If a Democratic wave ends up washing over Republicans in 2018, history will record that 2017 was full of warning signs for the GOP.
It started in Kansas back in April, in a Wichita-area House district that Donald Trump carried by 27 points over Hillary Clinton. The special election to replace Rep. Mike Pompeo, who'd resigned to become Trump's CIA director, produced a Republican victory but by just seven points. This marked both a shift of 20 points from the presidential result and the closest a Democrat had come to winning the district since 1996.
It set in place a pattern — of high energy and significant post-2016 strides for Democrats — that would be repeated throughout the year:
- A 21-point victory for Trump in Montana became just a six-point Republican win in May's special election for the state's at-large House seat;
- A 19-point Trump romp in South Carolina's 5th District turned into a three-point squeaker for the GOP in June;
- A 28-point Trump margin in Alabama turned into an outright victory for Doug Jones in December's Senate special election — the first time since 1992 Alabamians chose a Democrat for the Senate; and
- Double-digit Democratic improvements were common in special elections for state legislative seats across the country.
These were just the biggest gains for Democrats. The party also easily won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, though the margin in each state was not far off what it had been in the presidential race. The only blight for Democrats in a marquee contest in 2017 came in Georgia, where they failed to win the June special election in a suburban House district that Trump had barely carried last year.
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Taken together, this year's election results suggest there's good reason for the reports of panic among national Republicans as they look ahead to 2018. Simply put, the Democratic base appears significantly more energized under Trump than its Republican counterpart.
It explains the big jumps in Democratic performance in Kansas and South Carolina, where overall turnout was low. It also explains the party's solid margin in Virginia, where Republican turnout was healthier, but where the heavily Democratic D.C. suburbs came out in astonishing numbers. And it was the story in Alabama, where turnout fell off far more from 2016 in the rural counties where Trump had surged than in heavily black counties that went overwhelmingly Democratic.
History that should worry the GOP
More alarming for Republicans is that all of this is consistent with historical patterns when a president's popularity is low. Trump is ending the year with an approval rating of 36 percent in Gallup's tracking poll. That's squarely in the range that has translated into massive midterm losses in the past. Barack Obama in 2010 and Bill Clinton in 1994 were in the low-40s when their party lost scores of seats and George W. Bush was in the high-30s when Republicans lost the House in 2006.
Democrats are also ending 2017 with a double-digit advantage in the generic ballot — polling on which party voters say they plan to support in the midterms, another key indicator in previous midterms.
For Republicans looking for hope, there are two possibilities.
One is that circumstances will change. The GOP just passed its signature tax legislation. It polls poorly now, but will voters reassess their views when they see less money withheld from their paychecks? Or, if the economy picks up more steam, will they just decide that whatever the Republicans did, it must have worked? There's reason for skepticism here. After all, the economy has already been improving all year, but credit has eluded Trump and his party. Still, this is probably the best bet Republicans have.
Beyond that, they'd have to hope that the rules of politics have changed dramatically under Trump. In some ways this was the story of 2016, when he was elected even though large majorities didn't like or trust him and didn't think he was qualified or temperamentally suited to hold office. Yes, Hillary Clinton's numbers were also low, but Trump's were worse, and he won anyway.
Is there some way this could translate into a similar gravity-defying performance for Republicans in 2018? For that to be the case, you'd have to believe there's a force not measured by the traditional metrics that is the source of Trump's appeal, not just to his hardcore supporters but — more importantly — to the people who don't like him but who voted for him anyway.
I wrote earlier this year about the possibility that Trump's war with the media and almost all of popular culture might be creating a type of polarization that works to his benefit. Does the loud, unrelenting and sometimes over-the-top intensity of the "resistance" movement create a backlash of its own? Does it push voters who otherwise don't like Trump — and who might tell pollsters they disapprove of his job performance — to align themselves with him and his party at the ballot box anyway?
This is, obviously, a highly speculative area, and there's very little in this year's results to back it up.
The one bright spot for Republicans, Georgia's special House election, is worth noting, however. There, Republican Karen Handel actually improved by 3 points on Trump's 2016 showing, despite Democrats pouring more than $30 million into the race. Or maybe that's why Handel succeeded? Unlike the other special House races, Georgia's was nationalized, a focal point for Democratic activists, the national media and even some celebrities. Is it possible this also had the effect of rallying Republicans to turn out?
Otherwise, just about every major election in 2017 points to the same conclusion: Democrats are entering the midterm year with history firmly in their side. Republicans will need the facts on the ground to change — or for voters to prove once and for all that in the era of Trump, history just doesn't matter anymore.