New Year’s is always a time for reflecting on past mistakes and resolving not to make them again. And then we do.
Listening to Beltway pundits since the Democrats’ Alabama Senate victory, Republicans might as well hand over their majorities now. They’re toast. Conventional wisdom has it that the Republicans’ losing performances in the off-year elections are the harbinger of bad things to come. A blue wave is about to sweep the country and carry Democrats to control of Congress.
The D.C. pundit class seems to agree that given the president’s low job approval and the Democrats’ advantage in the generic ballot, the GOP has about as much chance of holding the House this fall as Donald Trump had winning the White House in the last election. Wait. Isn’t that the same crowd that had Hillary Clinton all but measuring the drapes in the Oval?
I’m not saying that Democrats won’t win the House or Senate this fall. Given the current state of the Republican brand and the president’s below-par job approval rating, keeping their majority coalition intact is a tall order for Republican leaders. A president’s party in the non-presidential congressional elections traditionally loses seats. It’s also true that typically a president’s job approval rating impacts his party’s performance.
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But there is nothing traditional or typical about this electorate or this president. Before Trump, no presidential candidate had won election with over 50 percent unfavorables. Trump did it with 60 percent. In fact, the parties managed to nominate two candidates with the highest negatives on record. Add to that a volatile electorate that was so unhappy with the status quo, they were willing to take a huge political risk with a controversial candidate and you’ve got a recipe for an upset election.
The mistake too many pundits are making today is thinking that the volatility which characterized the 2016 electorate and drove the outcome is now an albatross draped solely around the Republicans’ collective neck. What they fail to understand is that both parties are at risk. Sure, Republicans could lose in November but probably not because of Russia. Another candidate or two like Roy Moore would be problematic but to read too much into the Alabama Senate race would be another mistake. Overall, Republicans held their own in House special elections last year but the Virginia results ought to concern them.
So despite the polling, despite the predictions and partisan hyperbole, or even last year’s election results, it is premature to make any hard and fast assumptions about what’s going to happen 10 months from now.
Some of the factors that affected the vote in 2016 are still in play. People are still living paycheck to paycheck — 53 percent according to the Winston Group’s late December “Winning the Issues” survey. That same research found 36 percent of the country saying they are $400 away from financial disaster.
In recent focus groups, I’m hearing people, many seriously hurt by the 2008-09 economic collapse, say the question for them now isn’t when they can retire but if they will be able to retire at all. One man told us, “I’ll probably die at my desk when I’m 98.”
These kinds of sobering statements are usually followed by nervous laughter around the table but the expressions on people’s faces tell a different story of worry, despondency and impatience with Washington and its inability to understand and address their concerns.
That impatience applies to both parties. With Republicans in charge, however, the onus falls to them to deliver change first. No question they took a big hit for the failure to deal with the health care law and that didn’t instill confidence in an already skeptical electorate. But the recently-passed Republican tax reform bill has the potential to move the party’s negative numbers if the personal economic outcomes live up to the bill’s promises.
If the economy improves, wages go up and better jobs are created, if Republicans can add more legislative wins on the board that deliver the change people voted for, this volatile electorate can shift and shift quickly.
Still, at the moment, Democrats are better positioned politically with history on their side. But, they also appear to have made the decision to not only oppose Republican policies but with a few exceptions, continue to offer either status quo policies or increasingly liberal offerings designed to placate the growing demands of their progressive base. Listening to their leadership and friends in the media, they don’t seem to have learned any lessons from the 2016 election or the 2010 election for that matter.
It’s interesting to see Sen. Chuck Schumer position his caucus further out of the mainstream in contrast to his focus on recruiting clear centrist candidates as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006. Back then, he pushed a pro-choice woman out of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic primary race for a pro-life male candidate, current Sen. Bob Casey.
Next November, the question voters will ask themselves is pretty simple. Do they feel they are getting the change they voted for? If the answer is yes, history doesn’t matter any more than it mattered in 2016.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.