For months, Democrats have assumed that history and the currents of popular opinion will carry them to a new House majority, and possibly even control of the Senate. Their main debates have been over whether Nancy Pelosi should become Speaker again, and if they can tamp down impeachment talk long enough to keep from energizing Donald Trump supporters. Now, however, the Washington Post reports that they have belatedly discovered that Republicans are far more energized than first assumed — and that a House majority might not be within reach after all:
After months of confidence that public discontent with President Trump would lift Democrats back to power in Congress, some party leaders are fretting that their advantages in this year’s midterms are eroding amid a shifting political landscape.
Driving their concerns are Trump’s approval rating, which has ticked upward in recent weeks, and high Republican turnout in some recent primaries, suggesting the GOP base remains energized. What’s more, Republicans stand to benefit politically from a thriving economy and are choosing formidable candidates to take on vulnerable Democratic senators. …
Democratic worries are mounting in the House, as well, where the party has been more confident of gaining the 23 seats it needs to retake the majority. Democrats are picking strong candidates in dozens of Republican-held suburban districts where Trump has lost significant support — but recent surveys suggest the races may be tightening.
Trump’s approval is now at the highest point it has been all year, measured by Gallup in early May at 42 percent, a five-point increase from the start of 2018. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ advantage when voters are asked which party they want to control Congress has shrunk, from 10 points in December to just six now, according to a Washington Post average of recent quality polls.
It’s not just the generic ballot polling, which has definitely been trending the wrong way for Democrats. Democrats had assumed that disgust with Trump and complacency from single-party governance would naturally depress Republican turnout, allowing Democrats a rare turnout reversal in a non-presidential cycle. The results from last week’s Super Tuesday primary showed more robust Republican turnout than expected, however.
The best example of this took place in Ohio, where the open governor’s seat left by the retirement of John Kasich produced competitive primaries for both parties. Take a look at the results not just for who won the nominations in this battleground state, but the numbers of votes cast in each party (click to expand):
Democrats received 680,001 votes, while Republicans got nearly 150,000 more at 827,041. That’s a big reason for concern in a state where Democrats have already found it tougher to win statewide races. It suggests that far from being demoralized, Republicans and Trump supporters still retain their energy. It may also demonstrate that the RNC’s big money advantage still provides more structured GOTV support, an effort that the GOP took in-house in the 2014 cycle and continues to expand to this day.
In response to this, have Democrats tempered or tailored their messaging? According to the Daily Beast, they may not get the opportunity, thanks to media allies obsessed with Russia and Stormy Daniels:
For the past year, this has been the media landscape confronting Democrats. Eager to move a message that focuses on things like minimum wage hikes and health care premiums, they have been overtaken by a steady stream of stories of Russian meddling, porn star payoffs, and shady Trump-world figures. Ultimately, many offices and aides have come to the conclusion that they should simply give up on trying to break through on cable news at all.
“It’s impossible,” said one Senate aide, “unless you want to talk about Russia.”
In conversations with The Daily Beast, numerous other aides echoed this point, sharing stories of fruitless calls and emails to bookers and abrupt cancellations on pre-existing bookings. Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said she was bumped three times from a prime-time MSNBC show due to Trump scandals. …
No one in Democratic politics views this as an existential problem, since the universe of cable news watchers is both small and confined largely to those who are already politically attuned. But there is also some fear that a perception is taking hold that the party is obsessively focused on a Russia-collusion message above all else.
“Every Democrat in the country could say the same seven-word slogan about jobs and it wouldn’t shift what cable is covering,” Josh Schwerin, communications director for Priorities USA, told The Daily Beast. “Republicans are wrong and know that they’re wrong if they say the Democrats’ message is Stormy Daniels.”
That media obsession may be what’s prompting continued engagement by Republicans, who see these narratives as illegitimate attempts to push for impeachment. However, Democrats haven’t been helped much by their leadership, which keeps insisting that they’ll raise taxes just as soon as they have an opportunity. The GOP is having a field day with that messaging, and it’s likely to get a lot worse over the next several months if Trump can put together some foreign-policy successes.
It still seems more likely than not that Democrats will take the House. They got a huge head start with the redistricting imposed in Pennsylvania by state courts, and the normal midterm correction impulse is still a force to reckon. But it’s a lot less certain than it seemed just three months ago, and Nancy Pelosi has been known to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before. Pelosi may still prove that her colleagues should have dumped her after her embarrassing failure to win back the House during Barack Obama’s successful re-election effort.