents, many having already established local and independent brands, will make the contest about Nancy Pelosi and “San Francisco” values.
There is no political figure more unpopular in America right now than the Democratic leader (and that’s saying something). She is politically toxic to her party and galvanizes the GOP base in a way not seen in modern history. Even Republicans had a better view of Obama. Speaker Boehner, now Speaker Ryan, elicit mehs from Democrats which is why everything is about the President. Republicans will make everything about Pelosi.
But, Democrats will point to their down-ballot successes as proof they can overcome her unpopular brand. That’s probably true. But, at the local level, Republican legislatures have entrenched majorities due to redistricting and many GOP Governors (outgoing and incumbents) are actually fairly popular as they have focused on bred and butter issues. Some have even stood up to their own party on Medicaid and budget cuts. So, Democratic successes down-ballot are likely to be mixed. They’ll probably gain a few Governorships, nix some GOP super-majorities and win some marginal legislatures but that does not exactly lead to domination at the state level.
It’s at the federal level Pelosi is her party’s greatest liability. In every Congressional special election to date the GOP has paired her with attack ads. Boy, have they been successful.
Many analysts expected Pelosi to be a drag in rural Kansas and Montana but they did not expect it in suburban Georgia. But, surprisingly, GA-6 largely swung on Pelosi. The credit for the finding comes largely from the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund which tested marginal Republicans and found they strongly reacted negatively to the idea Jon Ossof agreed with “San Francisco” values. An attack ad tying Ossof to Pelosi was aired soon after. San Francisco’s City Council even tried to stop the ad from being filmed. They failed. Republican Karen Handel over-performed Trump in the district by three percent.
Generic polls show Democrats with a massive lead but individual and local polls are not so kind. Democrats are banking on winning left leaning suburbs by massive margins and cutting into the GOP’s margins among non-college educated whites. But a new Virginia gubernatorial poll shows the contest tied with Ed Gillespie performing better in NoVA than his 2014 Senate run. So much for left leaning suburbs swinging further left.
Worse, a new House Majority PAC poll taken on behalf of the DCCC in swing districts found just 33 percent of non-college educated whites supported the generic Democratic candidate compared to 43 percent supporting the GOP incumbent. Trump’s approval in these districts sit at 52 percent compared to the low 40’s nationally.
The news is especially depressing for the party considering generic candidate polls vs. specific incumbents often favor the party out of power. The idea being voters can picture the perfect opposite party candidate vs. a flawed and known incumbent. Additionally, many undecided voters had far more unfavorable views of Democrats than Republicans. On the defining issue of the Democrat’s new agenda, the economy, voters trusted Republicans by a stunning 35 point margin. Only after hearing a one-sided Democratic pitch did the generic ballot flip. Even then, the poll did not consider that Trump is delivering on jobs.
This means despite what the polls are saying, Democrats are facing resistance from moderate and GOP voters in swing districts due to Pelosi’s tax and spend policies. In rural areas, “San Francisco” values have created a massive cultural chasm between the party and voters.
Democrats unveiled their new agenda in the mother of all targeted swing districts, Barbara Comstock’s VA-10, which voted for Clinton by 10 percent but reelected the Congresswoman by six percent. It is no coincidence the agenda was unveiled in a small, rural enclave instead of urban Loundon or Price William County. The roll-out could decidedly be called a dud.
The party, and Pelosi, needed a big move to define their brand after a poll showing them ahead by 12 percent on the generic ballot also found a majority of voters thought they stood for nothing else other than opposing Trump. Even Republicans in 2010 and 2014 had better numbers on what they stood for.
Pelosi’s drag on her party could have long-term ramifications and Republicans know it. If Democrats cannot take advantage of an advantageous electoral environment they may be locked out of power for a long time.
Pelosi’s horrid reputation among moderate and conservative voters might even play in Senate races this year and beyond. It is inevitable Democrats such as Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester will be tied to Pelosi and Obamacare. While they, along with Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp have carved unique brands their alignment with the Democratic party, opposition to Trump and a liberal agenda is sure to sway swing and conservative voters.
That is just this year. Beyond this year the Senate maps for 2020 and 2022 don’t look very promising for a party still led by “San Francisco values. The party might have a shot in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa in 2020 and Arizona and North Carolina in 2022 but this would be on top of the GOP probably padding their Senate margins next year.
Few Democrats seem to understand the cultural gap between their party and suburban and rural voters but at least a few moderate Democrats do. Governor Andrew Cuomo has implemented progressive policies in his state but he has also criticized progressive NYC mayor Bill De Blasio. Additionally, he has been more open to economically boosting ideas like the “sharing economy” and has avoided criticizing Trump. Hmm, maybe it has something to do with recognizing Democrats will need some Republican districts in his state to get to a majority. Districts that rejected their home state senator and elected a womanizing businessman.
This is to say nothing of the districts outside New York State in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who rejected their party’s nominee for President for the first time in a generation. Democrats will need these voters as much as suburban or rural conservatives and a Pelosi driven agenda is unlikely to do it.
The GOP brand is not looking so hot right now. Nor is their legislative agenda. But, dig beyond topline poll numbers and soundbytes and it is clear why Republicans will run hard against Pelosi and a progressive agenda. It is an incredibly expensive agenda, is culturally out of sync and toxic to many Americans and is motivates the GOP base like no other.
In the end Pelosi’s legacy may not be passing the ACA or being the first female Speaker of the House but rather leading her party into a permanent minority for a generation.