Trump boosted citizen involvement while solidifying political division

Trump boosted citizen involvement while solidifying political division
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The first year of the Trump presidency was destined to be a raucous one. Frustration defined much of the 2016 presidential campaign — from Republicans who wanted to nominate the antithesis of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Obamas' first White House dog, Bo, dies Census results show White House doubling down on failure MORE, to Democrats believing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE was a compromised candidate ill-suited to carry on the Obama legacy. 

Five moments stand out in forming the year’s political narrative, while also shaping the battlefield for 2018. 

Special elections carry tremendous potential to shape the national political narrative. Both sides know this — the only struggle is between the winning side seeking to maximize the impact, while the losers minimize it and rack it up to peculiar local circumstances. 


The special House elections in May in Georgia and Montana in June presented Democrats with opportunities to capitalize on any blowback to President TrumpDonald TrumpSanders: Reinstating SALT deduction 'sends a terrible, terrible message' GOP braces for wild week with momentous vote One quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors MORE’s 2016 national victory. 


In the first round of the Georgia special election in the 6th district, Democrat Joel Ossoff fell just short of winning the seat outright in the first round on April 18, yet Republican Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelOssoff defeats Perdue in Georgia Senate runoff McBath wins rematch against Handel in Georgia House race House Democrats' campaign arm reserves .6M in ads in competitive districts MORE won the seat in the June 20 runoff. In Montana, Republican Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteSasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing Montana governor approves restrictions on transgender athletes in schools MORE won the special election for the state’s at large House seat despite having punched a reporter on the eve of the election

These two specials, and their Republican victories, are noteworthy not for what happened, but what didn’t happen. That is, neither election produced the “man bites dog” story of a flip from Republican to Democrat control.

Both special elections were triggered by Trump cabinet appointments (Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues | Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again | Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again MORE of Montana to Interior and Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceA proposal to tackle congressional inside trading: Invest in the US Biden health nominee faces first Senate test Focus on cabinet nominees' effectiveness and expertise, not just ideology MORE of Georgia to Health and Human Services), and a Democrat win in either race would embolden their party’s donors, activists and elected officials nationally, and trigger nervous Republicans to be even more nervous.

All of that would eventually happen — but much later in the year.

It turns out the Democrats didn’t need special election victories to block Republican efforts to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare during the first half of the year, culminating with the effort’s collapse in July. 

Since its initial passage, Republicans campaigned effectively on “repealing and replacing” ObamaCare. While those victories established a consensus and mandate within the Republican Party in favor of repeal, the failure of Republicans to unite behind, run on, and win a mandate on what the “replace” part of that slogan led ultimately to failure in the Senate with its narrow Republican majority. 

Failing to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare — the signature Republican legislative priority for four election cycles, generated a wave of frustration among Republican donors and activists, mainly directed at Congress.

While President Trump was seen using his executive authority to “get things done” — pulling out of the Paris climate accord, triggering a wave of deregulation, appointing conservatives to posts in the administration and the judicial branch — Republicans in the field saw Congress as the point of failure.

November elections in Virginia that resulted in the election of Democrat Ralph Northam to the governor’s office, and a tie in control of the state’s House of Delegates. While the historical trend is for the party in opposition in Washington to win the Virginia governor’s race, the race was noteworthy for high Democrat turnout and a large number of Democrats who turned out to “send a message” to Washington.

Democrats racked up another important win in December when Democrat Doug Jones took the U.S. Senate seat vacated by now Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors Biden fills immigration court with Trump hires Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE. While any Republican without a history of being banned from the local mall would have won this race, which clearly turned on the flaws of Republican nominee Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be MORE, the result is an even more fragile Republican majority in the Senate, a body not exactly known for its expeditiousness. 

The Jones victory in Alabama produced in December what Democrats were hoping for back with the special House elections in May and June — an upset win that would help them get past their 2016 losses and open the door for a new and more favorable narrative. 

Meanwhile, December’s big Republican victory on tax reform produced what Republicans were hoping for earlier in the year with the ObamaCare repeal effort — a legislative win on a big ticket item affecting a large number of Americans and generating a sense the party can actually put campaign promises into action. 

There is no doubt the Republican base is firmly and intensely behind President Trump, as evidenced by strong small donor fundraising performance by national Republican committees and conservative groups. It is also true that the president provokes strong feelings in the opposition, which in turn is driving turnout on the left. The stage is set for Republican candidates who embrace Trump, and Democrat candidates who most vociferously oppose him, to have little trouble filling campaign headquarters with volunteers in 2018.

A polarized political environment with greater citizen involvement producing sometimes unpredictable outcomes are all features of America’s political stage as we enter the new year.

Ron Nehring served as spokesman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2016 and is a former chairman of the California Republican Party. Folllow him on Twitter @RonNehring