Politics

Analysis: Steve Bannon Is Right About the Midterms — Until He Isn’t

Midterms are rarely about choices, mostly about the incumbent party

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon, here with senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway at President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, has a strategy for the midterms that is all about placing the president up front. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Trump campaign chief executive and White House strategist Steve Bannon recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the midterm elections will be “an up or down vote” on the president. He also asserted that it’s imperative that Donald Trump nationalize the midterm elections.

“Trump’s second presidential race will be on Nov. 6 of this year. He’s on the ballot, and we’re going to have an up or down vote. Do you back Trump’s program, OK, with all that’s good and all that’s bad? Do you back Trump’s program, or do you back removing him?” Bannon told Zakaria.

Bannon surely is correct that the November elections will largely be about Trump. The incumbent president and his administration’s performance have almost always been the single most important factor in midterm balloting.

But in a number of ways, Bannon is dead wrong about the midterms.

No choice at all

First, he suggests that the election essentially will be a “choice” between Trump and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, or between Trump and impeachment.

Those scenarios are unlikely.

While Republicans would prefer to make the upcoming midterms into a choice, most midterm elections are referendums on the occupant of the White House.

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I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to make the midterms “about” something other than the sitting president, but the burden of proof is on the GOP to do that.

Presidential elections inevitably involve choices, but midterms usually don’t, since the out-party rarely has a de facto leader who is salient enough to be an alternative to the president.

Indeed, this year, some observers have criticized the Democrats for not having a leader or even a coherent, unified message.

Republicans tried to make the special election in Pennsylvania 18th District about Pelosi, and the results suggest they had little success. Trump carried that district by nearly 20 points in 2016, but Democrat Conor Lamb, a self-styled pragmatist, won the March contest even though Republicans repeatedly portrayed him as a tool of liberal Pelosi.

Bannon certainly is right that making the midterms into a referendum on impeachment would be desirable for Trump and the GOP. And some Democrats, particularly those in the most liberal and Democratic areas, are unwisely talking about impeachment.

But Pelosi has made it clear that she opposes such talk, and Democrats in competitive states and districts surely will go out of their way to defuse impeachment as a possibility.

Clearly, the most partisan and ideological Republicans believe that impeachment is a real issue, but those voters are already Trump’s strongest supporters and likely to turn out in the fall. Again, the burden is on the GOP to make 2018 “about” impeachment in those states and districts that matter most.

All politics is local

Second, Bannon is also wrong when he says it is imperative that Trump and the GOP nationalize the midterm elections.

It would be much better for Republicans in Democratic and swing districts to localize the elections.

Those Republicans could then run on their records rather than have voters see the midterms as about Trump, with all his personal baggage.

But it is difficult to take the sitting president out of the midterm equation, which is why so many past officeholders have been swept out in partisan waves.

A minority bump?

Third, Bannon is dealing in wishful thinking when he suggests that Trump and the GOP are making major inroads with minorities, in large part because of decreasing unemployment and immigration.

So far, there is little evidence that Trump’s standing among minorities is surging (though some improvement certainly is possible) or that minority voters are focused only on jobs.

The economy’s strength could boost Trump’s approval numbers and his party’s midterm performance among some, but opposition to the president rests more on his cultural agenda, his false statements, his efforts to undermine crucial American institutions, and his contempt for widely held American values.

Oddly, in a Washington Post column based on his CNN interview, Zakaria called Bannon’s recommendation to nationalize the midterms, apparently around immigration, “a brilliant electoral strategy,” since it has both economic and cultural appeal.

Take a moment to imagine what Election Day 2018 would look like after Trump spent three or four months hammering away in tweets and at campaign rallies about “the wall,” NFL players, sanctuary cities and immigrant gang members.

Imagine what he might say when he goes off-script. Add to that Bannon’s prediction that Trump will “shut down the government” in the fall if Congress doesn’t fully fund “the Southern wall.”

That kind of campaign would only add to the current impression that Trump is mean-spirited, intolerant, divisive and even racist.

Doubling down on that reputation might help him energize his base, but it would not help him with African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans or younger voters.

More importantly, it would almost certainly add to his growing problems with the key group of this year’s midterms: white, college-educated women, particularly those in the suburbs.

That doesn’t sound “brilliant” to me.

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