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The Memo: Trump’s future hinges on midterms
President Trump's first major electoral test since his 2016 presidential victory is looming - even though he isn't on the ballot.
Labor Day marks the start of the final sprint to the midterm elections, set for Nov. 6.
If Democrats seize a majority in the House of Representatives, they could hamstring Trump's agenda - and potentially start impeachment proceedings against him.
If Republicans hold on, it will be a startling display of loyalty by pro-Trump voters and a stiff rebuke to liberal critics of the president.
Advocates on both sides are in agreement on one thing: the election will be dominated by Trump.
And it is about to heat up.
"When it gets to Labor Day, get ready for a presidential-style campaign," the president's former chief strategist Stephen Bannon told The Hill. "This is going to have all the focus, all the pressure, all the intensity of a national election."
Bannon framed the midterms as "a referendum on Trump's entire presidency."
But he insisted that Republican fortunes are on the rise, partly due to Trump's efforts to bring "together all the forces that led to his 2016 victory."
For example, Bannon cited Monday's White House meeting where the president discussed the election in stark terms with evangelicals who strongly supported Trump in 2016. Trump warned them that if Democrats win the election "they will overturn everything that we've done, and they will do it quickly and violently."
"This thing is starting to close," Bannon predicted.
But to Democrats, the opposite is true. Progressives see fired-up advocates getting out the vote. They see a series of special elections in which Democrats have run strongly in Republican bastions as evidence that momentum is on their side.
They posit that primary wins for candidates on the left of the party show that the liberal base is energized, in part because of its vociferous opposition to Trump.
The most recent example, albeit not in a congressional contest, was Andrew Gillum, the progressive Tallahassee mayor who on Tuesday scored an upset win to become the party's gubernatorial candidate in Florida.
When it comes to the midterms, "what we are seeing across the country, whether it's in deep-blue or dark-red districts, is an incredible drive for Congress to be a check on Donald Trump," said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, a liberal group.
Describing Trump as "out of control" and "corrupt," Chamberlain argued that voters are demanding change because when it comes to curbing the president, "they've watched Republicans do nothing, and they are the ones in control of Congress."
Predictions as to the eventual outcome on Election Day are rendered tough by a paucity of polling in some key states and districts, as well as the fact that many voters only tune in to midterm races after Labor Day.
There is also the specter of 2016, when most pollsters predicted a comfortable win for Democrat Hillary Clinton right up until the results began rolling in.
Few people on either side doubt that Democrats will make some gains in the House. The president himself is an exception, having predicted a "red wave" on several occasions.
But the question of whether the Democrats will make the net gain of 23 seats they need for control is still in some doubt.
As of Thursday morning, Democrats held an 8-point advantage on the so-called generic ballot question in the RealClearPolitics polling average. FiveThirtyEight, the data and prediction site, gave Democrats a roughly 70 percent chance to take control of the lower chamber.
The situation is even more complicated in the battle for the Senate.
The landscape appears favorable for Republicans, who are targeting Democrats running for reelection in states Trump won by wide margins. But some of those red-state Democratic incumbents, such as Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), are showing considerable resilience.
In addition, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is facing a stiffer challenge than many expected from Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rouke, despite Texas having long been a GOP stronghold.
On the other hand, Democrats face a real challenge in the perennial battleground of Florida, where incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is locked in a dog fight with challenger Rick Scott, the sitting governor. Sen. Bob Menendez (D) is unexpectedly under pressure in New Jersey. And Republican insiders continue to talk up their chances even in Wisconsin, despite most polling showing Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) with a comfortable lead.
"You'd rather be the Democrats than the Republicans right now in the race for the House, but it's close enough that a flip is not guaranteed," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Republicans are probably bigger favorites to hold the Senate but Democrats could run the table in the competitive races and snatch the majority."
Kondik also noted that the degree to which GOP candidates would benefit from closeness to Trump, or from keeping their distance from him, would be determined by the dynamics of their particular race.
"Generally speaking, the House battlefield is largely anti-Trump, the Senate battlefield is more pro-Trump," he said.
Trump himself is champing at the bit to get involved and is hitting the campaign trail intensively to aid GOP candidates. The president has already boasted of his success in lifting GOP primary candidates to victory.
General elections are a different beast, however. Behind the scenes, some beltway Republicans worry about Trump's divisiveness and his high propensity to spark controversy.
Yet many also acknowledge that Trump could be vital to boosting GOP voter enthusiasm and helping to offset the traditional pattern in which the president's party loses seats in the midterms.
Republicans also assert that the strong economy gives them a fighting chance of holding on to Congress - so long as they make their strongest case.
"The economy could not be doing better," said Brad Blakeman, a veteran of former President George W. Bush's administration. "If Republicans can stick to a positive economic message, they can defy history."
Asked whether the apparent intensity on the Democratic side gave him concern as a Republican, however, Blakeman responded: "It does, absolutely. I think we should run like we're 20 points behind in every race."
Among progressives, there is no doubting the capacity of the president to rev up their grass-roots.
"It's the juxtaposition, the idea that [progressive candidates] are the complete opposite to President Trump that does get people out to vote," said Lizet Ocampo, the political director of People for the American Way, a progressive group.
One thing is for sure: A battle royal is about to begin.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.