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.


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 McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing MORE (R-Ky.).

Republicans acknowledge that President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit 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 StiversNew Mexico Democrat Stansbury sworn into Haaland's old seat Retired GOP representative: I won't miss the circus, but I might miss some of the clowns The Hill's Morning Report - Census winners and losers; House GOP huddles 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 DurbinDick DurbinBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines 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. IsraelLawmakers spend more on personal security in wake of insurrection Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer Joe Manchin's secret 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 ClintonBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan 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 (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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.