Parties face excited midterm electorate with reservations

Parties face excited midterm electorate with reservations

Almost 100 days before November’s midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans are certain of one thing: An energized electorate across the country is poised to lead to a surge in turnout at the polls.

But in a dynamic news atmosphere and with billions of dollars in candidate and outside spending yet to be spent, both parties are nervous about their own prospects, almost fearful of what is still to come.

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The conversation voters are having today is almost certainly not what will dominate their minds on Election Day. One hundred days may be a lifetime in a typical political cycle, but in an atmosphere when news coverage swings from a border crisis to relations with Russia to tweeted threats at Iran in the space of two weeks, it is an eternity.

Interviews with more than three dozen elected officials, strategists, pollsters and party activists in both parties as Sunday’s 100-day mark approaches reveal a deeply unsettled landscape.

But both sides say they would rather be in the Democrats’ position: History argues for Democratic gains, because a president’s first midterm typically goes poorly for his party.

“The incredible energy we saw the week after Trump’s inauguration has continued or increased, and those thousands of people in the streets are now thousands of people who are out volunteering,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is leading Democratic efforts to reclaim governorships. “You’re seeing this all across the country. It’s not isolated, it’s not limited.”

That energy has been evident in primary elections, where Democrats are turning out at unprecedented numbers, and in special elections where Democrats have picked up previously Republican-held legislative seats.

“Whatever model you have about Democratic turnout, add another fraction of possible turnout to it because we’re dealing with an electorate on the left that is exceedingly motivated,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Sanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump MORE (R-Ky.).

Republicans acknowledge that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE’s approval rating — which stands somewhere between 38 percent and 45 percent in recent reputable polling — makes their historical headwinds all the more challenging.

Gallup polling stretching back to 1946 shows that a president whose approval rating is below 50 percent in midterm elections loses an average of more than 36 House seats, more than enough to give Democrats a majority in the next Congress.

“To the extent that people are looking for checks and balances, they’re there when we disagree, but on some policies we agree, on other policies we disagree. Our members and candidates are their own people,” said Rep. Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversSteve King asks for Congressional Record correction over white supremacist quote Rep. Steve King pushes GOP to reinstate his committee assignments GOP lawmakers offer several locations for Trump address MORE (R-Ohio), who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Recent midterm elections, from 2006 to 2010 and 2014, have also seen the party outside of power gain when it presents itself as a check on the president.

“People are really focused on the fact that they want to have someone balance the extreme positions being taken by Trump,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Trump praises law enforcement response to shooting at Illinois business MORE (D-Ill.).

But Republicans also have advantages in their uphill battle to keep control of the House.

The economy is booming and voters’ feelings about the direction of the country are slowly improving. Economists believe Republicans will get even better news this week when the latest quarterly growth estimates are released.

“We’ve got a lot of positive things to work with,” said Matt Walter, who runs the Republican State Leadership Committee, an umbrella group that funds and works with state GOP candidates. “The stock market’s through the roof, unemployment is at record lows.”

Whether Republicans will stick to that message is another question, one that depends heavily on a president who sees himself as a political savant — but also one who routinely interrupts his own message with an errant series of tweets.

“Trump has shown over and over again he’s not going to stick to a disciplined economic message,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist. “He actively wants a conversation about immigration and tariffs and a trade war.”

In addition, the long-term benefits of having controlled so many states during the decennial redistricting process, which happened after the GOP wave in 2010, continues playing dividends for Republicans.

Democrats may compete in as many as 75 Republican-held House districts this year, but two-thirds of those seats voted for Trump, some by wide margins.

“They designed districts to withstand the exact environment they find themselves in. So I think this blue wave will instead be blue cyclones that defeat Republicans with massive local energy,” said Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? The unlikely legislative duo that joined together on immigration A tale of two Trumps MORE, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Some Democrats also worry that the energy infusing their party might not be entirely positive, especially if Democrats succumb to an inevitable urge to re-litigate the 2016 election — or the 2016 primary fight between Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Roger Stone invokes gag order in new fundraiser MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Gillibrand uses Trump Jr. tweet to fundraise MORE (I-Vt.) that pitted more centrist Democrats against progressives.

“This election needs to be about 2018 and the future, not the past, and an internal Democratic civil war would be egregiously out of step with a majority of American voters, bad for the party and tragic for the country,” said Craig Varoga, a Virginia-based Democratic operative.

The picture is more muddled in the senate. Ten Democratic senators are seeking reelection in states Trump won in 2016, some by 20 or 30 points, providing Republicans great opportunities to pick up seats.

But Republicans have publicly and privately signaled they see little chance in winning states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. They have also expressed increasing pessimism in states like Montana and West Virginia, even though Trump won them by wide margins.

“While the Senate map is extremely favorable to us, there is a real question about whether or not we’ll have the money to take advantage of it,” said one Republican strategist, who asked for anonymity to offer his candid thoughts. “Defending seats in Arizona and Nevada is going to be really expensive, as is taking on [Sen. Claire] McCaskill in Missouri, [Sen. Joe] Donnelly in Indiana.”

And many unknowns remain ahead of the midterm elections: Whether Trump’s trade war dampens the robust economy. Whether Republicans can portray Democratic challengers as too far outside the mainstream. Whether special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE returns indictments against those close to the president.

Then there is Trump himself. Trump’s tenure in office has been defined by a series of dramatic events that would have dominated any other presidency, but in the current climate, they are quickly cast aside by the next round of tumult. The one thing that seems to stay constant, or relatively so, is Trump’s weak approval ratings.

“The outcomes of our elections are decided by independent voters. They’re decided by women. They’re decided by millennials,” said Jennifer Horn, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “They’re decided by people who right now are very dissatisfied with the president.”

Melanie Zanona, Alexander Bolton and Scott Wong contributed.