Connor Lamb’s victory in the 18th Congressional district race in Pennsylvania must be a wake-up call for Republicans heading into the 2018 mid-term elections. After suffering losses through much of Virginia, in Alabama, and facing a steep enthusiasm gap, Republicans risk losing their majority in the House of Representatives. Despite recent losses, however, Republicans have both reasons for hope and reasons for despair entering 2018.
Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief regarding 2018 Senate races. 33 Seats are up for grabs and Democrats are on defense in twenty-six. Of those races, Democrats are behind in seven races and dead even in two. Where Democrats do have a lead in their Senate races, the advantage is down to one point in five of those races. What this means is that Democrats could lose nine seats in the Senate with the potential to lose a total of fourteen. Democrats can lose no more than eight seats before handing a filibuster-proof majority to Republicans.
Republicans, however, are far less optimistic in races for the House of Representatives. The generic ballot gives Democrats an eight-point edge. That eight-point advantage, however, has shaved down from a high of thirteen points. The reasons behind the shrinking of that gap hold the keys to understanding the potential success or downfall of Republican electoral fortunes in 2018.
Key challenges for Republicans to overcome include President Trump’s general unpopularity, a media bias promoting false narratives, and a failure to provide leadership despite controlling the House, the Senate, and the Presidency.
President Trump’s unpopularity is the anchor tied to Republican candidates at present. Democrats have successfully painted Republican candidates into a corner regarding Republicanism and Trumpism. That corner conflates the Republican platform with Trump’s nationalist and populist stance.
As the party of the President, the Republican platform cannot divorce itself from an ideology that has been claimed and championed by individuals such as Steve Bannon. This presents a multifaceted challenge for Republicans. Electoral returns show that Trumpism only works for Donald Trump. President Trump’s stature as the head of the party, however, means that the Republican party, for better or worse, carries the brand.
Practically speaking, this is disastrous for Republicans. The Alabama special election illustrates why. Former federal judge Roy Moore ran on the same nationalist and populist agenda that delivered victory for President Trump in 2016. While this enthusiasm managed to allow Moore to defeat the establishment candidate – Luther Strange – Moore’s fortunes at the state level were rather different. Moore was defeated by Doug Jones due to an energetic Democratic voter turnout and an exhausted or disinterested former Trump electorate on the right.
Enthusiasm wasn’t the only hurdle, however. Media saturation and negative press on Republicans and Republican policies dominate the airwaves. This creates a hostile climate for Republican messaging. The Trump tax plan messaging provides the biggest example of the uphill fight in store for Republicans. Major news outlets described the tax plan as ruinous, some messaged the plan as a tax hike, Nancy Pelosi even called the tax benefit “crumbs.”
In reality, 80% of Americans see a tax break and the bill helped re-patriate billions into the U.S. from overseas holdings of corporations. In time, this meant that Americans began to approve of the tax bill after their paychecks increased but this shift in opinion took additional time due to the dishonest messaging.
Consequently, Americans have a low opinion of Republican leadership. While the GOP has delivered spending bills that blow out budget caps and continue funding entities like Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act, the disapproval rate of Republican leadership likely has more to do with negative media saturation than actual job performance.
However, the percentage of Americans that believe America is “on the right track” is actually on the rise. The American economy has grown markedly under Trump and through Republican policies, and Republicans have proposed multiple solutions to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals dilemma. Paradoxically, however, Americans also cite Republican leadership as untrustworthy.
That’s not to say that Republicans have no encouraging signs heading into 2018, however. Republicans have an opportunity to establish a basis for faith in the party. Republicans have the benefit of being on the right side of shifting political thought in the U.S. and run against a party amid an identity crisis.
American attitudes are shifting towards libertarianism. Although reactionary, this attitudinal shift is in response to overbearing leftist policies that have worn on the American psyche. For example, while Democrats cite polls that show Americans are in favor of gun control, Democrats do not acknowledge that specific gun control policies are either in place and failing or are simply wildly unpopular in general. Similarly, the Democratic Party platform declares abortion an issue to be on-demand at any point. While the slim majority of the Americans still describe themselves as pro-choice, only 12% favor the radical stance on the issue.
It is at this point that the Pennsylvania special election becomes illustrative. Connor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th District – Trump Country – should be the elephant in the room for Republicans and Democrats alike. Lamb is a pro-life and pro-gun Democrat. To compound the issue, Lamb supports tax-cuts and tariffs too. The message is simple and the message is clear, if you want to win in 2018, Republican ideas and right-leaning messaging is the way to go. Not, as Democrats recently discovered, by rolling out a tax-hike plan on Americans.
This proposes an interesting dilemma for Democrats and Republicans alike. Democrats have to sweep forty closely contested House elections to take a majority. Republicans have to aggressively pursue their policy platforms and establish themselves as leaders to earn votes. Being anti-Trump alone will not be enough to deliver victory in 2018. Americans have made as much known in growing tired of a Russia investigation which arguably hasn’t produced the type of results that Democrats sought.
Ultimately, the electoral fortunes of both Democrats and Republicans are fairly simple; who will take the affirmative steps necessary to overcome a public, and largely accurate, perception of ineptitude? Democrats have exhausted their political goodwill by continuing to push left in a society that doesn’t want to go that route. This leads to an increasingly out-of-touch platform with the rest of America.
Republicans, in kind, cannot simply hope that Democrats will continue to sabotage themselves. Overcoming the enthusiasm gap and finding a way to re-work the Trump brand on the party will require firm leadership and a commitment to messaging that is foreign to Republicans. Failure to adapt and respond to these issues will turn a blue wave into a blue tsunami.