The Blue Wave Is Real, and It Looks Really Big—Provided Democrats Don’t Block It
The moment to determine the party’s ideological direction will be in 2020. This is the time to pitch a very wide tent.
Two more districts flipped. In New Hampshire, Democrat Philip Spagnuolo won a county legislative seat by 8 percentage points in a district Donald Trump had carried by 13 points. In Connecticut, Democrat Phil Young won a state legislative seat that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried but that had been held by a Republican for the last 44 years. They make the 38th and 39th districts since Donald Trump’s election that have gone from Republican to Democrat.
So: How confident should Democrats be about all this? I’d say pretty confident, for a bunch of reasons. But let’s stick to five:
1. The generic polling has the Democrats pretty comfortably ahead. It’s been bouncing around—while Democrats have always has the lead, it narrowed in January and February but seems to be opening back up a little now. A CNN poll released Monday had it at 54-38. I should say, though, that the fivethirtyeight average as of Wednesday morning is lower, at 47-39.
2. While you may say “but it’s so far out,” it’s really not, in polling terms. The four elections in modern history when the House changed party control were 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2014. In every one of those cases, to varying degrees, polling in the early part of the year ended up being basically accurate. Here for example is a piece from fivethirtyeight in September of 2009, explaining that the GOP was probably poised to retake the House in 14 months. If anything, the polling in those years tended to suggest results that were closer than they ended up being, which would mean that even an 8-point lead at this juncture is pretty formidable.
3. Democratic turnout has been overperforming in these special elections. A good case in point is a rural Wisconsin state legislative district that a Democrat won in January and that Trump had won by 17 points. The turnout for the Democrat was down from prior elections, but that’s natural because this was a special election. But the turnout for the Republican was way, way down.
4. The average House loss for an incumbent party in off-year elections when the president is below 50 percent approval since Harry Truman’s time is 36 seats, according to Gallup. The Democrats need about 24 (depending on vacancies that develop between now and November). It seems rather unlikely that Trump is going to be anywhere near 50 percent by November.
5. We’ve seen an usually high number of Republican retirement announcements. Rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes can feel earthquakes coming days in advance. Similarly, these people must sense something coming.
All this points toward a Democratic capture of 24 seats pretty easily. In fact it points to 40 or 50 or maybe more. The prevailing winds might even point toward the party retaking the Senate, which I’d have thought impossible a few months ago.
I don’t want to devote much of this column to pondering the effects of a sweep. Too superstitious. Suffice it to say that if the Democrats take even one house, two things happen instantly: 1, the Trump legislative agenda is dead; 2, subpoena power. And if the Democrats take the Senate, that means nominations can be bottled up.
The next big battle comes on March 13, when the special election happens in that southwestern Pennsylvania congressional district, the state’s 18th. The Republican incumbent retiring. It’s an R+11 district, according to Cook, and it gave Trump 58 percent of the vote. That Cook rating makes it kind of like the districts Republicans have narrowly held this past year—in Georgia and Montana, for example. What might make it different are two factors. One, Democrats still have a registration advantage there, and two, the GOP incumbent resigned because of a sex/mistress/abortion scandal (i.e., he urged her to get one; needless to say, he’s pro-life).
The Republican is Rick Saccone. The Democrat is Conor Lamb. And the Republicans are pretty freaked out. Look at this report on outside spending in this race. The total outside spending is close to $9 million. As a point of comparison, the abortion-scandal incumbent, Tim Murphy, spent $1.1 million to get himself reelected in 2016. That $9 million figure is the total for outside spending by both sides. But looking over the list and picking out the known Democratic/liberal groups (DCCC, End Citizens United, People for the American Way, etc.), I see that only about $800,000 of that outside spending has been by them. So conservative outside spending is at a ratio of 10:1.
The seat’s a test for Republicans in the obvious way—can they hold an incumbent seat where they have a clear advantage. But it’s a test for the Democrats, too. It’s a culturally conservative district, and Lamb has taken some positions that reflect that. He’s not so good on guns. He’s said he won’t support Nancy Pelosi for speaker (which doesn’t mean he’ll back a Republican; Pelosi will almost surely face Democratic opposition in a speaker’s race if the Democrats win).
If national Democratic money doesn’t deliver for Lamb for these reasons, that’s stupid and short-sighted. You want the Democrats to win 50 seats? Great. You know how many of those 50 are going to have to run as squishy on guns and anti-Pelosi? Surely half of them if not more. It’s the only path to a majority.
Democrats have a lot going for them this year. They just can’t let ideological purity get in the way. The time for determining the party’s ideological direction will be the presidential nomination battle. For now, the tent needs to be as wide as possible.